Yearly Archives: 2011

December 30, 2011

There is no audience

When I started posting material to this site in 2005, it was a very particular psychological exercise for me: see if you can keep thinking what you think when you’re alone, but now in sight of whatever readers happen to wander in; dare to disregard the difference between being seen and being unseen. The objective was to start to inure my terminally shy private mind to public exposure, feed it on scraps of validation, and maybe even finally nurture it into something sturdy enough to carry out in the Light Of Day.

Well, over these six and a half years I have failed utterly. Instead of learning that being naked is no shame, my skin has spontaneously calloused itself into some kind of awful leathery clothes, completely dead and numb — even, to my horror, when I’m alone. This despite the fact that my audience here has consisted, essentially, only of the people closest to me and most supportive of me in my life. The Light Of Day will never never be so kind and mild as my reception here has been. And yet all the same here I am, backslid beyond my least wild dreams.

I’m not saying that maintaining this blog has done anything negative to me — I’m just saying that for all my good intentions, I did not, in fact, allow myself to receive the intended exercise and benefit in the way I needed. I did not follow the fear. I knew that my objective was to learn to stop worrying and love the bomb, but my intuition led me astray by telling me that this demanded some kind of bravado.

Bravado is the enemy of real courage, which is to say the strength to experience fear and do nothing about it. To be brave is to retain all one’s faculties in the presence of fear because one does not misuse any of them in combating it.

(The notions of “courage” and “bravery” as generally invoked are actually pretty vague and muddled and this has long been a point of confusion for me. It occurs to me now that maybe this is because everyone everywhere “has issues,” so I’m defining them as I like.)

The process of inuring myself to that which embarrasses me will by definition entail being constantly embarrassed, and I ought rightly to have my hands tied from doing anything about it. Unfortunately the “hands” in question are little neural hands inside my head that can slither out of the tightest knots, not just like Houdini but like Droopy Dog being locked in a safe inside a safe inside a safe inside a safe and then walking in the front door. “Hello.” It’s Toontown up there.

But I think I’ve learned a thing or two recently about what it really means to shiver in the cold rather than grow nightmare clothes (which here are, per the previous image, clothes one grows in a nightmare and clothes one grows to protect oneself from a nightmare), and I think I finally know which path through the Tulgey Wood takes me to that sad little rock where I can be good and lonely. (“I give myself very good advice / but I very seldom follow it.”) Edifyingly lonely.

The fine line for me, here, is between writing for myself but feeling subconsciously that there might be some magic audience out there that will receive it… and writing for a real audience but striving always to be true to myself, striving against the suffocating expanse of their difference from me.

The latter seems smart and clear but entails an endless and ultimately debilitating struggle that I am now trying very hard to renounce. Mu that! The former is easy and joyful but requires faith in something akin to God. It is a balloon whose string I have let slip. But the ceiling may not be all that high.

There is no magic audience, fine; there’s no real audience either. Existentially speaking, I’m all alone in this and I can type whatever I want without fear or hope of that ever changing. If I get to choose what to believe in I’m going to choose magic over you people. My God, I feel pretty sure, is, as Gods go, pretty down to earth, and is surely at least as good a life coach as any of the people I turn to for advice. “Respect only thy ruling faculty and the divinity within thee,” amen.

This site was supposed to be as big a mess as my old hard drive, but instead it has gradually become me trying harder and harder to “do justice to myself,” a less honorable goal than it sounds. I know some sites that have collapsed completely from that kind of dry rot.

Well, that and the Disney things. Typing up those transcripts is for me the latest in a long personal tradition of simulacra of the creative act to which I am impulsively drawn at times when the soul is silent — a substitute teacher who in her sense of inadequacy puts on, ahem, a Disney movie, rather than try to teach. That said and acknowledged, I’m going to keep doing it.

Yeah, I bet you thought this was going to be some kind of sign-off, but it’s not. More to come. More of the same! Hopefully more embarrassing, is all I’m saying.

November 5, 2011

Disney Canon #36: Mulan (1998)


BETH It wasn’t bad. It actually was fine.

ADAM It picked up a lot in the second half, I think.

BROOM Oh, I’m going to say that it was bad, and that in the second half I really lost my willingness to humor it.

ADAM Well, I thought at least things were happening in the second half that were not creaky Disney “I wanna get out of this place” setup.

BROOM I thought the “I wanna get out of this place” was a little forced, but I thought the basic premise of this movie was not necessarily mishandled. But after it became action sequences and denouement it was all completely fumbled. That’s how I felt.


BROOM As you said, Adam: six Huns survive the avalanche, and then hold all of China hostage by showing up at the victory celebration and grabbing the emperor — it doesn’t make any sense. So the entire last act made no sense.

ADAM It was gripping.

BROOM It didn’t make sense literally or emotionally. The amount that she saved the day in the first climax was no less than the amount that she saved them all again later, so the turnaround of “now we accept her and will change our sexist ways” at the end — but not after the avalanche — was totally undeserved. The story didn’t earn us anything at any point after they got to the snow. And if the thing with the avalanche had been the climax of the whole movie, I would have rolled with it… but it was pretty stupid.

ADAM You have to admit it was pretty compelling when she moved the cannon suddenly off course, and you’re like “What are you doing??”

BROOM You already know what she’s doing, because you see her look up at the mountain.

ADAM I know — but if you didn’t know that, though!

BROOM Up to there, I was like, “this movie has some things going for it,” but after that I couldn’t do it anymore.

BETH But I found all of the ridiculousness entertaining. Yes, compelling. Who cared?

ADAM Beth, give us the woman’s point of view.

BROOM Yes, how did you feel about the feminism?

BETH I don’t really think of myself as a feminist, so…

BROOM Why not?

BETH I just don’t like the label. I’m a woman.

BROOM Do you think it’s a feminist or a not-feminist joke, when the men are dressed up as women and he says “any questions?” and one says “does this dress make me look fat?”

BETH Non-feminist.

ADAM This movie is obviously responding to the criticism of all the Disney heroines. It’s like, “Fine! You think that Disney heroines are passive princesses? Take that!”

BROOM She had almost no breasts at all.

ADAM And two parents!

BETH That’s true. The mom was not very prominent, though, because they didn’t know how to make a mom who was actually a nice person and well-rounded.

BROOM She was complicit in the subjugation-of-women sequence at the beginning. She was part of the problem.

BETH That’s true, but she wasn’t the evil stepmother, which is more of a character for Disney.

BROOM The matchmaker here.

BETH They have never done, like, the loving mother. Have they?

ADAM I think Bambi might have had a loving mother.

BROOM The fairy godmother.

BETH Yeah, Bambi, fine.

BROOM The Rescuers Down Under had a loving mother.

ADAM Dumbo had a loving mother.

BROOM Yeah! That’s right. They, like, blew it out in 1941 and it’s never gonna happen again.

ADAM This movie did seem a little calculated to appeal to both P.C. critics of their female characters and Asian markets.

BROOM I don’t know that it appeals to Asian markets; it appeals to Asian interest groups.

ADAM They prepared it in part to be successful in overseas sales, like in China and Japan.

BROOM And was it? Moreso than the ones where the characters were not so ostensibly Asian?

ADAM I do not remember, but if I recall correctly, they took some care to actually choose, like, an authentic Chinese legend. Editor, check on that.

[Ed.: Yes, the legend is authentic, but I can’t find anyone claiming that it was chosen as a business calculation. Apparently there was some hope at Disney that this movie might mend its relations with China, which had soured after the release of the Dalai Lama-adoring Kundun in 1997, which Disney distributed. China did eventually allow Mulan to be seen but it did not do well.]

BROOM It didn’t seem authentically Chinese in any way; it seemed completely contrived.

ADAM Having a dragon named Mushu played by Eddie Murphy is a giveaway.

BROOM None of it felt natural. It was embarrassing if you paid attention to it, so we didn’t. Right? Am I right?

ADAM The Chinese-ness?


ADAM Those ancestors really made me understand the concept of filial piety.

BROOM Why didn’t the stone dragon come to life? It didn’t make any sense.

BETH Why was it outside and they were inside?

ADAM Because it was so powerful.

BROOM And the… It was just all a crock of shit; there’s no getting into it. Was this movie better than Pocahontas?

ADAM Yes. There was better character development. Mulan was a character that you actually believed in.

BROOM Yes, Mulan was more sympathetic than anyone in Pocahontas.

BETH It seemed like different things were happening than usually happen in Disney movies, and that’s why I was okay with this movie.

BROOM Such as?

BETH Such as gray zombie Huns coming to life.

ADAM Well, that happened in The Black Cauldron.

BETH Well, that was a good one!

ADAM The fussbudget pseudo-villain was not as gay as normal. That was good.

BROOM Who? Oh right, the officious snaggletoothed guy.

BETH Not as gay. But there were still references.

ADAM That was certainly the hunkiest Asian man I’ve ever seen.

BETH Who was somehow completely awkward around women.

ADAM Well, he knows an army life.

BROOM Just to return to what was so terrible at the end: that the guys dressed up as women and shimmied up the poles like she had in training, and they played the music from before like it was all a callback, like it had all been leading up to this, which in no way was a payoff to any of those things. It was all forced.

BETH It just didn’t bother me.

BROOM That last sequence, I just felt like there was nothing onscreen that I could care about. Except for flashing colors.

ADAM She wasn’t that pretty. I mean, that was satisfying, right?

BROOM She was fairly pretty.

BETH She was pretty. Prettier than all the other marriage candidates.

ADAM And the other soldiers. But she was not prettier than, like, Cinderella.

BETH She was not the typical bombshell.

ADAM She was Asian.

BROOM I want you guys to say something along with me here — that to be accepting this shows that our standards have dropped exponentially.

BETH Oh, yeah! I can admit that. This is not good! This is not good.

ADAM Not as good as Dumbo.

BROOM How does this compare to The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

ADAM I thought The Hunchback of Notre Dame had a fearsome energy that redeemed its terribleness.

BROOM I thought The Hunchback of Notre Dame was mistaken from the get-go, and really terrible in lots of ways, but it was competent on some level that this lacked… Well, I mean, this was obviously “competent,” as work…

BETH I thought the backgrounds were nice.

BROOM I thought the animation was generally nice.

BETH I thought the CGI was eh.

ADAM I think these might have been the most generic songs since The Fox and the Hound.

BROOM They were bad; they were very undistinguished. But that one that we’ve been singing since we first saw it is really fun.

ADAM [singing:] “I know why I…” I don’t even remember the lyrics, but it sounds like every other Disney song.

BROOM [singing:] “Let’s get down to business / to defeat / the Huns!” That’s a terrible terrible song, but it’s done with gusto.

ADAM [singing:] “Did they send me daughters / when I asked…”

BROOM Wait for it…

ADAM [singing:] “… for sons?” Yes.

BROOM And I actually kind of liked the “epic” musical cue when she makes the decision to go in her father’s place.

BETH That weird synth thing?

BROOM Yeah, with like an 80s synth going.

BETH I thought that was cool too, but it seemed strange.

BROOM The movie several times had moments that were like comic book, like, “YESSSSS!” Like that 80s music…

ADAM The Hun punching through the snow! And the roof.

BROOM And the way the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” sequence was directed, with a lot of awesome sword-swiveling.

BETH It was like Karate Kid, a little bit.

BROOM It seemed like it had some real geeks working on the animation staff.

ADAM Think about the songs for a second; think only back to Beauty and the Beast. In Beauty and the Beast there are at least three songs that we can all sing happily and that are pretty good. Even the notes of these songs were generic and bad.

BETH Just hearing us try to sing that song, none of us could find a note to actually sing.

BROOM I don’t know how they ended up with this Matthew Wilder guy.

ADAM “Mysterious as the dark side of the moon!” Can you sing any other song from it?

BETH I won’t be able to sing that one tomorrow.

BROOM [faking:] “Do your parents proud and marry a man, man, man!”

ADAM Can you sing “A Girl Worth Fighting For?” That was the most weirdly generic of all of them.

BROOM They were like, “You know that song the guys sing in South Pacific? They should sing that.”

ADAM At that point, why even do a musical?

BROOM Well, exactly. “Why even do” many of the things they did. Why put comedy in this movie? It didn’t feel like they thought it was funny. It was the worst comedy yet.

ADAM It was just the most half-assed.

BROOM I thought even the slapstick, which doesn’t have to necessarily involve writers, was terrible.

ADAM I thought it was funny when the cricket confesses that he’s not lucky, and Eddie Murphy asks the horse, “what are you, a sheep?” That’s pretty funny.

BROOM I’m not going to say “pretty funny.” I thought the first time he called it a cow for no reason was a little funny. Then he did it four more times.

ADAM Eddie Murphy clearly giggling all the way to the bank on this one.

BETH It seemed like he was enjoying himself.

BROOM Really? I think he walked to the bank stony-faced.

ADAM Do you think he was prouder of this than Norbit?

BROOM I don’t think pride enters into his equation these days.

BETH What about twelve years ago?

BROOM I think he has other stuff going on in his life.

BETH Tower Heist?

ADAM This movie’s just not that memorable.

BETH No, but I wasn’t constantly looking at how much time had elapsed, which is always my indicator.

ADAM I was a little at the beginning.

BETH Yeah, maybe for the first fifteen minutes I was.

BROOM I never look at the clock. I find hating these things pretty occupying. I never think, “let it be over with!” I’m watching it the whole time, thinking about it the whole time, but it was pretty negative. So I think Pocahontas was worse than this, but…

ADAM Pocahontas was boring. This was just kind of a journeyman effort.

BETH Can we rank the last five?

BROOM They were Hercules, Hunchback, Pocahontas, and then The Lion King, which I think we agree was better. So just those four post-Lion King.

BETH So then it would be Hercules, Hunchback, this, and then Pocahontas.

BROOM I agree with that.

ADAM Clearly. And what’s next, Tarzan?


ADAM I think Tarzan is great!

BROOM Because he has the biggest pecs.

ADAM You thought Hercules was muscular! I think also Rosie O’Donnell is in Tarzan.

(we read the New York Times review)

BETH Wow, that is harsh.

BROOM But right!

BETH Yeah, but it just doesn’t seem worth it.

ADAM Come on, Janet.

BETH I just didn’t dislike it as much as that.

ADAM It was fine.

BROOM I respect you two for continuing to do this.

(yes, this is really the last frame of the movie!)

October 13, 2011

Our Lady of the Flowers (1943)

Jean Genet (1910–1986)
Notre Dame des Fleurs (1943, revised 1951)
translated into English as Our Lady of the Flowers (1963) by Bernard Frechtman

Rolled 1267, which is in the Jean Genet range. I fall back to his first listed work: 1265, Our Lady of the Flowers.

I’ll get right to it: What we have here is a fairly long dense experimental novel. It is 300 unchaptered pages of continuous prose, written while the author was imprisoned for theft, consisting mostly of fragmentary improvisations on the (homosexual) fantasy life that fed the author’s prison cell masturbation — fantasies in which the ego/protagonist is a pathetic transvestite prostitute called Divine, who couples with various muscular criminals. (Genet is particularly turned on by the idea of murderers as sex objects.) Let words be not minced: this is not infrequently a book elaborately and poetically about hard cocks, by an author who makes no secret of what he’s doing with his other hand.

This is the 24th selection in my glacial traversal of the Western Canon, and by now I’ve learned to disregard the gust of apprehensive dismay that often hits me when I google my newly arranged marriage and get a sense of what I’m in for. Other than Ezra Pound, who was as awful as I feared, they’ve all turned out to be paper tigers. (To spoil the ending, so too was this one.) But I must admit that despite knowing better, on first reading the Amazon and Wikipedia summaries of Our Lady, I couldn’t help but feel taken aback by how very aggressively The List seemed to be trying to screw me over.

The problem is that I have a bias, perhaps under-considered, against “literary erotica” and its adherents. I can’t help but feel that “serious” “eros” is usually just a needless (and thus embarrassing) attempt on the part of bohemian intellectuals to dignify porn — or even worse, sex itself — the only way they know how: by ensconcing it in the aesthetics of bohemian intellectualism! (From whence it’s just an easy roll across the bed to academic intellectualism, with a brief layover at Wikipedia.)

After letting it live here for the months that this entry has been simmering unposted, I have now summoned the discipline to remove from this spot a very long digression (10+ brilliant paragraphs!) on the preceding theme, much of it written in the early stages of reading the book. Why? Because none of it had anything at all to do with Our Lady of the Flowers, but it was written as though it did. At best it had to do with a misunderstanding of Our Lady of the Flowers that, by the time I finished, had been long dispelled.

While this book might well be filed under “erotica” or “gay/lesbian interest” by some misguided booksellers (and half-read as such by some alterna-teentellectuals), it really is neither sort of thing. So my cranky porn-scorn was out of place here. I will save it for a rainy day.


Genet’s actual subject is in fact the great mystery of subjectivity, the interiority and insubstantiality of all experience. The concept is the prisoner’s masturbation fantasy taken as a metaphor for all of art, for all of life. That the metaphor seems so lonely and sordid is part of the philosophical point.

The preceding is never quite stated in the book, really; it’s my analysis (and, more or less, Jean-Paul Sartre’s, whose introduction is completely adulatory and pretty much on point but at 50 over-written pages oozes with so much intellectual ego that it ends up feeling condescending anyway). The book has the virtue of being the sort of work of art that is inherently multi-dimensional and thus needn’t explain itself; the artist rationale is, ultimately, implicit. But this means that it spends all its time just being itself, and so on a first pass it can be very hard to decode what it is that you’re reading. It’s hard to be sure just how aware Genet is of the many layers of his project. (Hence my initial misgiving that he was trying to pass off his means of self-arousal as itself equivalent to literature.)

By the end I knew with certainty that he was aware of all of the layers. He fills his book freely with masturbation, farts, smells, discomforts, and then despair, fantasies, memories, etc., because what he is writing is an existential testament, a song of the life of the soul. Self-regard and self-mythologizing are the recourse not just of the literal prisoner but of the lonely ego in everyone, trapped with only the senses to keep it company. In the book, as in life, this alternates between seeming like the glorious triumph of the imagination and a depressing delusion.

This makes for relatively difficult reading, not just because it the conceit is so peculiarly raw, but also because the mode of expression is as freely and unabashedly subjective as the reality it conveys. The task is generally one of running along after the author, panting, while he makes poetic leap after leap as the whim strikes him. This is the sort of reading where one’s attention is liable to drift without one’s realizing it, as in the middle of a paragraph, the literal ground under one’s feet surreptitiously ramps away into metaphor or dream. Or one fantasy births another nested fantasy, without explicit notice. Many of the inspirations took a bit of puzzling to work out, but they almost always proved to be fine and beautiful things once I was able to see what he was getting at, and thus in retrospect were deemed well worth the effort.

This I suppose is the risk and reward of poetry: it’s the very fact that you might well not know what’s being talked about that makes it so moving when you do. Communication that goes beyond the prosaic is a consolation because it is rarely attempted, and it is rarely attempted because it is so unlikely to succeed.

The difficulty and poetry of so much of the writing intensifies the sense of rude clarity when we return from the interior fantasy to the prison cell and Genet himself, which happens periodically because even in the act of writing he is ruefully, inescapably self-aware, and he is intent on sparing himself nothing, not even the reality from which the creative act is ostensibly an escape. In granting himself the hope of escape he also must, in order to be honest, acknowledge the hopelessness of hope, the terminal circularity of the existential struggle that his book represents.

In fact, when I said above that Genet never really states his overarching intentions, that wasn’t quite true — very late in the game, his interior monologue briefly alights on a few business-like notes-to-self about what he ought to include in the book he is writing — but of course by that point the reader will have already come to understand the nature of the project. It’s still a striking moment, though; the impact is of a momentarily blinding “special effect” on the page.

Anyway, I see that so far I am begging the question of what sort of stuff it is that one is reading when one reads this book. The best I can answer that is to say that Genet’s writing, like Proust’s, is genuinely philosophical in construction, such that the action and the implications of the action are inextricably intertwined. (It is certainly unsummarizable, as per the Monty Python sketch.)

But generally, one is reading about the life, loves, and feelings of Divine (referred to as “she”), born Louis Culafroy (referred to as “he”), imagined fitfully and non-chronologically from boyhood to early death — all in light of the explicit acknowledgement that Divine is a mere puppet for the use of Genet’s imagination, libido, and projected autobiography. Her world is populated by a small stock of equally puppet-like characters who sometimes, as Genet’s whim strikes, star in their own episodes — Genet tells us at the outset that he is imagining them out of people he has met, criminals he has read about in the papers, and tiny newsprint photos of vacant, tough-looking guys that he has cut out and stuck to his wall. In the gaps one reads about Genet in his cell, his thoughts, fears, and dreams, and his own autobiography. Within this framework, digressions and distortions abound, zooming in and out of the fantasy in all directions, delving lyrically and mysteriously into experiential details. Overall the text is about nine-tenths Divine, one-tenth prison cell, but of course the two layers are one and the same thing, and increasingly one reads with a full awareness at all times, which is the greatest and most unique achievement of this work — I can’t think of anything else I have ever read that so thoroughly collapses the distinction between teller and tale. And this collapse is justified not as a superficial experiment in style, but as an utter and obvious psychological truth, which of course it is.

By being a sort of limbless abomination of a novel, melted into primal formlessness by the heat of its own gaze, this book profoundly exposes what is lurking in plain sight behind all novels — psychology.

Bernard Frechtman’s translation is a marvel — many a time I had to remind myself that the subtle values I was savoring in the language were either those of the translator or else those that the translator had miraculously conveyed intact from another language. In either case I was deeply impressed by his work. In looking him up I find that he worked exclusively for Genet — as English-language agent and secretary, as well as translator; that the two had a falling-out in 1966, and that in 1967 Frechtman committed suicide by hanging. This is quite an ugly shadow to have over the work and I’m sort of glad I didn’t know it until after I finished. You guys, unfortunately, have had that possibility stolen from you. Sorry.

Anyway, the writing is spectacular.

So now to the text excerpts: Sometimes I do this grudgingly or arbitrarily, but in this case there were many passages that I had the impulse to clip and offer; it’s that kind of writing. Not to say that any of the text would make a good Barnes & Noble bag; it’s all much too oblique and self-pitying and indulgent and libertine. But it was very often fascinating and impressive.

For the first time I’m going to include two different excerpts, because why not. This first one is actually the very first passage in the book to have struck as a candidate for excerption, right near the beginning – it’s touching and straightforward and gives a good impression of the how the Proustian, scatological, and existential aspects fit together. It’s long but I can’t bring myself to cut any of it.

Genet tells us that he woke in the morning “still entangled in my strange dream,” in which his victim had pardoned him for his crimes:

… Upon waking, I still had the feeling of baptism. But there is no question of resuming contact with the precise and tangible world of the cell. I lie down again until it’s time for bread. The atmosphere of the night, the smell rising from the blocked latrines, overflowing with shit and yellow water, stir childhood memories which rise up like a black soil mined by moles. One leads to another and makes it surge up; a whole life which I thought subterranean and forever buried rises to the surface, to the air, to the sad sun, which give it a smell of decay, in which I delight. The reminiscence that really tugs at my heart is that of the toilet of the slate house. It was my refuge. Life, which I saw far off and blurred through its darkness and smell — an odor that filled me with compassion, in which the scent of the elders and the loamy earth was dominant, for the outhouse was at the far end of the garden, near the hedge — life, as it reached me, was singularly sweet, caressing, light, or rather lightened, delivered from heaviness. I am speaking of the life which was things outside the toilet, whatever in the world was not my little retreat with its worm-eaten boards. It seemed to me as if it were somewhat in the manner of floating, painted dreams, whereas I in my hole, like a larva, went on with a restful nocturnal existence, and at times I had the feeling I was sinking slowly, as into sleep or a lake or a maternal breast or even a state of incest, to the spiritual center of the earth. My periods of happiness were never luminously happy, my peace never what men of letters and theologians call a “celestial peace.” That’s as it should be, for I would be horrified if I were pointed at by God, singled out by Him; I know very well that if I were sick, and were cured by a miracle, I would not survive it. Miracles are unclean; the peace I used to seek in the outhouse, the one I am going to seek in the memory of it, is a reassuring and soothing peace.

At times it would rain. I would hear the patter of the drops on the zinc roofing. Then my sad well-being, my morose delectation, would be aggravated by a further sorrow. I would open the door a crack, and the sight of the wet garden and the pelted vegetables would grieve me. I would remain for hours squatting in my cell, roosting on my wooden seat, my body and soul prey to the odor and darkness; I would feel mysteriously moved, because it was there that the most secret part of human beings came to reveal itself, as in a confessional. Empty confessionals had the same sweetness for me. Back issues of fashion magazines lay about there, illustrated with engravings in which the women of 1910 always had a muff, a parasol, and a dress with a bustle.

It took me a long time to learn to exploit the spell of these nether powers, who drew me to them by the feet, who flapped their black wings about me, fluttering them like the eyelashes of a vamp, and dug their branchlike fingers into my eyes.

Someone has flushed the toilet in the next cell. …

That is, to me, a beautiful passage; I know it will stay with me. If that makes you want to read the book, though, be warned: you will also find yourself reading a lot about HARD COCKS. Two sentences after the end of that excerpt, the words “stiff penis” appear. Contrariwise if that sounds pretty good to you (reader #2), be warned that “whilst in many places the effect on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” (Or at least I think so — but this is so far from being my neck of those woods that I really can’t say for sure. I would imagine that the somewhat grim existential context would take the bloom off of the rose of the sex scenes even for readers with exactly Genet’s proclivities, but what do I know.)

Now a somewhat more difficult passage, so that you can see at least one dimension of the difficulty and try your hand at it.

The pimp “Darling” (Divine’s principal lover) has been compulsively shoplifting at a department store. He finally approaches the door:

In his pockets were two silver lighters and a cigarette case. He was being followed. When he was near the door, which was guarded by a uniformed colossus, a little old woman said to him quietly:

“What have you stolen, young man?”

It was the “young man” that charmed Darling. Otherwise he would have made a dash for it. The most innocent words are the most pernicious, they’re the ones you have to watch out for. Almost immediately, the colossus was upon him and grabbed his wrist. He charged like a tremendous wave upon the bather asleep on the beach. Through the old woman’s words and the man’s gesture, a new universe instantaneously presented itself to Darling: the universe of the irremediable. It is the same as the one we are in, with one peculiar difference: instead of acting and knowing we are acting, we know we are acted upon. A gaze — and it may be of your own eyes — has the sudden, precise keenness of the extra-lucid, and the order of this world — seen inside out — appears so perfect in its inevitability that this world has only to disappear. That’s what it does in the twinkling of an eye. The world is turned inside out like a glove. It happens that I am the glove, and that I finally realize that on Judgment Day it will be with my own voice that God will call me: “Jean, Jean!”

The swoop out of simple narrative directly into a fairly sophisticated poetry is accomplished without batting an eye. The effect, at least to me, is like in a dream when the blood seems to surge up and swarm strangeness over what had previously been a naturalistic scene. This technique of sidestepping into a philosophical free-for-all is something like in Proust, but where Proust’s analytic swoops are generally toward a clarifying poetry of quasi-classical beauty, Genet is always stepping back to let in something dizzy, overwhelming. And then, just as quickly, out of this swoon of poetry further blossoms a painful tableau of the real author in a state of morbid desperation.

It was very easy for me to find myself glassily coasting over passages like this, which plunge one into complexities without warning; holding to the sense requires great commitment. To get from the department store door to “on Judgment Day it will be with my own voice that God will call me” in one breakneck paragraph is both exhilarating and exhausting. Every page offers the same. It is the exhilaration of great poetry, and that’s what this book is.

Once again, fatalistically strapping myself to The List pays off. A deep and rewarding aesthetic experience for which I am grateful was hidden away inside a book that I would never in a million years ever have read under any other circumstances — and that certainly includes having it recommended or assigned to me by anyone else. This is the kind of trust I can afford to place only in a ouija board and the pagan god CANON. (K’NON?)

I have just now taken a quick personal census and can say with confidence that this is by far the gayest book I have ever read.

The edition read, pictured above, was from the Brooklyn library. I had it out and read the first quarter or so around a year ago, when I scanned the cover as seen here, but then couldn’t renew it because it had been reserved and had to be returned. I did not summon up the will to retrieve and finish it until many months later, at which point the same copy showed a good deal more damage to the binding and a much enlarged tear in the corner, no doubt due to the other reader attempting to insert his penis. Thus the image you see above represents a bygone innocence.

The cover is one of Roy Kuhlman’s less funky efforts, and probably the best cover this book’s ever had.

This particular copy contained some of the most incoherent underlining I have ever encountered, the disjunct phoniness of which suggested (to my prejudicial imagination) one of those enthusiasts of “literary erotica,” having a cuddle party for himself and his awesomely open mind. I picture him in a corduroy jacket.

Since you were wondering, I’ll have you know that according to Google I am the absolute first, ever, anywhere, coiner of “teentellectual.” You will note that I, not content with this level of originality (viz. world-class), in fact went directly for the secondary inflection “alterna-teentellectual.” I’m ready for my genius grant, Mr. DeMille!

Okay, not to brag, but the term as it actually spontaneously occurred to me was “alterna-tweentellectual,” a word so ahead of its time that, had I kept it in, it would probably have broken Google — but then I realized that the particular pretension under discussion was necessarily post-pubescent. But when everyone is saying “alterna-tweentellectual,” oh, let’s say fifty years down the line, just remember that you saw it here first. And then kick yourself for not going and buying “” while you still could, long before it became the Facebook of Web 5.0.

September 6, 2011

Disney Canon #35: Hercules (1997)


BROOM It’s a film without heart. And there’s really no other way to cut it: it’s detrimental to a movie not to have any heart. I feel like they knew that they were making a movie without heart, but I don’t think they realized that you can’t get through a ninety-minute movie without there being something to latch on to.

BETH We got through it.

ADAM I actually found it a pleasurable experience to watch. I was gripped. I mean, I understood that it was being cheesy and cynical, but I also responded to all the trite devices and the cheap heart-tugging.

BROOM Well, honestly… Beth, I knew that you don’t like things like that, and that affected my watching, but I basically find it totally watchable. There’s nothing that I feel obligated to be annoyed by, and it’s very colorful and lively to watch.

BETH It was colorful but I found the characters very ugly. You guys didn’t? Her hair was so distracting to me.

BROOM I did wonder at one point what was driving it up and back.

BETH It was flat on the top and then went out. And his chin was annoying.

ADAM They were supposed to look like vases.

BROOM They were attempting stylization that I guess didn’t work for you.

BETH And the ears being curls…

BROOM I think Hades is a very well designed and animated character, above their normal standards. I think he’s really well drawn. Did you not find that?

BETH I agree with you. I think they cared more about making him interesting than they did about the other characters. Meg was just like a…

ADAM Throwaway femme fatale?

BETH She had a great voice; who was that?

BROOM Susan Egan. She’s a Broadway-type person. I remember being so glad that they had put this Meg character in there instead of a typical princess — not on some feminist grounds, but just because this is more interesting. Sarcasm, even if it’s all rote sarcasm, is more fun to watch. I didn’t like her mouth very much.

BETH I didn’t either.

BROOM But I did like the kind of presence she was.

ADAM What does it mean that there were no fewer than three characters who were like vaudevillian Jews, and that was the joke?

BROOM Explain.

ADAM Well, Danny DeVito and James Woods, and that other guy, the guy who played Hermes, were all playing the same character…

BROOM Paul Shaffer?? I disagree with this.

ADAM Well, all right, but at very minimum, Danny DeVito and James Woods are doing the same schtick, which is some kind of broad…

BROOM New Yawk!

ADAM Well… “I’m walkin’ here!”

BROOM That was just part of a string of “get it? it’s New York!” jokes.

ADAM I know, but they used both blackness and Jewish-ness as a way to add humorous touches to a pretty, you know…

BETH How did we feel about the gospel singers?

BROOM They were the Muses, did you get that?

BETH I got that.

ADAM I mean, whatever, what else were you going to do with the Muses? At least they were interesting to listen to.

BETH Would it be done that way now?

ADAM What, to use ethnicity as a harmless spice? And joke?

BETH With the obese one? Would they do that now?

BROOM You’re right, they probably wouldn’t do that now, only fourteen years later.

ADAM What I thought about during this entire movie was Tiny Toons.

BETH I thought of Ren and Stimpy because of those two…

ADAM Yeah, Pain and Panic are Ren and Stimpy. But I loved, as a kid, the eyebrow-arching grown-up humor that was the fact that they were doing this vaudeville number in the guise of a kid’s cartoon. I loved that. And I would have thought that the Hades character was so clever… if I had been younger than eighteen. I think by eighteen I was aging out of it.

BROOM Did you see this in the theater?

ADAM Mm-hm.

BROOM Did you enjoy it at the time?

ADAM Mm-hm.

BROOM I remember thinking that it was too noisy and it was trying too hard. The part I was most embarrassed and annoyed by was…

ADAM The celebrity sequence?

BROOM Yes, the “Zero to Hero” sequence — “Disney joking about merchandizing!”

ADAM Which also inspired the most favorable comments in the reviews. I’m sure you will see that they are pleased about the meta, irony, self-referential poking-fun. It’s actually very much like Shrek, which had the same joke in it. Shrek had, like, Jeffrey Katzenberg jokes in it.

BROOM Did it?

ADAM Yeah, and I thought that was really funny, again, at that point.

BROOM I thought Shrek sort of had jokes about Disney, and it felt different there because it wasn’t quite claiming to be at its own expense. Shrek bemusedly finds himself in, you know, John Lithgow’s bad Disneyland, and I thought that was funny at the time because it seemed actually cynical. Whereas here, since they are Disney, they’re clearly trying to score points for supposedly not buying into their own brand.

ADAM Yeah, this was more Jay Leno than David Letterman.

BROOM Well said.

ADAM Which also feels very much of a period.

BROOM But to what you were saying about Tiny Toons — I didn’t watch Tiny Toons, but it was just a weak-tea television version of old Looney Tunes, right?

ADAM No, it was more Jewish-y.

BETH More conceptual.

ADAM Remember when the Muppet Babies would open a door on to, like, old black-and-white movies? I thought that was really funny too. Same kind of funny. It was more quotation.

BROOM But that’s how Looney Tunes were! Why do you think Mae West kept showing up in Looney Tunes?

ADAM Maybe I didn’t get that.

BROOM And I was thinking about Looney Tunes, here, when they would do quotations of pop culture that were initially abrasive to me — like doing The Karate Kid — but then I thought, “well, in old Looney Tunes they would do that too.” They wanted to make a Looney Tunes style movie, so they’re entitled.

BETH Well, Looney Tunes aren’t Disney. So here you feel like you’re betrayed by that.

BROOM I think the problem is that you end up with this mix where you have to think, “well, what kind of movie is this?”

ADAM There were even Looney Tunes sound gags and cutaways.

BROOM If you’re going to make a movie where people get a tall lump on their head after they get bonked…

ADAM I’m glad they only had one Tex Avery number, but they really went for it.

BROOM Which?

ADAM The horse!

BROOM Oh, the Tex Avery seduction.

BETH Oh yeah…!

BROOM Why, what about the horse makes you say it like that?

BETH I don’t know, it was just strikingly porn-horse.

ADAM Didn’t you think it was funny later when Pain was cornered by him and said “But I really was attracted to you!” Maybe I’m more of a sucker for that stuff.

BROOM No, look, I honestly think it’s funny when he says “Hercules is a very common name; remember a few years ago when every boy was called Jason and every girl was called Brittany?” It’s okay with me. But I’m saying the problem is, once you’re in that mode, you think, “well then why do I have to watch her sing “I’m not going to say I’m in love”? It has nothing to do with the type of movie we’re in.”

ADAM It was a good song.


ADAM A professional song.

BETH That song sounded like the introduction to a TV show from 1986. And I like that! But it didn’t make sense. I didn’t think any of the songs made sense.

BROOM I didn’t think any of the songs were well staged. Here’s this song where she’s saying “I won’t admit it” and the chorus is singing “admit it, girl, admit it!” And they staged that with her sort of pacing around in a circle, and they were statues. And that was it! Nothing happened.

ADAM I’ll admit I was a little moved by “Go the Distance.”

BROOM Yeah, I was a little moved by the first one, when he felt like he didn’t belong.

ADAM Yeah, not the Michael Bolton version. Whoever was singing that has a really lovely voice.

BROOM It was Roger Bart, of Broadway fame.

ADAM Well, he sounded really good. And it was moving. I empathize with feeling ostracized because of your superhuman strength and golden tresses.

BROOM I can relate! To feeling like maybe I’m the child of the gods and don’t belong here on earth.

ADAM Isn’t this a little like Harry Potter? In the sense that — Harry Potter is a dumb jock, right? And Hercules and Zeus are clearly, like, dumb, WASPy jocks, but they prevail over the…

BROOM The thing about Harry Potter is that even though he is just a dumb kid, there’s this aura in the storytelling of, like, “He’s very, very important. His feelings are important!” Whereas here, Hercules just happens to be Hercules, and we can laugh at him.

ADAM In fairness to them: I think we all agreed that they pretty much played out Broadway sincerity by this point. So what were they going to do, if not this?

BROOM I just think there was a mismatch between Alan Menken’s doo-wop Broadway, and the spirit of this movie, which wanted to be like BLAM! BLONK! And they shouldn’t really have been singing.

ADAM Well, in the battle between Alan Menken and David Spade, David Spade’s gonna win!

BROOM There is a song in Emperor’s New Groove, right?

ADAM I think there are songs in it, but they’re embarrassing.

BROOM Honestly, I think that movie managed to solve the problem of how to make a movie with no heart it in it that nonetheless obviously has to have some heart in it. Better than this one. It has heart for, like, two scenes, and it’s not laid on thicker than the movie has earned. Here I felt kind of like, “I don’t really care about the love between Megara and Hercules!” I didn’t really care about anything enough.

BETH But they still had to do it.

ADAM I may be more of a sucker for a pretty-boy face than you are.

BROOM You thought he was pretty?

ADAM Yeah.

BETH But his neck was so big!

ADAM Why do you continue to say that as if you think I don’t respond to that??

BROOM Maybe “face” isn’t the word you meant.

ADAM Well, wait ’til you see Tarzan!

BROOM Yeah, he’s not even wearing armor. You can see everything.

ADAM I’m sure there are some gayboy animators.

BROOM What else are there?

ADAM The Jessica Rabbit ones.

BETH I think there’s more love for the male form in this than there was for the woman.

BROOM She had a reasonable figure.

ADAM She was pretty pointy. She did not have breasts at all.

BETH Yes she did.

ADAM But not really.

BROOM She didn’t have cartoon breasts, she had almost normal-sized breasts. Her nose was no good, though.

BETH Her face was not attractive.

BROOM So, I believe I remember — you can look this up — that the character designs were inspired by or possibly with the participation of Gerald Scarfe, the British caricaturist. [ed.: correct.] And Hades kinda did.

ADAM I liked the gods. You laughed at the cocktail party scene at the beginning.

BETH I did.

ADAM It was good stuff!

BETH The fight scene where the gods were counterattacking was nice to look at, I thought. Some nice colors.

BROOM I thought there were a lot of nice layouts. Pretty things to see. I didn’t think that Hercules was as well animated as the lead ought to be. He would often turn his face to the side and you’d see just his lips and eyelids and it would look really weird.

ADAM When they were doing his goo-goo face. That’s more schtick.

BROOM Basically, a good time, to a low standard of sophistication.

ADAM How does this make you feel in retrospect about Aladdin which had some of these traits in embryo?

BETH I think Aladdin is better. The songs were better integrated.

BROOM Yes. I think the spirit of Aladdin is more of a piece with itself. About the staging — in the opening number, when they’re singing that gospel exposition, and she says that Zeus was “too type A to just relax,” and they form themselves into an A…? To me that was a sign that the animators are not feeling the material.

BETH I thought Aladdin was better than this, and that it felt more lush.

ADAM Well if you are tired of jokey, slick, superficial-ness, I believe the next one is Mulan, which is the opposite of that.

BROOM A very, very serious film. Though if you need comic relief it’s got Eddie Murphy in it as a hip dragon!

ADAM I forgot that. You know, they are sort of oscillating on this, if you will, David Letterman versus Maya Angelou… Those are the only two emotional poles of the nineties.

BETH And they can’t decide which to favor.

BROOM But we’re noting a change here — if we’re talking about what’s happening to the public culture — because like we said, this was different from Aladdin. This was more

BETH Letterman?

BROOM Well, Adam, you said more Leno than Letterman…

ADAM More Seinfeld less Home Improvement?

BROOM It just cared less, right?

ADAM You can see September 11 being foreshadowed in our callowness.

BETH That’s why the black ladies were done. Because they could be loose about it. They were like, “we’re not PC anymore, see?”

BROOM I don’t think they thought about it. I think they were just showing their true colors there. I mean, if you go to Broadway now you’ll see those black ladies. You’ll see them in every damn show.

ADAM I’m feeling nostalgic for the different era in which we grew up.

BROOM Yeah. It was a more innocent time, “or whatever.”

ADAM When hipsters did not yet really exist.

BROOM Yeah. This was the height of ironic detachment. At least as far as Disney could conceive it. “You’re wearing his merchandise??” That’s it, that’s the full extent of how naughty they could get.

ADAM Yeah: “Air Jordan”… “Air Herc”!!!!

BROOM “The Hercules Store” was like The Disney Store!

ADAM Both a more innocent and more annoying time.

BROOM And it was annoying then. I remember feeling like I was rooting for it but it didn’t quite land.

[we read the New York Times review]

ADAM So she disagreed. She really liked it! She can’t see through the lacquer of the late nineties.

BROOM If you didn’t know it was coming, you would be relieved by it, after Pocahontas and Hunchback.

ADAM Are the two-thousands really less phony than the nineties?


ADAM I mean, that’s the thing. This feels like a sort of dated phoniness, but does it get any better?

BROOM No, it gets worse. It’s gonna get worse.

ADAM I mean in a larger sense. Yes, David Letterman plus Seinfeld plus Monica Lewinsky equals, you know, nothing… but what comes later?

BROOM Surely there was good culture being made in the nineties. What are some references we can use to redeem that era? Is there really nothing lasting from the nineties? “It’s the nineties, mom!”

BETH Pita chips?

ADAM Titanic?

BROOM There must be something that was really moving. Schindler’s List, I think, holds up. I think what was particularly impressive about it was that it did not feel like the era in which it was made.

ADAM Schindler’s List is early nineties.

BETH That counts.

BROOM Anything else? Books?

BETH Infinite Jest?

BROOM But that’s exactly about it, overload of it.

ADAM Salman Rushdie… is exactly glossy and unpleasant in the way I associate with the nineties. And this is not the Salman Rushdie who was in noble exile, but was married to Padma Lakshmi. Who he met on the cover of a magazine. I don’t know, it didn’t feel like this at the time. Because it felt like college.

BROOM We must have seen some good movies in college, right?

ADAM What about Star Wars: Episode One?

BROOM What year was Rushmore? ’98, right?

ADAM But Rushmore isn’t not this!

BROOM I think it’s a turning point. Rushmore is what’s to come. At the time it felt very fresh. It was like, “wow, its reference points are French films of the sixties! Imagine that!”

ADAM Well, that’s what I mean about hipsters. Williamsburg was just a dream in 1997.

BROOM And by the time Royal Tenenbaums came out in 2000, what had seemed so fresh and amazing about Rushmore already seemed like, “huh, he’s really digging in his heels here, isn’t he.” So that was really a dividing line.

BETH Spike Jonze was making some pretty good videos for Björk in the nineties.

ADAM There was probably some really sincere rap in the nineties.

BETH The Beastie Boys were very good in the nineties.

BROOM Can we think of something lasting from between ’93 and ’98?

BETH That Red, White, Blue series.

BROOM I only watched Blue, with Adam, and we made fun of it.

BETH Yeah. Red‘s the only really good one.

ADAM Rent, did you say?

BETH No, but…

ADAM Call it what you will, but Rent was an event, and a very sincere event.

BROOM I think if you returned to it though, you’d drown in the nineties-ness.

ADAM I did return to it, three years ago, when the movie came out. And yeah, of course it’s dated, but at least it’s not repulsive. I’m not ashamed that I loved that as a kid.

BROOM Are you saying that this is repulsive and you’re ashamed that you liked it?

ADAM Rent was not cynical.

BROOM So for you is Aladdin before the era we’re talking about, here?

ADAM In Aladdin you could already see the worm turning, and we saw it. Which I didn’t remember seeing then.

BROOM When I saw Jerry Maguire in 1996, I was deeply moved. And it seems funny to me now that I was so moved by it. Obviously had something to with being in high school, but it might also have had to do with the emotional pitch of the times.

ADAM American Pastoral was in this period. It’s real sincere.

BETH Heavenly Creatures, which I was very impressed with.

ADAM But no-one could say that these were the prevailing cultural flavors of the era.

BETH Well, Seinfeld is, right?

BROOM What other moviegoing experiences stand out to you from high school?

BETH Living in Oblivion. I saw it three times in the theater.

BROOM That made a big impression on me, too.

ADAM Um, Con Air? Was ID4 in this period? Pearl Harbor?

BROOM No, that was 2001.

ADAM I guess the big rebuttal to all this is The Internet.

BROOM I don’t remember what, culturally, was important to me, in those days.

BETH I just had my own thing going on.

ADAM McSweeneys.

BROOM That wasn’t on the scene when we were in high school. ’99, probably, was when we started reading that. That was this new level of ironic remove. It was stuff like this movie that made that exciting – this is “ironic and distanced,” but it’s not, really.

ADAM That’s kid’s irony.

BROOM It’s so easy to stand outside this and comment.

BETH The Real World. It became a reference point in most conversations.

ADAM I didn’t really stand in mainstream popular culture in high school.

BROOM What years was Friends?

ADAM ’93 to 2000? [ed: ’94 to ’04] Friends was the most popular show of the early nineties, and then by the late nineties, Home Improvement and Seinfeld would swap between one and two.

BETH I didn’t realize that Home Improvement was that popular.

ADAM There was actually only one year that Seinfeld was more popular.

BETH It’s a terrible show.

BROOM It’s the Leno to Seinfeld‘s Letterman. It’s the McCain to Seinfeld‘s Obama, if you hear what I’m saying.

BETH I do.

ADAM Are you going to put all this in the transcript?

BROOM I don’t know.

ADAM Some of it is interesting. You could maybe abbreviate it a little bit.

BROOM I’ll cut it down.

[ed.: I did not.]


July 26, 2011

Disney Canon #34: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)


ADAM That was, like, three-hundred percent. I don’t know if it was good, but it was compelling. I mean, wow.

BETH I agree. I thought it was beautiful. I thought that the illustrations were really lovingly done.

ADAM The computer stuff looked really gorgeous, even though it was totally gratuitous.

BROOM Which computer stuff are you talking about?

BETH Like, the fog and lighting.

ADAM The swooping-over-the-crowd scenes.

BETH Lots of swooping through the bells.

BROOM I know that they were proud of their system for creating crowds with the computer, which was new technology at the time, and I remember being really focussed on the little people in the background when I saw it in the theater. But this time I just took it for granted. I think The Lord of the Rings and things like that have really numbed me to the effect. But I do agree that the CGI was used tastefully.

ADAM To be clear, this was terribly ill-conceived, and I can’t believe this got green-lighted. But it was just so passionate.

BROOM It couldn’t be more misbegotten.

ADAM Just a wrong property to make into a lush animated musical.

BROOM It boggles the mind.

ADAM But it has sort of a really period wrongness. The way that you picture, like — what was the Elizabeth Taylor movie set in ancient Persia?

BROOM Cleopatra?

ADAM Not Cleopatra — she did something, like, even moreso.

BROOM I didn’t even know about that. [ed. I still don’t know.]

ADAM I saw it said in one of her obituaries that “she brought down studios.” And that’s sort of the level of craziness of everything about this.

BETH I can’t imagine a child watching this.

ADAM Where he, like, masturbates into her scarf, and then casts it into hellfire? What’s wrong with that?

BROOM Did he not plunge to his death clutching, like, a giant demon phallus?

ADAM Yeah. I’m sorry — casts it into hellfire while surrounded by a chorus of faceless red-robed monks of death.

BETH A truly scary image.

BROOM I remember thinking that was the best sequence, in 1996, and it totally is.

BETH Oh, it is.

BROOM By a longshot. Because it’s deeply inappropriate for a Disney movie, and they go all-out.

ADAM That’s like what that Leni Riefenstahl scene in The Lion King was trying to be. But wasn’t, because it didn’t have the inappropriate sexual overlay.

BROOM So Beth, you saw Tosca recently. Was he not just like the guy from Tosca?

BETH Oh, he was kind of like the guy from Tosca, yeah. Although I don’t really remember it.

BROOM Now, I don’t know what the plot of the real Hunchback of Notre Dame is. Is there a lustful chief of police? Or whatever he was — what was he?

BETH He was some clergy…

BROOM Ah, but he wasn’t!

ADAM He was a civil official. I think.

BETH But he lived in… ?

ADAM He lived in the Palace of Justice.

BROOM Which was like an anti-church.

ADAM I think he’s like the chief prosecutor and also judge.

BROOM But his song is all about, you know, the fires of hell, and sin, and God, and religious imagery. And he can’t deal with his own sexual impulses because of his hypocritical faith. But he actually has no faith during the rest of the movie, so it was sort of a bait-and-switch.

ADAM No faith except in himself, in his own rectitude.

BROOM Except at the very beginning, when as the jester said, for a moment he feared something bigger than himself. When he sees the eyes of the statues staring at him. So… Quasimodo is the offspring of gypsies?

ADAM He’s a pure gypsy.

BROOM He didn’t have the skin tone.

ADAM He didn’t look like a gypsy, yeah. Because that would have made it… I don’t know, too obvious.

BROOM And what were his parents trying to do?

ADAM Come into the city.

BROOM They weren’t supposed to enter because he was trying to keep gypsies out.


ADAM I think the second most effective song is… well, first of all, I think the songs are the least effective thing about this, because they’re so discordant.

BROOM Except for the hellfire song.

ADAM Yes. But I think that God of the Outcasts is a pretty good song…

BETH Really?

ADAM … because the other parishioners are singing, like, “give me wealth.” That woman’s singing “give me love!” and reaching out for it. That sort of pricked my conscience a little bit.

BROOM All right, well, they got you!

BETH With all of the songs, I was just imagining them imagining how it would play on Broadway.

BROOM Or in the Broadway of our minds.

ADAM Well, that’s over. This is the last one that’s like that, I think. The next one’s Tarzan, right?

BROOM Hercules.

ADAM Oh, all right, but Hercules is not Broadway, it’s moving into pop-y. This is really the last one that feels like, you know, Neil Patrick Harris would be doing the whole thing.

BETH Yeah, it’s so much that, though. They really went all the way.

BROOM They were trying to do an epic melodrama. This is their, like, Sweeney Todd, you know? I mean, it was their Les Misérables, to be more on point.

ADAM I mean, it was good. I liked it!

BROOM I can’t summon the word “good.” I don’t think I can say that.

ADAM Yeah, it wasn’t “good,” it was… memorable.

BETH It was compelling. My barometer is how frequently I look at the clock to see how much time has passed, and I wasn’t doing it very much.

BROOM I felt its length weighing on me in the second half. Several times. It definitely had flair… but let’s just talk about some things that were bad about it, because I feel like it needs to be pointed out that it was bad. The presence of the gargoyles at all, and then especially the song that they do: embarrassing.

ADAM Isn’t it good that they get his hopes up, then to be cruelly dashed? I mean, that’s the thing: he really is terribly ugly, and the movie doesn’t really pull that punch.

BROOM You’re saying that… he can’t ever find love? I really don’t know what the point of the original story is.

ADAM No, me neither.

BETH It doesn’t matter!

ADAM We can leave that by the side of the road. This is a self-contained artifact. It’s stands with Demi Moore’s The Scarlet Letter.

BROOM It really does, actually. They’re of a piece and they’re from the same era. I was thinking of that when she was up there at the stake.

BETH Her eye color was bizarre.

BROOM She was very poorly animated compared to the rest of it, I thought, and that actually affected my experience. I couldn’t take her character seriously. I thought it was interesting that her sexy dance was done with weird shading effects on her body.

BETH I really didn’t notice that.

BROOM Her dress, when she was dancing and igniting the fires of lust in Frollo’s loins, was animated with a different technique; it looked like a continuous special effect. To signify its mysterious power over him, I guess.

ADAM We’ve already seen… what’s his name? Prebus?

BROOM Phoebus.

ADAM We’ve already seen his exact facial features somewhere else.

BROOM No, you’ve seen them in Tangled, but we haven’t yet.

ADAM Oh, I was going to say, the first third of this totally is Tangled, but they do a much better job there. You’re going to see this again twenty years later, and it’s going to be better.

BROOM I thought that the conception of some of the songs was wishful thinking. I was just working on a job where people were trying to work out the dramaturgical mechanisms of songs in a show to make it work, and I felt like we were just watching that kind of thing play out, here. It was the sort of stuff where I try to keep in mind someone like you, Adam, who thinks this stuff is embarrassing, and always to remind myself that this sort of thing doesn’t actually work. Like the opening number: we were all snickering at it because it was so contrived. Here’s the sound of bells! — now we swoop down into Paris! — now there’s a jester and he’s got puppets of all the characters and he’s saying “don’t you want to know how the story began, well I’ll tell you!” — and then there’s a flashback narrated in song!…

ADAM That’s exactly how Aladdin starts.

BROOM There it’s just a jokey frame. It’s like: “Who am I? Who knows! Who cares? Now the story starts!” Here it was actual important exposition, and he has some kind of jester attitude, who knows what it was…

BETH That confused me, so I was just picturing an eight-year-old having no idea what was going on.

BROOM But by the end of it, when Adam said, “did you follow that?” and you said “I think I did” — it was from the visuals, and I think an eight-year-old would understand that the mommy died and that this guy’s bad, and yet for some reason he’s keeping the kid alive, and the kid grows up to be “Quasi”!

ADAM “Hey, Quasi!” Yeah, those gargoyles.

BROOM Named “Victor,” “Hugo,” and “Laverne.” I mean, that’s funny! But only as an “obviously we won’t actually put that in the movie” kind of joke.

ADAM Played respectively by Niles Frasier…

BROOM No, it wasn’t. It was the guy from Murphy Brown, Charles Kimbrough.

ADAM Oh, of course! Blast from the nineties.

BROOM And George Costanza, of course. And the other woman I didn’t know.

ADAM Woman? Laverne was a woman? That whole time?


ADAM I thought that was just a lot of drag going on. I thought it was just a crotchety old dude, like a Hal Holbrook type.

BROOM It did seem like that, but it wasn’t. But their song was so, so embarrassing to me. You didn’t feel that way?

ADAM It was the same thing as always. It was Be Our Guest. I mean, whatever. All this is — it’s like playing “Memory,” you know? There’s only so many elements; they just reuse them in different ways.

BROOM But if they have the vision to put in a song about “hellfire!,” couldn’t they also have taken the leap and said, “hey, I don’t think this one needs sidekicks.”

BETH Well, I think it did — Quasimodo needed someone to talk to.

BROOM He needs to talk when he’s alone, yes. But he had those dolls! Those would have been more appropriate.

ADAM Can you imagine how psychologically disturbing this would have been if he’d had no sidekicks? It would have just been him going crazy up in the tower!

BETH Or if he’d been talking to dolls that didn’t talk back.

BROOM We would feel his loneliness with him! It would actually be very affecting. Remember in The Lord of the Rings when Gollum talks to himself in the puddle of water?

ADAM Or he could have been talking to Wilson.

BETH It would have been incredibly creepy, though!

BROOM This movie was creepy!

BETH It was, it was, but think how much more creepy it would have been…

BROOM If it had just been Wilson?

ADAM I thought it was really effective! And it had the atmospherics of, like — you said “Les Mis,” or “Phantom,” or “Robin Hood.” I wish there had been a little more pomp and mystery about the Cave of Wonders… the Court of… whatever.

BROOM Yeah. It basically turned out to be some assholes in a sewer. And we’re supposed to think of them as the good guys, but they were about to hang our heroes too. I mean, Frollo is more or less right: the world doesn’t accept him. I thought it was interesting, the philosophical balance they struck between “it’s a lie: if he goes out he will find acceptance” and “no, it’s not a lie: people really are cruel.” Because people are cruel! But not wholly cruel. It’s an interesting moral.

BETH Mm-hm.

BROOM But I just don’t go for that atmosphere you were talking about. It’s the same reason I don’t like Batman movies: you can’t tell me that it’s epic, just for the sake of its being epic.

ADAM It also feels very nineties, in terms of being a movie about cultural moralism, and outcasts. It wasn’t so much a movie about gays, although I guess you could claim that if you wanted; it felt more like a movie about illegal immigrants. It felt resonant to contemporary political problems.

BROOM It would be very easy to claim that it’s about coming out of the closet. Come on!

ADAM I know, but I don’t want to be a stereotype of myself.

BROOM You squeezed it out when it’s not there; here it’s actually easy.

ADAM It was about gays coupling with illegal immigrants to create a united front against the religious right. It does feel like a Lewinsky era movie, though.

BROOM The reason that the hellfire scene was the best was because it had mystery and atmosphere and didn’t fully explain itself; it just showed us imagery that was effective. The rest of it was very diagrammatic.

ADAM And that scene set up a very compelling reason why he’s being such a fanatic. The villain in Pocahontas is just a fanatic because he’s kind of a douchebag. There’s nothing really compelling about that. You really believe that this guy would burn down the whole city to find her. And every time you saw his face, with that glittering digust/lust….

BROOM It was an interestingly-designed character.

BETH I actually really liked his face. I thought it was well done.

BROOM They didn’t make him look like a cartoon of evil; they just made him look like some actor who might play that guy.

BETH Who did he look like? I felt like he actually looked like a guy, like a real actor.

BROOM Unlike Esmeralda, who just looked like big eyes.

BETH She looked a little bit like a darker Demi Moore. Her chin was sort of square in the same way.

BROOM A little, but I thought it was pretty lazy.

ADAM Quasimodo was really ugly, in a way that was hard to wave away.

BETH I feel like they tried to make him a little bit cute at the same time.

BROOM I thought they did pretty good job of solving that. He was sort of the E.T. type of ugly-cute. With the eyes spread out and a flattened head.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM Here’s my big point. I always have to have one, and this is it: Broadway-style storytelling is useful on Broadway because it’s up on a stage far away; they need to shout everything at you to get it to the back of the house, and you can’t see any detail. So it’s very demonstrative and telegraphs everything. But in animation, you can bring people into… a cave of wonders! So to have everything be shouted, essentially…

ADAM Ahhhh ahhhh ahhhh!…. [imitating grandiose choral voices]

BROOM I meant metaphorically shouted, but yes, that too, to have a giant chorus singing the intro and ending of every song… it’s a waste! It’s a misuse of the medium.

BETH Will they figure this out? Is that what you’re saying? This is the last one and they stop being this way?

BROOM They go in other directions, but I don’t think they figure out what I’m saying. I’m saying the old movies had their own movie-rhythm and movie-feel. But look: yes, a well-crafted one of these, given that they should never have done it in the first place.

ADAM And I think it was probably a big flop, right?

BROOM I mean… it’s such a mess!

[we read the New York Times review]

ADAM Sure, it is very derivative, but having seen thirty-four of these… even the ones in the so-called Golden Age seemed derivative, you know? So that doesn’t strike me as all that surprising. It’s just part of the loving pattern of the thing.

BROOM I think there’s a difference between “consistent” or “of a piece” and “derivative.”

ADAM This is a little more obviously or aggressively derivative than the others, and I guess that stood out to Janet Maslin.

BROOM When she said that each song these days seems to serve functions laid out by prior songs, that’s the essence of it, to me. It’s not that I want to see something that I’ve never seen before; it’s that it feels like this is happening because it’s the formula. I’ve been saying that for ten years’ worth of these movies, now.

ADAM I mean, they’re all the same story, about someone being kept behind walls and wanting to break out into the wide world.

BROOM That’s what they’re all about now, but they used to be about all kinds of things. You know… a fox and a hound… Robin Hood… a bunch of mice rescuing a little girl… mice rescuing a little boy…

ADAM … Donald Duck going to South America…

BROOM … Donald Duck going to South America again… Almost none of them was about someone wishing for the fresh air. What’s the first one that’s like that?

BETH Snow White.

BROOM No! She’s happy in living in her palace. She has a lovely life; she just wants someone to love her.

ADAM Cinderella is kind of like that.

BROOM Cinderella is the first one. Unless you count Pinocchio, but his desire is different. He just wants to grow up.

ADAM That’s similar. I don’t think it’s orders of magnitude different.

BETH I would count Pinocchio.

BROOM But it’s a morality play. When you go out into the world, you better watch out for the tempters.

ADAM This was sort of like that, too.

BROOM No it wasn’t.

ADAM The world is a dangerous place for him, and he learns to overcome it, just as Pinocchio does.

BROOM Is that really what happens in this movie?

ADAM Bambi is not that movie. And The Lion King is not exactly that. Well, I guess in The Lion King he does want to explore the elephant graveyard.

BROOM I don’t think that’s the theme there.

ADAM It is, a little bit. He does want adventure, and then it’s thrust upon him in Hamlet fashion.

BROOM But the arc of The Lion King is that he has this fate put on his shoulders and he has to decide to accept that responsibility.

ADAM It’s actually about coming back home.

BROOM It has the “leave me alone!” scene that recurred in this one. When Quasimodo is chained up and the gargoyles say “come on, get out there!” and he says “Leave me alone.” I thought, this is something we’ve seen frequently.

ADAM We saw that with the genie in Aladdin also.

BROOM I guess the Beast gets that way too. Belle never does. Women don’t go through that kind of thing. But all the male heroes, of late…

ADAM … have a sulky interlude.

BROOM I would call it the “leave me alone” scene. “JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!”


July 4, 2011

Independence Day Rag

About 10 years ago I wrote two rags. I listened to them last night and thought that it sounded like they were probably pretty easy to write and figured I could probably write more without too much effort. So that’s what I just did.

Those earlier two were sort of exuberantly goofy; this one I tried to steer in the same direction but I guess I wasn’t feeling it; it came out fairly conservative. Except for a couple of jokes with phrase length and the obvious overdose of dissonance, this really is just your standard-issue rag.

Hear for yourself.

Very unedited score. I’ll replace this with a revised and/or edited version if I ever revise and/or edit it.

Edit later that day: Man, this is a really annoying piece.

June 19, 2011

The Moonstone (1868)

Wilkie Collins (1824–1889)
The Moonstone (1868, serialized in All the Year Round and in book form the same year)

Roll 24 was… well, I don’t have it in front of me but it was apparently between 859 and 862, the Wilkie Collins range, any of which numbers would result in my reading his first listed, The Moonstone. Which I happened already to own, having bought it off a sidewalk bookseller’s table in 2002 on a whim and then never opened. I read it in a matter of a few weeks… last fall.

I have put off writing about this book for a long time – (insert 5 months later: make that a very very long time) – because from the beginning I wasn’t sure what was worth saying about it. It’s fairly self-apparent what this book is, to the point where it was hard for me to imagine writing more than a couple of sentences of explanation. I would then be obliged to pad that out with unmotivated riffing, which I didn’t want to do. So I did nothing. Now the time has come, I say, to swallow my standards and do something anyway, so I can get this off my to-do list.

As a service to the reader: what this book is. This book is a popular serial entertainment, a rambling soap opera. It is, specifically, the sort of devil-may-care nerded-up soap opera where the suitors and secrets are intermingled with exotic unlikelihoods such as hypnotism, Indian assassins, opium, cursed diamonds, quicksand, and in the interest of spoiler camouflage I will here drop the scrim of “et cetera.”

The book is frequently cited as “the first English detective novel.” I can’t speak to whether it’s really the “first” of anything, but I can say that it reads like only a proto-detective novel. The Moonstone is at a halfway point between the sort of detectiveless family-secret mysteries one finds in most 19th-century novels (say, Bleak House) and the mystery genre proper, as we’ve known it since Sherlock Holmes. (For your orientation: Bleak House, 1852-3; The Moonstone, 1868; Sherlock Holmes, 1887.)

Note also that the claim is about detective novels only; the detective story had been established since Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841. So Collins already knew plenty about how mysteries worked; the only really new problem that he set himself in The Moonstone was how to make the unraveling of a single mystery be the backbone for a whole novel.

His solution is unremarkable: basically, he just throws in all the standard tricks of the Dickensian trade to beef it up. The plot gets prolonged and padded the way it does in any long novel: side characters, side plots, bits and small talk, sub-intrigues, etc. etc. But despite the utter familiarity of all this sort of thing, it still manages to feel like a strenuous display of puzzle-solving on the author’s part. He makes it look hard. We are privy to a great deal of the characters’ plan-making and intention-stating, as well as a great deal of situation-reviewing and stock-taking — in such scenes one feels that one can hear, as though through a too-thin wall, the writer huffing and puffing at his table. Not to denigrate Wilkie by the comparison, but I am reminded a bit of J.K. Rowling, who I guess has become the convenient archetype for me of a writer who reveals her inexpertise by leaving plot-sweat on the page.

Yes, the comparison is unfair because Collins was, in fact, an expert — certainly moreso than JKR — and in any case the standards for plotting are different for a serial novel, where a certain amount of sprawl and slack is to be expected and readily forgiven. Nonetheless if one attempts to read The Moonstone as a true detective novel it will seem strained, primitive, and inefficient. For one thing, the role of detective is divvied up among several characters over the course of the book – there’s no master-sleuth hero, which seems like a requisite. There is a proper detective playing the part for a while, but it’s as though Collins felt it would be absurd to extend his professional presence indefinitely; he reaches the end of the initial investigation and then disappears for most of the rest of the book, without having solved the mystery we actually care about.

I just started going into more detail about how it diverges from the “mystery” archetype but there’s no need. Delete. The point is this: we think of mysteries as having their own set of rules, their own particular fantasy, their own customary absurdities in service of their own implicit mimetic ideals. But The Moonstone draws on a much wider range of absurdities and has no very particular ideals. It is not nearly so singleminded a fantasy as a mystery — the singlemindedness being part of the pleasure, at least to me.

The Moonstone, rather, is generous and fanciful, and obviously designed only to be a thing that will sell, sell, sell. Occasionally dull, occasionally thrilling, often rather dumb but never actually insulting to the intelligence — all-around fine fare for an interminable bedtime read-aloud. The pleasure I took in it was never entirely unselfconscious, but I suppose neither is a child’s, and probably neither was a reader’s when it was first published. Half-camp isn’t an exclusively contemporary mode of enjoyment. I need to give those very modern men and women of 1868 some credit and assume that hearing about the theft of a cursed diamond was as frivolous and escapist for them as it is now, and that they knowingly submitted to it with a twinkle in their eyes.

What’s new nowadays is how the self-indulgence of escapism dovetails into the self-delusion of infantilism. I’m going to leave that sentence but not pursue it, lucky you.

Anyway, it’s plenty delightful, but not excellent. It’s not particularly nourishing either. It’s the sort of book that if you tried to write about it eight months after finishing it, you’d really have to stretch to remember the details. The main thing I remember is the climactic [spoiler], which is very very silly indeed.

No, I do remember, I do. Really. I remember quite a few of the secondary color character sketches, all of which compare unfavorably to Dickens, competing on exactly his turf.

Standards have been successfully swallowed. I think we’re well into the unmotivated riffing phase here. Will be done soon.

His device of multiple narrators — utilized only to gratingly superficial effect — is presented like it’s some kind of complex calculus, solved only by a stroke of authorial genius. (I was going to say “is presented Shyamalanically” but figured you wouldn’t be sure what I meant. I was right, wasn’t I.)

By the end you will have guessed all the right answers, but you will also have guessed all the wrong answers too.

The Oxford edition that I read, as seen above, has an introduction noisily attempting to dignify the proceedings with an oversold colonialist/anti-colonialist reading. Good try.

This is a good one for kids and/or the beach. In the context of the Harold Bloom merry-go-round-of-the-damned that I’m on, that’s a thumbs up.

Done now.

Oh dammit, I forgot, I’m supposed to give you an excerpt. Hm. Okay, here’s the final paragraph of the book. Half-camp ahoy; I left with a smile on my face.

So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell?

April 29, 2011

Disney Canon #33: Pocahontas (1995)


ADAM Well. That might be the worst one.

BETH It’s hard. I still think Fox and the Hound was worse.

BROOM This at least had production values in its favor. Fox and the Hound seemed shoddy even on that level. Not to say that this didn’t also have dubious choices in the visual department. But it looked like something. Fox and the Hound looked chintzy most of the time.

ADAM Four movies ago we were so excited that this breath of fresh Broadway air was being blown into the Disney musical, and now they’ve already exhausted that possibility, such that we are going to have to shift into ‘tude and snark as the next mode.

BROOM They had already started shifting within this movie. The totally gratuitous forest animal characters were not actually characterized this time around. They were just ‘tude.

ADAM But that’s in all of them, that’s not snark.

BROOM Can you say any word to characterize Flit the hummingbird? What would you say is Flit’s salient personality trait?

ADAM Didn’t the little mermaid have a fish friend, who did nothing but get into trouble with the shark?

BROOM Yeah, Flounder. He was an enthusiastic buddy character who was a little childlike, looked up to her. She had charisma that was cool to him.

ADAM I don’t think that these characters were that different. The raccoon would not have ever said “Cowabunga.”

BROOM That’s only one variety of ‘tude.

ADAM This was just so formulaic. It was kind of awesome at points, actually, just how super-Broadway it was.

BETH The tree-chopping number, what was that called?

BROOM “Mine Mine Mine.”

BETH That was so over the top Broadway, it was so choreographed and…


BETH Yes, but not even that. Just the lavishness of that crazy number.

ADAM Whenever you have a song cross-cutting between two different characters expressing two different things…

BROOM The supposed parallel between the two halves made absolutely no sense in that song. They just decided it was going to be “one of those.”

ADAM I think that when they did “Savages” and “Colors of the Wind,” they were high on their visual daring. I think they thought they were Mary Blair, totally paving new ground. I think they were like, “this is some sophisticated shit that we’re doing here!”

BROOM I think they thought they were unearthing the beautiful paving of old ground. I thought they thought “we are doing Sleeping Beauty for the first time in two generations. No-one has really done this in years.” And you know, it’s true! It’s too bad this movie sucked ass, because that is a thing worth digging back out. But it never felt sensible.

ADAM Everyone say what you thought was the thing that made it terrible, beyond merely just dull.

BROOM For me what made it was terrible was the intensity of a complaint that I’ve made about previous movies, about The Lion King: that they were doing it all just because they knew that these were things you’re supposed to do, but that they did not understand the reasoning behind any of it.

ADAM The complete insincerity.

BROOM It’s based on a fervent superficial understanding of prior Disney movies, which makes it feel… gay, for want of a better word. It’s fetishistic. Whatever it means to them doesn’t directly have to do with what it’s actually supposed to “mean.”

BETH Mine is sort of related to that: they didn’t seem to think about who would be watching this. Does this appeal to kids at all? It’s a love story! As a kid, I never cared about the love story part of stories, and it was all a love story. And then it was war-ish. I just don’t feel like they were thinking about how it was playing to the intended audience.

ADAM I find this exceptionally offensive because it’s about a really lurid and tragic period in American history. It’s like if you did a Romeo and Juliet with, like, a slave daughter and a plantation owner’s son.

BROOM Or a Jew and a Nazi.

ADAM Yeah, kind of! I mean, it’s wonderful that she makes this peace between them, but of course they’re all going to die in three years from smallpox. To take a nominally historical subject and make it into just cannon-fodder for your schmaltzy story… was terrible.

BROOM But, to go back to what I said about Lion King, what’s offensive is that they on some level agree that it would be irresponsible to just do that, so they start making a show of caring about “showing proper respect.”

ADAM Well, the PC-ness of it was also bad.

BETH That was just the 90s, though.

BROOM But you can get away with this tasteless, tasteless thing if the reasoning is just, “this is going to be a good story; I know we can sell this, guys.” What’s offensive here is that the message of the movie is to paint with all the colors of the wind, like the Native Americans did, and talk to the trees, like the Native Americans did.

ADAM Do you remember the ill-fated sitcom… I think it was “All-American Girl” with Margaret Cho, in the late 90s? And the producers were super-excited that it was the first sitcom about an Asian-American family, but then it fell apart in part because Asian-American groups denounced it, because one of the actors was Japanese, and one was Korean, and they spoke in like a mish-mash language. It was all just “Asian.” Here it was just a total pastiche of every cliche image of Native Americans that anyone could think of. Combined with a reverent sort of “…guys, the environment!…”

BROOM Let’s talk about why Avatar was better than this.

ADAM Because it wasn’t set in colonial Virginia; it was set in fantasy space. And it was even more luridly colorful.

BROOM I daresay that the main reason Avatar was better was because it was actually selling this totally hackneyed cheeseball formula story. And this never sold it. It never believed in any of the elements that needed to make it work. We didn’t believe that the characters loved each other; we didn’t believe that they were characters.

ADAM They had no personalities.

BROOM Especially him. She at least sang a song about the riverbend, which is weak but it’s something. He had nothing. He had nothing going for him. He didn’t look good, either.

BETH I beg to disagree. No, I don’t.

ADAM Even I don’t think he was hot.

BETH No, he was not hot. But she was so hot that it was like they didn’t know how to handle all the angles of her face. Sometimes she looked like a block.

BROOM Once again, the disproportionate expertise at drawing her ass and her breasts was inappropriate. They should hire people who have not practiced that as much. She was the best-drawn animation in the movie.

BETH Physically. Body-wise. But her face I had problems with.

BROOM Well, even her face was the best in the movie, because the rest of the faces… The animation was at once slick and polished, and also wrong. I felt like it was the CalArts class of 1992, and they’ve all been taught this and read books about “how to animate in the Disney style,” and it looks like phony crap.

ADAM And the villain, Captain Ratcliffe, was like weak tea. He was no Ursula, or Jafar, or Scar.

BETH He wasn’t even really a villain.

ADAM Yeah, he was just nothin’. And his just desserts are, like, a dry scone.

BROOM Because what are the desserts? Like you were saying, the whole story is distasteful: Are the white invaders demons who must be killed or else the natives are going to lose everything that they care about? Yes. This is true. Are they all likely to shoot the savages rather than talk to them? Yes. So it’s not just this one guy who’s the villain. He represents the beliefs of his entire culture; this is what he was sent to do. The amount of trickery that he actually resorts to is minimal, if any. As he says at the end, “I couldn’t have planned it better!” Because of course, he didn’t plan it. He doesn’t do anything devious. It makes no sense at all for there to be this preening “bad guy” character.

ADAM And it would have been better if they’d killed them. If the Native Americans had had a policy of no surrender, fighting every white person, they might have had a fighting chance of not all getting exterminated.

BETH A very irresponsible movie.

BROOM The songs are very bad. The lyrics are very bad.

BETH Yes, and thought they were clever, which made it worse.

BROOM Yes, that’s Stephen Schwartz trying to show that he’s a pro. Alan Menken dug Disney out of the hole of the 80s with Little Mermaid, so they obviously feel very indebted to him, and they’re going to keep hiring him, but I think here we see that he has his limitations. He couldn’t figure out what to do. “Okay, the Englishmen are going to sing an Englishmen’s sailing song at the beginning… go.” And look what he came up with.

ADAM Which was the same as the Dane’s sailing song at the beginning of The Little Mermaid.

BROOM But that song was actually charming on some level. This was like the squarest…

BETH I felt like they knew it, because they were muffling it. You couldn’t actually hear the words except for “Virginia” at the end.

BROOM I think it was badly music-directed. A lot of the recordings were not well done; a lot of the singing was not good.

BETH Did Mel Gibson do his own singing? It sounded like it. [ed.: It seems he did.]

BROOM You said the orchestration of “Colors of the Wind,” which was supposed to be so spectacular, was disappointing to you.

BETH It was jumbly. I thought it was being ostentatious and getting in the way of the song communicating. It just sounded weird to me; I kept noticing it.

BROOM In all the arrangements, you felt the strain of them trying to express some kind of sweep, and they couldn’t get there.

ADAM WhoooSH! I can’t make the sound of an orchestra, but, like, that harp sound.

BROOM When I think from an editorial point of view, I think that wanting to get sweep across in a love story — all the effects they wanted to achieve — they’re not impossible things, and when they work, they’re worth doing. It’s just an issue of craft. Resorting to the damn swirling leaves on the wind every time you want to show that something is magical and stirring is weak. It shows that you don’t know what you’re doing.

ADAM You should see The New World, the Terence Malick movie, because it’s about the same subject, the grandeur and mystery of two cultures meeting, but it’s a good movie, in part because it’s really spare. Whereas here to convey this grandeur they had to make more waterfalls… you know, more cowbell. I had that in the back of my mind as I was watching this, and the tastelessness of this was exacerbated by that contrast.

BETH I think the only actual character in this movie was the tree. The only fully-realized thing.

BROOM Full realized as a fairy godmother; she wasn’t anything more than that.

ADAM But at least she was something.

BETH I was just thinking, if I were a kid, what part would be my favorite part? What part would I look forward to if someone put this on in school, or something? It would be the tree part. And that would be it. Or the colors at the end, because it was kind of visually interesting.

BROOM My favorite would be the parts that had visual flair. “Colors of the Wind,” which was supposed to be like an animation spectacular… you know, sure, it was.

ADAM I liked the friend.

BROOM Oh yeah, she’s a real character.

BETH That’s true, she was real.

ADAM The real Pocahontas, incidentally, did go to London. And they sort of paraded her around court, and then she died there a couple years later.

BROOM She probably wasn’t as beautiful.

ADAM No, I don’t think she was. Probably because she was a fourteen-year-old girl. And John Smith was in his forties.

BROOM So with that in mind, how could this movie possibly have happened, really? They were like, “what should we make a movie about?” and they have a bunch of things on the wall. You know, “Treasure Island… Robinson Crusoe…”

BETH Don’t you think it was that they could make a really hot character? “I really wanna draw this woman.” I think that has something to do with it.

ADAM I think they just wanted to have some sort of non-white heroine. Mulan‘s coming up.

BROOM Powerful. Female. Minority.

ADAM “Betsy Ross! Oh, no, wait.”

BROOM And because this movie so deeply doesn’t work, because this story doesn’t actually lend itself, it’s so transparent that that’s the only reason this movie exists. And that’s embarrassing!

ADAM I really think Sacagawea would be a cool story. At least that at least has a sort of adventure plot.

BROOM She actually has to be good at something.

ADAM Sacagawea was my favorite of the Value Tales. She was like the “Value of Adventure” or something. It’s not as much just a nubile Indian princess who locks eyes with the white man. She has to win Lewis and Clark’s respect through her canny tracking.

BETH This was just so dull! Even in the beginning, when the ship was going through the storm, I found my mind wandering.

ADAM I know! My mind just went blank!

BETH I found myself thinking about something else, and I was like, “wait a second! wait a second!”

ADAM I had the same experience! Because they were just doing a storm, and I was like, “oh, storm storm storm storm storm.”

BROOM Before the title, we’re subjected to a guy falling overboard and then John Smith saves him, which was supposed to be the characterization scene for John Smith, which is such a mistake. And those of you reading at home should know that at that point, Adam, or Beth, I can’t remember which one of you said it, asked “can we start talking over this movie?” It was already obviously bad, thirty seconds in. I mean, it was bad one second in, because they were singing what may have been the worst song in the movie. And that’s sayin’ something.

ADAM And Thomas, who I think was supposed to be poignant, because he’s trying to be loyal to John Smith but then he kills the guy, which could be interesting, but he’s just nothin’. He even looks like a nothin’.

BROOM He looked worse than Johnny Appleseed. Okay, here’s what we haven’t directly talked about: the art direction, which seemed to be the one thing in this movie that seemed to have some passion behind it…

BETH Yes, there was passion behind it.

BROOM So what did we think of it, though?

ADAM Garish and unpleasant to look at.

BROOM I thought the Mary Blair-isms, at least in this desert, were pleasant.

BETH Yes, occasionally there would just be a nice picture on the screen. At the end when they were about to kill them, it wasn’t necessarily well done but it was still interesting.

ADAM But why did everything have to be, like, pink and orange and electric blue, through the whole movie?

BROOM I think they were watching Fantasia and were like, “we work at Disney! We’re the ones to do this, now!”

BETH And I guess they thought it would work with the story because they’re in this new world.

ADAM Because of the colors of the wind.

BETH Exactly.

BROOM The songs in this were exactly self-parody.

[we then watch the Just Around the Riverbend sing-along feature and mock the song. Then we move on to the Colors of the Wind sing-along…]

ADAM Why do Broadway songs always sound like they have too many notes in them? They go up and down too much.

BROOM Because they think about story, and then they think about lyrics, and then they think about setting them, and that’s the wrong order for making a song catchy.

[Pocahontas sings “How can there be so much that you don’t know?”]

ADAM See, like why is this going up and down??

BROOM Because there’s too many words! If you just starting making up a melody, it would probably only have room for a couple of syllables in it. When you decide that you’re going to set “My name is Pocahontas and I’m an Indian princess,” then you have to go, yeah, up and down, all over the place, to fill out the time.

[We continue to heckle Colors of the Wind]

BROOM All the times in this movie where someone goes “whoa!” because magic is whirling around them, like when Cinderella gets her dress — which is the original of that image — that’s some seriously wussy fantasy, right?

BETH Whose fantasy is that, really?

BROOM It’s people who listen to music from Japanese role-playing games in orchestral arrangements. That’s a type of person. Hair blowing in the wind is really meaningful to them, somehow. And this movie felt like it had been made by them. And those are people who don’t understand people.

(we read the New York Times review)

BETH She started out saying that it was great and then backpedaled.

BROOM I think she wanted to say that it was great for some reason, possibly political, and then had to admit that many aspects of it were not. But she was overall more willing to go with this movie than we were. And I remember thinking it was terrible when I saw it originally.

ADAM This is not even the best movie about Native Americans made in the early 1990s. I mean, Dances With Wolves made me cry as a kid, over and over.

BROOM Kevin Costner would have been a better John Smith.

ADAM Between Dances With Wolves and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I had such a crush on Kevin Costner.

(then we watch the Siskel and Ebert review)

BETH Blah blah blah, 90s.

BROOM Is Gene Siskel’s serious reaction there telling us that we need to remember that even though to our eyes now, this might seem like an infantile form of liberal guilt, we all were that infantile a mere fifteen years ago?

BETH Yes. I think so. I don’t know why everyone started being more aware of this in the 90s, but it was trendy.

ADAM Bill Clinton.

BETH And honestly, I think, “The Real World.” The show. I’m serious.

BROOM Explain.

BETH It was bringing diversity to young people. It was exposing the prejudices of the people in the house and making young viewers think about them. It had, like, a black woman who was a rapper from a poor neighborhood, and then in season two or three there was a guy with AIDs. It was consciously trying to be “diverse”…

BROOM Maybe this was your route to being made aware of this sort of thing.

BETH Yeah, it was, but I watched TV all the time.

BROOM And that was the first time that hit you.


BROOM This is a reminder to myself to look up whether “This is what you get when races are diverse” really was a lyric in this movie.

[ed. Yes. But on the soundtrack album the lyric is, reportedly, “Their whole disgusting race is like a curse,” which makes more sense. This was one of a couple of lyrics rewritten shortly before the movie was released, apparently because they had “tested” as too offensive.]

ADAM I feel like the 90s is when diversity became, like, “official.” Obviously there was consciousness of race and diversity in the 70s and 80s, but it was kind of a liberal thing, whereas I feel like in the 90s everyone capitulated and it became sort of state religion.

BROOM When did the phrase “political correctness” come into being?

ADAM 1991, I want to say. [ed.: more complicated than that] That was the time of the speech codes, and, like… Leonard Jeffries, this professor at CUNY who taught that white people are evil… I don’t know where the actual term “political correctness” stems from, but it was fresh enough in 1993 that Bill Maher thought it would be a funny title for his show.

BROOM Yes, exactly, it was still recent and live at the time of this movie.

ADAM I had this book called “The Politically Correct Handbook” that came out in 1993 that was just absurd politically correct terminology for various things, but it felt funny in 1993.

BROOM I remember “Politically Correct Fairy Tales” around the same time.

ADAM Right. I don’t know why that stuff seemed so funny then.

BROOM But having your eyes opened to the fact that “the story you were told in school was one-sided, man!” — that goes back much further. That was happening in the 60s… it was happening on an intellectual level for decades before that.

ADAM Yes, this is a fifty-year trend here, but it does feel — maybe it’s just because of when I was growing up — this feels like an inflection from the early 90s, but maybe that’s because that was also when I first became politically aware.

BROOM It definitely hit the mass culture in a big way at that point. Was it that it was seen as marketable, or did it just make people feel good about themselves to be peddling it? Did Disney do this because it made them feel good about themselves, or was there some kind of calculation behind it, like, “this is what sells now.”

ADAM Probably both.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM It’s strange stuff. And look at the reactionary price we’re paying for it now.

ADAM Yeah, although everyone understands that the Tea Party people, and the “birthers,” are all crazy wackos.

BETH Well, obviously not everyone understands! How did they all get elected, then?

BROOM No-one understands! The point is, they are the extremists, but a big chunk of the population considers them “not that crazy.” And the reason they feel that sympathy is because of terrible movies like this. This is the reason that Sarah Palin is a figure in our cultural life.

BETH Oh, I bet she likes this movie. It’s about a strong woman in the wilderness.

BROOM No! You know what people would say when they saw this: “Oh, of course, the white people are bad.”

ADAM I was going to make a joke and say that this movie is what turned [mutual friend] into a conservative, but that’s not such a joke. He started out as sort of a modern Democrat, but he loved to harp on this movie. It is true that [mutual friends’] umbrage at Liberal-dom is this feeling that the thumb of oppressive mediocrity is pressing down on us. This idea that “the grown-ups are telling you what to think.”

BROOM Oh, but they love grown-ups. They love really grown up grown-ups. Their horror is that actually grown-upness has been replaced with some kind of inane tea-sipping guilt-trip.

ADAM Pablum. Yeah.

BROOM This is like the ladies’ book club of self-flagellation, and that’s what they hate. That all of the real men who really know what’s going on are being told that they don’t feel bad enough about slavery. And that’s a totally sympathetic perspective, if it were actually how things work, but I think it’s mostly a straw man, one that persists because of movies like this, because of what went on in the mass culture. It’s in the popular imagination, and yes, that does affect elections, but it shouldn’t. But it does. Did people vote for Obama because he was black and it made them feel good about themselves to vote for a black guy?

ADAM I sure did!

BROOM Probably, yes. But they also did it because all those people for whom that is true and could totally be held against them also sympathized with his policies. This idea that things happen solely because of bullshit is only true in the forum of Disney movies. I believe. Well, maybe not only.

ADAM Well, after you turn off the recording I will talk more about why I voted for Obama, but I don’t want that to be on the internet.


March 29, 2011

Disney Canon #32: The Lion King (1994)


ADAM That was as dated as any movie we’ve seen in the whole run. That was just a great big wallop of 90s, in a way that is distressing to me.

BROOM I’d be interested to hear you say what about it was 90s, because on the surface this is a story about animals, epic themes, Hamlet

BETH Fathers and sons, self-discovery…

ADAM It had some of the moral self-congratulation that I think of as characteristic of the early 90s. I made a joke at the beginning about how seeing the baboon greet Mufasa was like seeing Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton together. That’s obviously a silly joke, but at the same time… It had that portentous, vaguely environmentalist, vaguely multi-culturalist, heaping political correctness.

BETH It was excited about how politically correct it was being.

BROOM Wasn’t it also excited about how… some vaguer thing… it was being? — as characterized by, like, the drumbeat and the title concurring at the beginning, and at the end? “Boom! The Lion King!” That’s some kind of self-satisfaction that doesn’t have to do with any content, but it’s still… if you could tell me why that was 90s, I would think that was fascinating, because I would believe it, but I don’t know exactly why.

ADAM You agree with me, Beth, right?

BETH Yeah, it’s very 90s.

BROOM I think we need to know what the sins of the 90s were.

ADAM Let’s see if we can catalog. First of all, the songs were very 90s. They did not have the synthesizery goodness of the 80s stuff. They had this operatic grandiosity.

BETH World beat.

ADAM If you had told me that Celine Dion had covered “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” I would not have been surprised.

BROOM I think these songs are terrible. It’s not because I have a concept of what era they belong to. They’re just lazy. For the viewers at home: we watched an illicit online version that happened to have captions only for the songs, so we saw all the song lyrics onscreen. And that really clarified for me how bad the song lyrics are: really bad.

BETH The rhythm made no sense in most of the songs.

BROOM The number of times that there were “puns” — and I use the word wincingly…

ADAM The worst song was of course the baboon’s nonsense song.

BROOM “Squash banahna?” No, I think the worst song is “Be Prepared.”

ADAM “Be Prepared” is the best song!

BROOM “Our teeth and ambitions are bared / Be Prepared”?

BETH “Be Prepared” was the best song because it had some catchiness.

BROOM Oh good god! I am surprised. I will differ with you on this one.

BETH Go ahead. All the songs were terrible. But I thought that one at least had some spirit, I guess.

BROOM You agree with that, Adam?

ADAM The only thing that was legitimately exuberant about this, as opposed to fake exuberant, was anything with Jeremy Irons in it.

BETH That’s right. I think it’s because Jeremy Irons was singing that song. That’s the only reason it came off as palatable.

BROOM I remember finding it very embarrassing then. And just thinking of it as failed, now.

BETH I thought everything that was happening during that song was embarrassing, visually.

ADAM With the Leni Riefenstahl shout-out?

BROOM Honestly, I thought that it looked like they had produced and produced and produced to try to squeeze some something out of the stone of that worthless song with worthless lyrics.

ADAM You commented, when we watched Aladdin, that Jafar was basically Jeremy Irons-ish, and then they just decided to go ahead and get Jeremy Irons. It was great. He’s great.

BROOM “You’re weird / You have no idea” is the high point of the movie. [ed: only upon reading the Times review later in this session do we all learn that this is a lift from Reversal of Fortune.] And probably the high point of their villains from now on. That’s gonna be it. I don’t think they have any more mincing villains after this.

BETH Really?

ADAM There’s the weird, prudish priest in Hunchback.

BROOM That’s right, but he’s more like the guy from “Tosca.” Scarpia.

ADAM I don’t mean to give anything away, but the villain in Tangled is pretty satisfying. But that’s gonna be, like, six years from now.

BROOM Well, this was our longest gap yet, and watching one of these movies after a long gap, I was aware, for the first time in a while in this series, of just how lush a thing a Disney animated movie is. There’s so much color and life to it, even when it’s not satisfying or good. I understand why kids watch The Lion King all the time: you can really go there, and it surrounds you with stuff.

ADAM It does have the effect of going into Photoshop and turning up the saturation all the way.

BETH I liked a lot of the nature long shots, like trees silhouetted against the dusk. Things like that. But the movie…! It was slow, too.

BROOM I think the movie is all screwed up, and I can characterize it. It occurred to me in the sequence when Rifiki, the monkey, says “I know da way! Follow me!” and he goes into a tangled maze. And it’s just at the point of the story where Simba’s in this pit of self-pity, and so he goes on, oh, guess what!, a voyage of self-discovery, symbolized by a quest through a maze. A tangled spiritual cave into which he has to journey to encounter himself. It was so schematically that. It’s like when writers say they read Joseph Campbell to learn how myths work, what the basic stories are: “The hero has to go on a journey of self-discovery!” It ends up feeling so calculated. Yes, it’s exactly the right thing to have in a movie like this, but they didn’t do it intuitively. Those things recur in stories because they have some intuitive meaning to the people telling the stories. Here it felt like all that stuff was just happening because it had been calculated and read about, and they knew they were supposed to do it. The reason those things are meaningful in Bambi and other movies is…

ADAM Because they come from the subconscious.

BROOM Because they have the quality of having come from the subconscious. Which means not a lot of dialogue with puns, and not a lot of music constantly explaining the significance of every moment, which is a holdover from the Broadway aesthetic that was brought in with Beauty and the Beast. It felt like it was saying “Now we’re going on the mythic journey!!” None of it felt truly mystical, which animation totally has the capacity to do. I felt like if they had just turned down the music and had the characters shut up for a while, the part where his father appears to him in the clouds… it might be laughable now, but there’s a concept there; they almost get it. If it just had cooled off and let us feel that we were watching a dream, I felt like the movie would have had so much more to offer. But it never did. That is my objection.

ADAM Other things that were extremely 90s: if you knew that there was a movie that featured the voice talents of James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Matthew Broderick… could it get any better?

BETH That hyena looked like Whoopi Goldberg.

BROOM It did. And the other hyena?

BETH … Danny DeVito?

ADAM Cheech Marin.

BROOM Why do you think he said “Que pasa” for no reason at all?

ADAM It felt like the film version of a Maya Angelou poem.

BROOM It felt like the inaugural animated movie.

ADAM That’s what I mean by portentous, like: “A Rock, A River, A Tree.” That’s an actual quote. That is from the inaugural poem. “A Rock, A River, A Tree / Hosts to species long since departed.”

BROOM From which year?

ADAM From the Clinton administration, from the 1993 presidential inauguration.

BROOM So this movie was already underway at the time; it synchronizes with that.

ADAM But it was very much in the zeitgeist, this, like, “Africa is a home of wonder and moral gravity.” That’s very early 90s.

BROOM The other night in bed, I was singing to myself, in my head, some songs from Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” 1986, and thinking, “those are really thoughtful songs, and you can say that he was being a cultural pirate and stealing this stuff, but it’s also aesthetically thoughtful in its own right, and I like it.” That’s 1986, and then by eight years later, that has congealed into… this.

ADAM Think about the difference between this movie and The Jungle Book in terms of the portrayal of basically the same kind of story.

BROOM The same everything. Well, there’s no father in The Jungle Book, which is crucial. But yes.

ADAM Baloo and Timon-and-Pumbaa are the same character.

BROOM Half of the elements are the same. They go to the same elephants’ graveyard.

BETH But this was so much less fun!

ADAM We had, in college, a special awards ceremony — we had a fake graduation where they gave a special degree to Nelson Mandela — do you remember this?

BROOM I remember choosing to take a nap instead of go, and being told that that reflected how terrible my life attitude was. I still don’t regret it.

ADAM Probably by Madeline, right?

BROOM By you too! “Instead of seeing Nelson Mandela, huh?” I was very sleepy in those days.

BETH Honestly, that was a bad choice.

ADAM They did a whole fake graduation, they put up all of the graduation banners and the chairs and everything, in, like, October, to give him an honorary degree, which was only like the third time they’d done that in history. They did it for George Washington. And, you know, Nelson Mandela’s a good guy! But, I don’t know, he’s not, like… George Washington. But everyone in the 90s was very self-congratulatory about having this figure of greatness in our midst. And this movie is all about, sort of, very self-congratulatory greatness.

BROOM All right — thesis, to be rejected, that I just came up with: exoticism is this running theme through all of aesthetic history. There’s always some Orient that you want to portray. And we’ve become very self-hating about that. And so there’s this idea that if you just love it, all, you’re allowed to be exoticist. As long as you say “Africa is a place where people are real!” you get to do all the same shit. And that’s what this attitude is for. It’s an excuse to do something that we would do, one way or the other; at least we can say that we’re doing it responsibly… by showing that “Da monkey man — He know da secret! I know da way!”

ADAM Well, yeah. I acknowledge that it’s going to read really badly when I compared Nelson Mandela with a baboon.

BROOM No! They did it! It was in this movie. The only character who spoke with a remotely African affect was the monkey.

ADAM The Magical Negro. To use a term that I did not invent.

BROOM Everyone in this movie was presumably African, but only he was black.

ADAM Except, interestingly, for Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick. It’s like they understand that —

BROOM Or Rowan Atkinson and Jeremy Irons.

ADAM But they’re not real characters, they’re comic or villanous characters…

BROOM Or Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella.

ADAM The sympathetic and noble characters, i.e. the lions who are not the villain lions, are all black…

BETH Except for the women.

ADAM No, they were all black! Nala was black, and Sarabi was black. And Simba’s singing voice was black. But it was like it was too much to have an actual black actor voice Simba.

BROOM And the only reason this is offensive is because they’ve already entered into this devil’s pact where it’s purporting to be “responsible, respectful Africanism” blah blah blah, in the first place. If it was just the old-fashioned attitude of like “It’s going to take place in Africa with a lot of animals from Africa,” and then of course they were all white, Sterling Holloway or whoever, we would just think, “yeah, they just told a story in their own terms and borrowed a few exotic elements that were exciting to them.” But once they claim, “No! We explored the true meaning of blah blah blah…” then we say, “No you didn’t; you’re bullshitting.” And that’s what becomes offensive.

ADAM Yeah, I agree with that.

BROOM Let’s go to Beth’s experience watching it for the first time, not knowing what was going to happen.

ADAM You knew what was going to happen!

BROOM Did you? Did you know that the father was going to die?


BROOM From the beginning?

BETH Pretty early, yeah. I think they foreshadowed that pretty well.

BROOM When Simba asks, “will you be around forever?” and he says, “Well… the stars…”

BETH I think even before that, I was thinking, “this is clearly going to be one of those things where the kid…” oh, because as soon as the brother’s introduced, and you know that he’s not going to be the king, and the kid will…

ADAM What Shakespeare play is this?

BROOM Hamlet.

ADAM Oh right.

BROOM But in Hamlet, the mother conspires with the uncle.

ADAM That’s true, but that would be too much. That’s a little heavy.

BROOM Also, in Hamlet, everyone dies at the end. As opposed to him holding up Hamlet Junior, and then “Boom! HAMLET!”

ADAM I felt bad for the other species that they all had to bow down to the lion. Like, don’t the zebras have their own king?

BROOM You said the same thing about Bambi! “It’s creepy that they have to come and say hello to the young prince.”

ADAM Well, I mean that. Like, have some spine, people! They eat you!

BROOM It was totally Bambi plus The Jungle Book.

BETH I didn’t get sad when the dad died, which is weird. I think which means that the movie was flawed somehow.

ADAM Yeah. I couldn’t wait for the dad to die.

BROOM Even when he crawled under the paw of the dead body and tried to curl up?

BETH I cry at everything. I really do. I didn’t even get close to crying at this movie. I think it’s because of what you were saying before: it was so schematic…

ADAM I couldn’t wait for Jeremy Irons to rip Simba’s face off. I mean, I always used to root for Tom and for Wile E. Coyote, but this really — I mean, how could you root for James Earl Jones? You know? “This is CNN!” What are we rooting for, here? That’s like rooting for…

BROOM A rock.

ADAM … a United Airlines commercial.

BROOM Well, I wasn’t rooting for Scar. The whole hyena subplot — that’s where the racism would usually slip into it, but it wasn’t even fully fleshed out. What was their relationship to the hyenas, and what was Scar’s special relationship to them? They were the outcasts? They’re just hyenas. I don’t know what it meant.

BETH They were from a desolate place, and wanted the riches of the plain.

ADAM Yeah, they didn’t want to work for it.

BROOM And then they drank it dry? It was the hyenas’ fault?

BETH Yeah. It got overpopulated and they used up all the resources.

BROOM That’s why all the water was gone?

BETH I think so.

BROOM As Adam said in the middle, that has nothing to do with hyenas. Hyenas just are scavengers, so the whole thing was BS.

ADAM I would like to have seen a little more of the overlordery of Jeremy Irons. If they’re going to make him into Hitler, it would have been satisfying to see him smack Simba’s mother across the face a couple times. Yes, I know he did that once.

BROOM He wasn’t Hitler. They just ripped off the goosestepping because that song was desperate. They just wanted stuff to put in there. It’s tasteless.

BETH I guess you’re right, but that’s a weird direction to go.

BROOM I mean, how tasteless is it really? I don’t know… but still, it’s tasteless because of the desperation.

BETH And this was one year after Schindler’s List?

BROOM Well, Schindler’s List was also just a movie.

ADAM I made a joke about this, but it is interesting to think about this in terms of Schindler’s List. They have the same kind of feel, watching them, in a sort of weird way.

BROOM I’m willing to hear this out… but I don’t see it.

ADAM I don’t know, like… don’t you feel like the point of Schindler’s List was to come out and be, like, [hushed and exaggerated] “That was so moving. The Holocaust was awful.” I mean, this is a Disney movie, of course, and it’s not as good as Schindler’s List, but it’s still aiming for the same kind of cheap gravity.

BROOM I gotta say, I think that Schindler’s List — and I haven’t seen it in ten years or so — is pretty good and pretty smart. The things that struck me hardest in Schindler’s List were all these specific awful moments, things that really happened. The point of it was less this generic sanctimoniousness, “wasn’t the Holocaust awful” — it was the horror of the immediacy of these situations. They shot three people in a row and you were next in line, and you lived, but you knew those people… All these horrible, exciting, horrible-exciting things. The kid climbs down into the outhouse pit, and that’s how she escapes being found — someone’s grandmother really did that. That was what was gripping about Schindler’s List. Which I suppose you could say is in poor taste for a different reason. But I didn’t feel like it was a weepy “oh, we all deserve a pat on the back for watching a movie about a terrible thing.”

ADAM That’s fair. Admittedly my views of Schindler’s List are probably retroactively colored by Life is Beautiful in a way that is unfortunate.

BROOM Yes; they are not the same movie! Whereas this, I felt, really was — maybe sanctimonious isn’t the right word, but self-congratulatory for its seriousness.

ADAM And it’s the generic-ness of it that makes it distasteful. It’s so trope-ic, if you will, that it’s hard to see it as anything other than, you know…

BROOM That’s how I felt at the time: like, there is no “Simba.” There is no “Mufasa.” There is no “The Lion King”! It’s “that one with the lions,” but there’s no core to it. That’s how I feel about this movie.

ADAM And then to have all of that with a little bit of ‘tude in the middle is especially jarring and of its time.

BROOM “What do you want me to do, dress in drag and do the hula?”

ADAM That was very Tiny Toons, that cut-away. And the lyrics.

BROOM You knew it was Nathan Lane, right?

BETH I didn’t. I would have been even more annoyed.

BROOM The two of them are totally Ren and Stimpy rip-offs. Not that they act like them, but they look like them.

BETH Yes. They do.

BROOM There’s just a lot of ripping off going on here, and no shame about it. No sense of better standards. And you know, honestly, if the SFX department actually spelled out “SFX” in the dust, we shouldn’t be angry that it looks like it says “SEX,” we should be angry that these movies are so in-jokey self-involved. Who is thinking about the children?

ADAM “It’s a small world after all…” “Anything but that!”

BROOM Even when he says that thing about “my baby brother,” it’s lines out of that twins movie that I just watched.

ADAM “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” “Like you?”

BROOM “Oops.” So what were you going to say about the quality of the artistry?

ADAM I feel disappointed. I remember this as being one of my favorites. I think of this and Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast as being the really good ones.

BROOM Those three and this were the uncontested resurgence of the golden age. What’s next after this, Pocahontas? Which was, I think everyone agreed, a failure in a lot of ways. These were the four where everyone was saying “Disney is on a roll!” After this they get more ambivalent.

ADAM Sorry, Beth.

BETH There are just so many more!

ADAM But they get more interesting.

BROOM I found this very interesting to watch.

BETH Really?? I didn’t find it interesting. Why did you find it interesting? Because you hadn’t seen it in a while?

BROOM Because of that thing I said before about my objection. It’s art without sincerity at a very elaborate level of execution.

ADAM I’m going to rest on “a filmed Maya Angelou poem” as my expression of why it is dated.

BROOM Appropriateness for child-rearing?

ADAM Highly.

BROOM Even the part where Nala looks up at him? You agreed with me when you saw the shot, didn’t you?

BETH Yeah. Because it lingered a little bit too long on her sexy look.

ADAM Well there’s no other males in the pride, you know…

BROOM How does that work?

ADAM They drive out the adolescent male lions, right? Isn’t that what happens in real life?

BROOM I don’t know.

ADAM I’ll tell you when I get back from Africa!

BROOM I’m surprised that you guys don’t find in watching a thing like this that there’s some sense — maybe not of “satisfaction”…

ADAM I found it very engaging to be seeing this even as I was disapproving of it.

BETH I was a little bored, but not… it was fine.

BROOM I feel consistently that as bad movies go, these are really exceptionally skillful bad movies, and lively bad movies, and interesting to watch.

BETH Well, they’re skillful, I agree. Those people are pros at making the bad movies look like accessible, entertaining…

BROOM They’re like bad rollercoasters — you’re going to get pulled around these curves no matter what. And playing the game of guessing how it’s going to work — even now, because I don’t always remember, because it hardly matters. At the end, when you guys were guessing moment by moment how things would play out, that’s us playing along, and I enjoy that game.

ADAM So do you prefer James Earl Jones as Mufasa, or James Earl Jones as the king in Coming to America?

BROOM I haven’t seen Coming to America.

BETH I haven’t seen all of Coming to America.

ADAM It is so good. I love it. Of course I love this too.

BROOM Do you still love it? Or do you feel disappointed.

ADAM Well, no. I feel disappointed, but I can understand why I loved it. Look, portentous liberalism was very appealing to me when I was fourteen! I drew pictures of President Clinton and Hillary Clinton on the lawn of the White House, and put them in my notebook.

BROOM Flying on an eagle.

ADAM Basically, yeah.

BROOM That’s cool. Do you still have those pictures?

ADAM Yeah, in my file.

[we read the Times review]

ADAM I think the 90s had a sense — this was the period in which history was over, right? And we sort of mistook shallowness for greatness during that period, in a way that is depressing but very much characteristic of a time of basic peace and prosperity. That period between the fall of the Berlin wall and September 11th, everyone referred to it as a sort of parenthesis from history. This just has that feel of… faked seriousness.

BETH Yeah, but I think it was innocent. I think it was genuine.

ADAM I don’t think it was malevolent. I agree with that.

BROOM I think that was Janet Maslin’s best yet. I think she nailed it. And I respect her for it. We said we wanted to make a point of including this: she said it had a “very 1990s ethos,” which made Adam go “woo-hoo,” and I wanted to go “woo-hoo” when she said it was far more calculated than the ones before. I felt like we were all validated. By Janet Maslin agreeing with us.


February 26, 2011

Sketch of the Day

Hey, remember back when I used to post scraps of music here? I guess I’ve been trying to rise above scrapism recently. But here’s one. Five minutes ago this didn’t exist and now here it is for the internet and forever.