Monthly Archives: February 2013

February 28, 2013

25. Alphaville (1965)

written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard


Criterion #25. End of the first page of the listing! (26 pages to go. Having spent 1665 days on the first page, I calculate that getting to the end will take about 119 years. Though of course they’ll probably have released some more movies by then.)

My first actual Godard. But his style is of course familiar from parody. Which it lives up to.

Alphaville is intellectualist through and through. It privileges concepts over things, both in technique and in content. It is, shall we say, not obvious.

In approaching such a work there are two modes of critique: the naive and the like-minded. The negative naive response is “meaningless drivel.” The positive naive response is “stylish dream.” The negative like-minded response is “sophomoric symbolism.” The positive like-minded response is “brilliant allegory.”

(There is actually a hybrid third category: the naive response that believes itself to be like-minded. e.g. the feminist who, of any sufficiently obscure work, readily sees that it is about feminism.)

To attain to a genuinely like-minded response, one either lucks out and finds that one happens to be like-minded, or else one makes an effort to decode. My cynical impression is that lucky sympathy is rare, and most comprehension of high symbolism is not organic but deliberate. That’s not to say that it is false; only that it requires a kind of effort on the part of the audience that it did not require on the part of the creator, who generally arrives at his obscurities by a pleasant flower-gathering in his own personal garden of associations.

You will hear it clucked by admirers of things high that naive responses are not just naive but irresponsible: incurious, philistine, lazy. In this moral system, failure to make the effort to decode is failure to give intellect its due. (These sorts of people are usually frustrated by how little respect their own intellects have been accorded and thus are compelled to act out the values they found lacking in the world: tireless devotion to intellect, disdain for those unwilling to be so devoted. (, he psychoanalyzed sweepingly.))

However not all obscure works are equally obscure, and the community trying to put moral pressure on the world to make the interpretive effort varies in its size from work to work. If you could find the ratio of naive to like-minded responses for a given work (some whiz at Google Ngrams can probably rig that up, right?), and then listed works by ratio, I imagine that a broad spectrum of obscurity would be completely represented, all the way from very obvious children’s books that nobody (of writing or speaking age) has ever thought to blame for causing their incomprehension, to Finnegans Wake, which can be decoded but about which even most professors of literature — professional decoders — will say the effort is a waste of time. Beyond that, a broad swath of amateur poetry and the like, stuff that nobody apart from the author will ever take the time comprehend fully; and then, further beyond, surrealism and other work intended only to be comprehensible naively. And at the far end, random or otherwise depersonalized work.

If the number of works at each ratio were graphed, I suspect you’d see a huge peak at the low end, where most works live (or perhaps just above the low end, since absolute explicitness isn’t actually prized and is probably not possible), and then a downward slope as the works got more obscure. At the far end, where the surrealists et al. live, there would probably be a smaller peak, of works broadly understood to be basically intuitive and abstract.

It’s the middle of the graph that I’d be interested to see, because I’m not entirely sure what it would look like. Does the graph of obscurity taper steadily, or is there a point beyond which adding further obscurity to a work means that the audience willing to make the effort suddenly becomes exponentially smaller? Are there local maxima, customary degrees of obscurity around which works cluster? I really don’t know.

What’s important is that if there did happen to be such bumps and tipping points in the graph, they would reflect demographics, not aesthetics. Or, to put all of this another way, obscurity is in the eye of the beholder, so the only possible objective standard of obscurity is a census of beholders, regardless of whether the distribution is smooth or lumpy.

This needs pointing out because we (I) need an antidote to the shaming of the cluckers, as well as my own internal clucker. When I hear people saying that Moby-Dick is stupid and boring, or that black and white movies are stupid and boring, and that anybody who claims to like them is just posturing, or whatever, I can’t help but think “come on! grow up.” When I hear people saying that I should come on! and grow up! for thinking that, say, Godard is stupid and boring, I can’t help but think, “well, you’re just posturing.”

But because I am capable of self-awareness, then I immediately feel wary. Wait a minute, what am I saying? I don’t want to be caught being a Philistine! That’s not me! Don’t I want to give the intellect its due? Am I really so lazy and self-satisfied that I can’t put in a little extra muscle and figure out what Godard is doing? Come on! Grow up! You might learn something, jerk! Okay, fine. And so I do, priding myself on the effort.

But this is what needs an antidote. It is wrong to look at the graph of obscurity and say that the objective is to encompass it all in like-mindedness, because that is dishonest and impossible. And it is wrong to take the opinions of others as your compass because there will always be voices from just above you saying “come on! grow up! typical American! civilization down the tubes!” Whether or not they are posturing or authentic is beside the point. (Most likely they are not posturing per se, but they have exerted great and strenuous effort to get where they are, an effort that they would rather not acknowledge because it was motivated by having been shamed themselves, he psychoanalyzed sweepingly again.)

The point is this: everyone draws his own line of demarcation somewhere on that graph; everyone has his own ratio and clucks from where he stands. It seems right to me personally that my ratio should privilege like-mindedness and empathy over stubborn incomprehension, but only slightly. I think the golden section would be a good guideline here. So: I deem it morally incumbent upon me to make the effort to decode and comprehend works that are 61.8% obscure or less, and no more. My retort to the cluckers in the regions beyond will be that they have been driven by shame into a life out of balance, beyond the golden mean. As I myself was for a long time.

Alphaville is, I would say, about 70% obscure. Temptingly close to the line, close enough that I can hear it murmuring: come on, kid, you only need to think a little harder to get your gold star!

Well, for the first time in a while, I am braced to shout “Screw you, pusher-man! You don’t know me! PRETENTIOUS DRIVEL! STYLISH DREAM!” This is a moral victory. I am, accordingly, not going to say anything about what this movie is about about.

(Though, ironically, what it’s about is the supremacy of feeling over “logic,” and is thus applicable to this discussion. Seems to me Godard gets it all wrong by being blatantly stuck in a self-regarding intellectual mode himself, not recognizing that as far as art is concerned, his attitude isn’t so far from being in cahoots with his “logical” computer supervillain. Oops, I talked about it. Well, that’s just my hazy view from 9% away, and that’s how it’s going to stay. My toes didn’t go over the line. And I kept this in parentheses!)

Is it a stylish dream, though? Yeah, kinda. It’s “stylish” in the cavalier mode of the Nouvelle Vague, which overlaps significantly with amateurish sloppiness. Is it possible that it is actually just amateur and sloppy? Yeah, kinda. Does this general sloppiness add to or detract from the charm of the more refined compositions that crop up here and there? It depends on your mood. My mood fluctuated.

Here’s what I enjoyed: the feeling of slinking arbitrarily around the bland modern lobbies and corridors of Paris circa 1965, in nocturnal black and white. And I enjoyed that overlaid on that meandering was an easygoing intention to riff on pulp conventions. My favorite part was envying Godard the luxury of actually carrying out his half-baked project, which felt relaxed. It put me in mind of high school days, when some whim and a vague sense of adventure would give rise to long, mysterious nights of pointless driving around. Like American Graffiti. Or Nighthawks. You’re not going to figure out what it means by thinking about it or talking about it.

Which is why this movie didn’t work for me. If you’re going to have that kind of fun with no name, Monsieur Godard, shut up already. Nobody cares about your asinine evil computer story or your speechifying, least of all you, so stop pretending. It’s very clear, as you surely knew it would be, that this movie is really just an framework for a variety of indulgences, not least of which is spending some quality camera-worship time with your ex-wife. You could have had the decency to just follow through on that instead of making it purport to be some kind of well-formed movie with something important to say.

Accordingly the best part of the movie by far is the first 10 minutes, in which a ridiculous succession of noir tropes is strung together deadpan and we don’t yet realize that we’re supposed to take it at all seriously: the trench-coated protagonist drives into town, grimly checks into a hotel, a pretty girl shows him to his room, takes off her clothes, a bad guy emerges from the bathroom and the hero fights him, the hero photographs the girl while she poses for him, the hero shows off his marksmanship by using a magazine centerfold as target and firing two bullets through the breasts without looking, while reading a copy of “The Big Sleep.” All of this to wonderfully overcooked noir-in-quotes music by Paul Misraki. I was delighted. I thought I was going to be delighted by the rest. But the rules aren’t what I thought. One is expected to follow along and care. Nope.

To the degree that the movie is fun, it’s because the music shows us how. Here comes your sample. For the first time I’ve done a bit of editing. Reluctantly, but I had to. Godard, not content to let any of his borrowed tropes run for too long without aggressive conceptual interference, edits the music with raw, amateurish stop-and-go cuts, and there’s not a single major cue in the whole movie that he uses in its entirety without overlay of dialogue. However, the same piece of music is used over and over. So what I’m offering here is a splicing together of the uninterrupted bits of music from the first 2 minutes of the movie to form a continuous excerpt that constitutes more or less the main material of the score. The two splices, which hopefully are unobtrusive, correspond exactly to reuse of the same section of composition, so I haven’t done anything invasive to the music itself – this is really how it goes, and it’s all audio from the movie. That’s the disclaimer. Do listen, because this is good stuff: Track 25.

The casual, no-budget visuals juxtaposed with this outsize orchestral sturm und drang reminded me of my absurdist adolescent video projects, which would set undistinguished Video8 footage of my friends strolling around the suburbs to intense movie music. Which always struck me as hilarious, because it almost starts to work! and then your brain suddenly gives up because it’s just too stupid. There’s some kind of joy in that exhaustion, renewing and intensifying one’s awareness of silliness. Those charms are almost the charms of Alphaville, and how fond I was when I found them there! Alas, too seldom.

February 22, 2013

Disney Canon #46 Chicken Little (2005)

Nadir-Fest 3 of 3!


ADAM That was contemptible. That was awful. That was unquestionably the worst one.

BETH By far the worst.

ADAM I could make a BuzzFeed-style list of twenty-five things that I hated about that movie.

BETH Let’s start.

BROOM Go for it.

ADAM Well… you were talking the other day about being in a visual world where it feels like no one is home and no one is watching out for you. It really felt like that. Sorry, my thoughts are all clotted up, I’m so angry about this movie.

BROOM “You need some closure.”

ADAM The contemptible message of the movie. The father-son dynamic. The absurd gay stereotype… At least at the end he got to sing along to a Gloria Gaynor song; that must have been exciting for his character. I’m sorry, somebody else jump in here, because I’m just pissed off.

BETH I’m only angry that I had to watch it. I’m not necessarily angry about it. But it was terrible. It was ugly and it was super-nerdy. It thought it had something to say about emotions, but it didn’t actually know what it was doing.

ADAM It had that manic knowingness and topicality that is like a noxious growth in these kinds of animated movies in recent years. It was obviously way too expensive.

BETH So did they fire all their animators and hire a whole new team?

BROOM It’s a very different sort of skill; I don’t imagine there are that many traditional animators who also do CGI animation. I’m not sure where these people came from. They’re not Pixar people.

BETH It seemed like they had a totally different sensibility from Disney people.

BROOM When you said that this was totally nerdy, I feel like that is exactly the essence of it. And Adam, when you said this was like my prior comment about entering a world where there’s no love for you, that’s not the feeling I get from this movie. That’s the feeling I get from movies that I feel have been made by sleaze, by calculating men of a certain insensitivity.

ADAM I just meant that it felt visually unwelcoming.

BROOM I said during the movie that this movie was made by its characters, grown up. Here I felt I was in the company not of sleaze but of stunted nerds.

ADAM That offensive opening, when they’re like, “Once upon a time — Naw!” … “Let’s open the book — Naw! Enough wit’ da book!

BROOM You said it seemed like an identity crisis.

ADAM They might as well have had Gilbert Gottfried as the father. It was gruesome.

BROOM I really feel confident that behind this I can sense nerds. People who find it a strain to think about emotions. I feel like they strained to the point they could reach, and then had this inspiration: “Hey, you know what I might want to make a movie about? How my father never believed in me, and no-one was ever nice to me, and I was just an innocent nerd who liked karaoke, or was gay, or wasn’t good at sports or something. You know how no-one in the entire town liked me? We should make a movie about that!” And then they started to sketch out how that would work, but they don’t really understand it.

BETH Yeah, it’s Asperger’s-y! The whole movie was really Asperger’s-y! And that’s why it was so hard to watch.

BROOM Yes. All of the “humor,” all of the constant references — it’s like a Rainman thing. It’s what nerds do. It’s why they keep reciting Monty Python skits to each other. “No one understands us… but, well, you know what they say in Star Wars!” And it was striking to me that the elements of the movie that felt most expert were the weird sci-fi elements that never belonged in this story in the first place. The spaceship comes down and suddenly it’s like, “oh, look at this, something they really thought about!”

BETH Because that’s what’s comfortable for them.

BROOM That’s who they were. And I think the movie was uncomfortable to watch exactly because it was by nerds who were trying to address what it’s like emotionally and socially to be a nerd, but they just don’t understand enough about it to make that movie.

BETH They haven’t really resolved it for themselves.

ADAM And their vision of social acceptance is “It’s two strikes at the bottom of the ninth! Will he make it?” That was just a piece of scissored-out movie from some other movie that was inserted here. It felt so hackneyed, which fits with your thesis.

BROOM But they knew what that was. That was intentional. They put the “end of the movie triumph” at the beginning, and then they had him and his father lying there saying “Everything’s great now, right?” And the point is obviously it’s not great, nothing’s been addressed. But then the actual closure they give at the end is still totally insufficient. During the movie I said that they needed to make the father admit that he had felt the same kind of shame and that’s why he was passing it on to his son. But he didn’t! He didn’t understand himself at all, he didn’t explain anything. And when he finally turned it around and said “I believe in you,” he still didn’t actually believe in him! He just had come to realize that being a father meant that he had to say “I believe in you.” The writers couldn’t imagine any greater, more authentic kind of support from this terrible parent.

ADAM Who greenlighted this? Who thought that this was going to sell, or promote the brand?

BETH I think they just went through a lost era in the mid 2000s.

BROOM Didn’t we all?

BETH Michael Eisner was sort of called out for letting the brand get out of control, and… did they fire him or something?

BROOM I don’t know. You might be confusing different stories, because I know that some time earlier than that, Roy Disney was protesting to the board along the lines that the Disney ABC lineup was bad for the Disney brand, that they should save the word Disney for features, that they should save the characters and not stick them on sitcom promos…

BETH Okay, before you post this I’m going to find what I think I remember. [ed: put it in the comments, kiddo!]

ADAM Do you remember how in the mid-2000s it became very popular in hit movies to have a sequence where all the characters sing along to a song from the 60s or 70s? A la My Best Friend’s Wedding? What if we do it eight times?

BROOM What year was Adaptation?

BETH ’02.

BROOM Because that makes fun of the phenomenon outright, and it seemed relevant at the time. It’s died down since then. So this was particularly late. It was just fodder for their compulsion to emulate things — like the joke at the end about how Hollywood would make their movie. Well, that’s how Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure ends, among many other things, so it’s not even their joke. They didn’t own any of it.

ADAM “You’ve got hate mail!” AOL was of course 10 years old, at this point. Nobody had AOL in 2005. That’s the sort of thing that made me say that the people who made this movie not only were nerds but also were a thousand years old. “Kids use cellphones! Let’s put that in the movie!”

BROOM It’s really a whole attitude toward what humor is. Was there a single joke in this movie that did not consist of taking a chunk of existing reference material and putting it in the movie?

ADAM “Oh, snap!”

BROOM “Oh, snap!” Exactly. That’s something people say. It is like Asperger’s: “I’ve heard humans do this!” That’s how nerds talk to each other. They’re comforted by doing it to each other. That’s what “cosplay” is: “You’re dressed as that thing! You dressed up as the thing!” This movie dressed up as a bunch of different things.

ADAMModern Mallard says…” Ugh.

BROOM I appreciated that Ugly Duckling here was really just kind of an ugly duck.

BETH Instead of a cute nerdy girl.

BROOM Well, the point is that the ugly duckling is going to grow up to be a swan and is just in the wrong family. This is a movie about nerds as kids, and they were saying “yeah, we were ugly.”

ADAM But at least when this movie was called Mean Girls, the characters were actually warm and relatable.

BROOM They just don’t know what that is. And when you said there was gay-baiting in it, I don’t think so. I think they worked on it. I think that guy was there making the movie and was thrilled to have a character shout, “My Streisand records!”

ADAM I appreciate that it was not hateful gay-baiting. It was meant to be affectionate. But it was just…

BETH It was just clueless.

ADAM Uuuuugh.

BROOM I knew this was going to be the one. I knew this was coming. What I’m worried about is that — despite this having been our day of terror — the next one might be related to this in tone.

ADAM You think we picked the wrong three?

BROOM We couldn’t have improved it, because Home on the Range was the better one. Brother Bear was pretty bad.

ADAM That’s true. Well, we did it.

[we read the Times review]

ADAM I think it’s fitting that the first third of that review read like it came from the business section. As you say, nerds made this movie, but the people who approved it are just evil suits who have no sense of what is humanly compelling.

BROOM I was a little bit stung when you said that Home on the Range didn’t work because it didn’t promote any brands. Because to me, that’s suit thinking. And it’s probably true to some degree… but deep down, the reason that Dumbo and Pinocchio work is not because they were smarter about what they could sell to people, but because they were smarter about what would make a good movie. And yes, it happens that Home on the Range picked a way of making an entertaining movie that doesn’t fit that particular mold. But you wish that they could just think, “if we make a movie that really works as a movie, people will like that and good will come of it.”

ADAM Well look, over at Pixar they’re making movies of things that are not obviously marketable. I mean, Cars is, but Up is not, and Ratatouille is not.

BROOM Wall-E certainly isn’t. That was a very peculiar movie.

ADAM And I get that. But Disney being the franchise that it is, they have to be “Disney movies” if the franchise is going to survive. But this wasn’t that either! Who thinks “Oh, the beloved fairy tale Chicken Little“? What the fuck?

BROOM What is the real story of Chicken Little?

ADAM There isn’t one.

BROOM “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” That’s about it, right?

ADAM “Let’s make a movie about the Tortoise and the Hare. And the hare will be fast talking, maybe Eddie Murphy will play the hare…”

BROOM Ooh, I like it!

ADAM And the tortoise will be, like,…

BROOM Bill Murray.

ADAM And the tortoise will have a sidekick, like a talking carrot…

BROOM But in the modern day, why does the hare go so fast? He’s trying to be cool and hip but he’s overcompensating. And he’ll learn to relax from the tortoise.

ADAM And then maybe everyone thinks the hare won the race, and he’ll be on a billboard, and it’ll be very meta. There’ll be “Hare” products…

BROOM But then they’ll have some common enemy. You think of them as enemies, but it’s going to be a buddy movie in the end. Because they’ll have to work together to fight off some kind of common enemy. Maybe there’s a bear, or some kind of big monster that they both need to go after. Or Russians, or Arabs or something, that they have to join forces against.

ADAM I’m embarrassed that Sandra Tsing Loh worked on this movie.

BETH This is going to get one star in my Netflix account.

BROOM Rotten Tomatoes reported that 36% of critics gave this a positive review.

ADAM Who? Read me a positive review.

BROOM Well, Ty Burr of the Boston Globe said that the film was “shiny and peppy, with some solid laughs and dandy vocal performances.” And Angel Cohn of TV Guide gave the film 3 stars alluding the film that would “delight younger children with its bright colors and constant chaos, while adults are likely to be charmed by the witty banter, subtle one-liners and a sweet father-son relationship.”


BROOM Angel Cohn was later found to be dead and blind.

ADAM Also, Zach Braff is as annoying as he is thought to be.

BROOM He was putting on a stupid little character voice. So why did they even hire Zach Braff?

ADAM If there’s anything good to say here, it’s that now you know which is the worst one, when people ask.

BROOM I already knew, though. Guys, I had seen a little bit of this on Youtube already, and seen that they used the rolling ball clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark within the first fifteen seconds of the movie.

ADAM When the water tower was rolling, it was like, “Ugh, they’re doing Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And then OH WAIT, we’re in a movie theater actually showing Raiders of the Lost Ark!

BROOM And even that — the actual ball rolling through the screen showing Raiders of the Lost Ark — even that itself is an existing lame thing that they didn’t make up.

ADAM I wish there had been more modern catchphrases in this movie. What if Chicken Little had been able to say to his father “Homey don’t play dat”?

BROOM Yeah! “Cowabunga, dude!”


February 21, 2013

Old is the new new!

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a few very minor changes to the layout around here. Why? Because after 8 years of complacency the back-end has finally been updated! broomlet is now a WordPress site like everyone else. This update required our tireless staff to laboriously recreate the old design even though it had just been a default template chosen without any great consideration back in 2005. For this among many other things she deserves thanks. Thanks!

What does this mean for you, readers both loyal and hypothetical? I don’t know; probably nothing much except a slightly wider reading area and the new, unnecessary archive navigation options at right. (The big long archive list is still secretly available here.)

If you come up against anything confusing or broken or newly ugly while navigating the site, trying to leave comments, or anything else, let me know.

Hopefully what this means for me is no more spam.

February 20, 2013

Disney Canon #45: Home on the Range (2004)

Nadir-Fest part 2 of 3!


ADAM I liked that!

BETH I did too.

BROOM Yeah, it was fine.

BETH It was so much more fun than Brother Bear.

BROOM Not to mention others that weren’t part of our day of supposedly the worst ones. This movie was fine. It was probably the most insubstantial yet.

ADAM Yeah, it was genial and not much else, but we laughed authentically multiple times.

BROOM It was in the same spirit as Emperor’s New Groove. Not quite as clever or well balanced but still fine.

ADAM Much more star-studded!

BETH Judi Dench!

BROOM Like I said, who would have thought that there was a movie where Judi Dench and Roseanne Barr play two-person scenes together.

ADAM This was the most likeable role Roseanne has ever had.

BETH She was good!

BROOM Similar to the way that David Spade was the most likeable he’ll ever be in Emperor’s New Groove. Yes, Roseanne Barr as a sassy cow might be the best way to use her.

ADAM What was Judi Dench’s line that we giggled at?

BROOM “Three cows can’t catch a criminal!” or something like that. She seemed to be enjoying herself. And the moviemakers seemed to be enjoying that she was game.

ADAM She’s not above that. I mean, you’ve seen all the Bond movies.

BROOM Right, she’s a slummer.

ADAM Her dignity here is enhanced by the fact that you don’t have to directly look at her. It makes you feel less bad for her.

BETH There was, I felt, a definite homage to Warner Brothers here, in a lot of the jokes and style.

BROOM And the look. I thought it looked like Chuck Jones.

BETH It did.

BROOM The bad guy’s face looked like a Chuck Jones design.

BETH Yes, and his coloring.

ADAM I thought that at first, but I decided by the middle that I thought it was more Spongebob-y than Warner Brothers.

BETH I have no knowledge of Spongebob.

BROOM But when the guy had a foot-long welt on the top of his head, you said something about “I haven’t seen that in a long time,” referring to Looney Tunes.

ADAM No, I understand that there was also homage to Warner Brothers.

BETH And it was also coarse. It felt unlike Disney in its joking around.

ADAM It was not magisterial the way Disney sometimes tries to be.

BROOM But it isn’t as though they were selling themselves out. It felt like Emperor’s New Groove and it also felt like the descendant of some of the late-60s early-70s era movies, the Robin Hood era. It had some of the easygoing quality of those movies. I swear the vultures in this were the Robin Hood vulture.

ADAM Nutsy.

BROOM And it had someone doing that Pat Buttram voice. And it had that same old dog you always see. It felt very Disney-like in that manner. But they’d never done a full-on Western before, and they’d never done cows.

BETH I have no problem with this movie.

BROOM I do have a problem with this movie, which is that the entire second half is all kooky action sequences, and they were either too kooky, or too long, or just dull. My attention flagged. I wanted them to just tell me what happens.

ADAM I had the uncomfortable feeling that they intended to repopulate Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with these characters, had the movie been successful.

BROOM It’s entirely possible.

ADAM My hat is off to history for that not happening.

BETH It did occur to me toward the end: why would kids care about a real estate transaction?

BROOM I do think there was probably a miscalculation in the plotting. The evil scheme was really incomprehensible to kids.

ADAM That’s because this was pre-foreclosure crisis.

BROOM He steals the cattle, and then the ranches get foreclosed on, and then he buys the property, because he wants to own all the property, because he’s… getting revenge on ranches where he used to work where he wasn’t appreciated? It’s convoluted.

BETH It’s over kids’ heads.

ADAM I don’t know. How complicated is it? He’s a bad guy; he’s stealing all the cows!

BROOM I think if I were a kid, once it was introduced that he has basically magic powers, I would have wanted to see more of that. Why didn’t he do more songs?

BETH That was awesome!

BROOM The color-changing sequence?

BETH Yes. It was great.

ADAM It was. Although I thought that the little “Pink Elephants on Parade” routine was kind of weak tea.

BROOM I thought it was an intentional homage to their own past. It’s a fine line, because you don’t want to lean too heavily on it. “Get it? It’s Pink Elephants!” And it wasn’t excessive, but they probably should have just stuck to their own thing.

BETH I still enjoyed it.

ADAM I would show this to my children unreservedly. But I probably won’t remember any of it.

BROOM It also reminds me of the “Wind in the Willows” half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. There were some kind of bad guys who were like these bad guys, and nobody cared; it was about a deed, and nobody cared.

ADAM Who are the bad guys in that?

BROOM A bunch of weasels take over Toad Hall. It’s about real estate.

ADAM As a real estate attorney, I was excited to see the signing of a deed as the pivotal exciting moment. It’s not like, “we’ve got to interrupt the vows before the marriage is finalized” — it’s “we’ve got to interrupt the signing and notarization of the deed.” Which is exciting.

BROOM Have you ever worked on a deal where a train runs off the tracks and prevents the deal from going through?

ADAM In the middle of a closing room? No.

BROOM There were a lot of fat jokes. When we look into the response I imagine that people are going to ask why in 2004 there were so many fat jokes.

ADAM There were fat jokes? I didn’t notice any.

BETH You know, a lot of “you’re the biggest cow I’ve ever seen!”

BROOM There were jokes about Roseanne, there were jokes about the bad guy. There was a lyric in the song about his pants being too big. There were fat jokes about everyone the whole time. In my head I was trying to work out a defense: why is it that this is actually fine? They’re allowed to make jokes about a cartoon character that’s as wide as he is tall! That’s too fat! That’s fat enough to say is funny! And then there was Jennifer Tilly as the blonde-joke character, but she wasn’t quite a “dumb blonde.”

BETH The Lisa Kudrow character.

BROOM She was supposed to be a flake, but she was basically right about things. They did have anger issues. I liked that being tone-deaf was her protection against the magic music.

ADAM I liked when they fought with the dancing girls in the sheriff’s office.

BROOM “The sheriff’s office” was a bar.

ADAM The star was on the door because it was the talent entrance?

BROOM That was the stage door. Yes. I liked the joke right before that, where they showed us seven different things in a row that people mistake for gunshots. In reference to Brother Bear: I thought these palettes were much better. This is what it looks like when professionals are doing color design. This is what stylish palettes look like. It doesn’t look overworked and overdone. And in fact I think on several occasions here they were making fun of Brother Bear, which I assume was being made at the same time.

BETH Maybe they were.

BROOM Like when it went to widescreen for no reason.

BETH Yeah, I think they were. In the palettes too.

ADAM You’re right, they must have been competing teams working on these at the same time.

BROOM It went to widescreen in his fantasy sequence, and there’s also the moment when she gets a stupid moose head on her head and it waggles around until she takes it off. Don’t you think that of these two movies, this team would have been, like, the cool kids? That other movie was lame. Now, I wasn’t saying that the palettes made reference to Brother Bear. I’m just pointing out that you praised the palettes of Brother Bear, but that was actually over-the-top tastelessness, where you’re forced to pay attention to the colors because they’re distracting. Whereas this one, where we’re not talking about the colors, actually looked good.

BETH The type of scenery here lends itself better to very saturated palettes. I think that’s partially why it worked.

BROOM I think this had so much more professionalism to it. And Alan Menken is so much more professional than those other guys.

BETH So which was the song that was supposed to be embarrassing?

BROOM I thought remembered hearing something about that yodeling song marking the death of Disney animation. But it was fine!

BETH So why was this so poorly received? It just wasn’t that bad.

BROOM I don’t know! I thought I heard that this was so embarrassing that they were never going to make another animated movie again, but that can’t have been right. It was just a bonbon. It had nothing to it.

ADAM Well, it is sort of strange. Most of their movies seem to be in service of having a strong character who can carry the licensure banner and be a figure in the parks. How did they think this fit into that tradition at all?

BROOM It’s just a movie to entertain people for a very short time. Was it 65 minutes?

BETH 75.

BROOM It felt very short.

ADAM It’s not a fairy tale. It feels like a mistake from a marketing perspective. Because what is this? This has no longevity to it. You can’t build a ride around this. You can’t sell products around this. And you wouldn’t want to.

BETH You can’t aspire to be a cow the way you can a princess.

BROOM But do you believe in what you’re saying?

ADAM I do. We like those early movies not just because they’re good movies, but because they’re iconic movies where the characters are larger than life, and have a role in a child’s fantasy life. This is just a stupid movie.

BROOM I guess I do agree with that. This is too overloaded with little bits for any of them to count as meaningful. I think that Judi Dench’s cow wore a hat was about as strong a characterization as this movie offered, and nobody’s going to need a doll of that.

BETH It wasn’t youthful enough. There weren’t teenage characters.

BROOM There was no love story. There was no sentiment really, except for “we’re gonna lose the farm” sentiment.

ADAM Even Pearl didn’t get a boyfriend at the end, which I sort of assumed she would.

BROOM I thought the sheriff was going to get together with Pearl at the end. He seemed like he was a little smitten when he handed her the notice at the beginning.

ADAM They danced together. I liked that the heroes were a trio of strong women. It was sort of like Dinosaur in that regard.

BETH But when you’re a kid, it’s like you’re watching your aunts. You’re not watching pretty people. There’s no one to want to be.

BROOM It was kind of a movie about, like, the witches of Eastwick. It wasn’t really for kids.

ADAM You think about Disney movies and you think about, like, Tinkerbell, or Dumbo, the characters popping through the screen. And there’s none of that here.

BROOM Which is part of why it felt like Warner Brothers, since that’s what’s characteristic about Warner Brothers cartoons compared to Disney. Disney has always been about relating to characters from the heart, where Warner Brothers have been about “Now the rabbit is going to jump off a cliff! Now some stuff is happening!”

BETH Which is fun.

ADAM But even in the Warner Brothers cartoons there are iconic characters.

BETH Developed over time, though.

ADAM Maybe it’s just from repetition. If you saw one Roadrunner cartoon, it would annoy you, but after you see a hundred…

BROOM In the first couple minutes of this, I thought they were making a big miscalculation, because Roseanne Barr is not sympathetic.

ADAM She got better.

BROOM She did get better, but I think the intended design of the movie may have been that she was our hero. She starts the narration, we follow her into this scenario, and she’s going to be our brash American unsinkable protagonist. But then she kind of disappeared behind the better actors. And they evened out their relative importance. And I wonder if it’s because they didn’t get the performance they needed from her. Or if it just wasn’t working, so they decided it would be a zany buddy movie instead of a movie about her interests. Because that would have made more sense.

BETH I don’t think it was conceived that way. I don’t think they ever intended for it to be about Roseanne’s journey.

ADAM It’s not about anything. It’s just a bunch of old tropes that they were having some fun with. I liked Tiny Toons, as you know, and I liked it in part because it had these old vaudeville scraps that were being reanimated in this jokey way.

BROOM That’s what this was, entirely.

ADAM That’s a Saturday morning thing, not a Disney thing.

BROOM It was animated with vitality. It was animated in a very knowing, retro, post-Ren and Stimpy kind of way…

ADAM That’s what I meant by Spongebob-y.

BROOM …but with affection. With the same affection that you get from Spongebob. These animators think it’s cool to be there. That is not how I felt about Brother Bear. There I felt like: these animators are so grateful that they got accepted to their job at Disney, and they will do whatever is asked of them to make the Disney machine run. Whereas here these were people who think it’s fun — in a nerdy way — to imitate old animation styles, to do classic stuff.

BETH It seemed like everyone was having fun. The actors and the animators.

BROOM But it’s true, we’ve sort of passed into the era where the best show on Broadway is The Producers, which is a show in quotes, or Book of Mormon, which is like “can you believe that we did this Broadway style?” instead of an actual show. And that’s what this is too. It’s like, “it’s so a cartoon!” But they did that wholeheartedly.

BETH It was just painless.

BROOM Yes. I was really taken aback, given what I thought it was going to be.

ADAM I’m still dreading Chicken Little.

[we read the negative Times review and reader reviews as well]

BROOM This is just overkill. This movie may have had some problems in crowd-pleasing the right way at the right time, and it may have been inconsequential, and yes, it may have been a bit forced in its comedy. But Brother Bear was so much worse!

BETH Were people just so down on Disney by this time that they would have had to do something actually great in order to save themselves?

BROOM I don’t know. I really thought we were going to see the studio go down into the mud, but now I feel like it must have been something else that killed them. This wasn’t so bad as to close a major studio!

BETH I think it’s a branding mistake. They needed to do something more Disney-ish, and they went the opposite direction.

ADAM It says here on Wikipedia that before the release they had already decided to shutter the animation department. And it’s hard to see this as going out with a bang. I feel like it’s sort of set up for failure in that context.

BROOM It’s just remarkable that this is their death knell.

ADAM But it was only their death knell for two years. The Princess and the Frog is traditional 2D animation.

BROOM As is Winnie the Pooh. Look, it wasn’t a great movie…

ADAM But it was adequate.


ADAM It was pleasant.

BROOM It was just mild. So Netflix was right: I did like that better than the previous one. Of course I did.

ADAM On to the next!


February 8, 2013

24. 天国と地獄 (1963)

directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Akira Kurosawa
based on the book King’s Ransom (1959) by Ed McBain


Criterion #24. Now that’s more like it.

Crime noir goes to Japan, blends in, disappears.

Here we go again:

天国 = “tengoku,” meaning “heaven” (or “The Kingdom of Heaven”)
と = “to,” meaning “and”
地獄 = “jigoku,” meaning “hell”

So Tengoku to Jigoku, meaning Heaven and Hell. Which, you’ll notice, rhymes in Japanese, and makes me wish it did in English too. Like if the word for hell was “Bevin.” That would be great.

(Actually this probably doesn’t count as a rhyme in Japanese. They don’t really do syllable stress the way we do. And, as I’ve just now read, if your standard for rhyme is that the final syllables share vowel sounds, nearly every Japanese sentence “rhymes” with every other because they all end with the verb and their verbs have standard endings. Which means that the concept of “rhyme” as we know it is almost meaningless in Japanese. Apparently none of their lyrics or poetry “rhymes.” Maybe it’s no surprise to you, but the idea that “rhyme” isn’t a universal is new and shocking to me!)

The standard English name of this movie is not Heaven and Hell but High and Low. One wonders what anonymous person gets to casually come up with such things, and leave a mark on someone else’s movie forever. Some guy in an American distribution office? The Criterion disc contains both the original Japanese trailer and the American trailer, and the differences are instructive, if unsurprising. The Japanese trailer basically resembles the movie in tone and rhythm, while the American one is cut much faster, incorporates some new Saul Bass-style graphics, and places an emphasis on movement, no matter how senseless. It’s all-around pretty trashy. And I’m not ashamed to say that I found the misleading, mercenary, incoherent American trailer much more enticing than the Japanese one. In fact the American trailer almost got away with triggering a retrospective revision of my impression of the movie. “Hey, this movie looks pretty weird and exciting! I guess I have to admit that it was kind of weird and exciting!”

And I do! I do admit that. I enjoyed the movie. It has a patient, cared-for quality that I am starting to think might be the Kurosawa signature touch. I felt exactly the classic art-house satisfaction of having taken in something both genuinely nourishing and genuinely foreign. I think I even preferred it to Seven Samurai. Fewer samurai, for one thing.

The widescreen is used with intelligence and quality. The movie is attractive. (And I’ll note that black and white widescreen movies are a rarity.)

What the American trailer suggests is a noir-ish crime drama, which is more or less accurate, though the impression of a lurid beatnik wildness is obviously false. What the American trailer intentionally obscures is the spirit of formalism that haunts the whole thing, for good and for odd. The movie is around 2 hours 20 minutes. Nearly the entire first hour is a one-room melodrama in a large modern living room, staged and performed like theater and shot with geometric vigor. It reminded me of the serious-minded teleplays of the same era; it has the same portentous spareness, the tense buzzing silences. As stage melodramas go, it is bold and effective: will the rich man pay a ruinous ransom to save someone else’s son? I found it riveting and I was drawn into the ethical questions, boldface and unlikely though they were. I also found it very peculiar.

In the bonus materials we learn that Kurosawa’s method was to rehearse and perform long scenes in their entirety, filming them with two cameras both at a good distance from the actors, and then make it cinematic by crosscutting in the editing room. He believed that the theatrical approach to shooting tended to give better, more fluid, more committed performances. We also hear from a number of the actors and crew that the atmosphere in the living room set was incredibly intense, with so much silence through so many very long takes (up to 10 minutes at a time). All of this is very clear in the finished product. The actors are operating on high-stakes theatrical time, but the director/editor — not to mention the audience — is on cinematic time, which is more compressible, more personal. Long passages of the tensely rehearsed, collaborative rhythms of the stage, subtly artificial, will be suddenly shot through with a burst of editorial rhythm: a single observing mind, free to bound through the action at the speed of thought. The movie has two very different sorts of heartbeat, coexisting. The effect makes up for what it lacks in dramatic efficacy with what it offers to the conscious mind — it’s intriguingly strange! But I’m not sure this is a trade-off he meant to make.

After almost an hour of very, very slow build in this one room, there is suddenly a change of scenery to a moving train for a 5-minute Hitchcockian sequence of high impact that exploits and releases the accumulated tension. The effect is splendid; a very symphonic sort of thing to do, though on an even grander timescale. (No symphony has an hour-long first movement! No reputable symphony, anyway.)

Then, just after the one-hour mark, the movie goes around a corner and becomes a manhunt procedural that wanders freely around the city, the kind with occasional cutting to the as-yet-uncaught bad guy (you know, a la Silence of the Lambs). This is a structure with its own characteristic energy graph, and again Kurosawa’s version is askew from the standard.

I’ve always thought the generic term “procedural” was a little silly, but here it seems right; Kurosawa’s interest in procedure itself is quite pure. At one point we are treated to a ten-minute scene of the cops giving a status report on the various leads they’ve been investigating. This goes beyond even Law and Order, where such scenes are usually livened up by unlikely revelations in the course of the conversation. These status reports are really status reports! The guy on the commentary track says that Kurosawa may have been interested in the incremental, methodical nature of a police investigation because it resembled his work as a director. This jibes with the impression of Kurosawa I got from the other interviews, as well as from the work itself. Patience, always!

And his genuine interest comes through and is accessible to the viewer. I was never bored; my attention was always naturally drawn near to the place it was meant to go. On the other hand, a kind of specter of potential boredom was usually nearby to worry me. “What kind of a thing am I watching, exactly? Is this actually working properly, or am I only finding this interesting because I am addicted to paying attention to things no matter what?” That may just be my anxiety du jour, but it’s related to longstanding art-house angst and I want to keep voicing it as long as it holds. The pretentious sorts would have it that the conventional practices of American movies are limiting and deadening. But conventions offer a stable context, and stability is necessary for grounding more elaborate experiences. Encountering the new and unusual is stimulating, sure, but stimulation pales next to communication. “Interpretation” is interesting work, but shallow.

Though actually, that sort of pretentiousness is probably on the outs, what with Vertigo being the new best movie of all time.

And in any case, High and Low is hardly the movie to have this discussion. All things considered, this is a very easy movie with a basically undistracting technique. It’s based on American material and American models. And the extremely patient attitude doesn’t deaden the standard suspense-value of the investigation; it simply prolongs it and encourages us to smell the flowers as we go. Imagine a single episode of Law and Order expanded to 2 1/2 hours, but without adding any new scenes or plotting. Probably some flower-smelling would start to happen.

The aforementioned American material is an undistinguished novel by the prolific pulpster Ed McBain. I coincidentally had my first encounter with Mr. McBain last year after being gifted a pile of arbitrarily selected Hard Case Crime paperbacks. Make no mistake: the book was junkola. (This one on the other hand was surprisingly good.) Based on its non-reputation within McBain’s extensive output, I imagine that King’s Ransom, from whence High and Low, is equally junky. But the premise that Kurosawa latched on to — that the wrong person is kidnapped but the kidnappers still demand a ransom — is exactly the kind of nugget of genuine inspiration that makes pulp fun to read. Plotting is its own sort of art, and one that is very seldom done at the highest level. Ambitious works tend to downgrade it and commercial works that keep it in the spotlight often tend to hold it to lower standards. Seeing a kernel of inspiration scooped out of the junkpile, where such inspiration is so often born, and then put straight to work in the art-house where plot is just skeleton, I feel a pang of frustration: will this idea never be given its place of honor in a full-fledged, fully artful plot? Probably not.

I could go on about plot and its neglect as an art, but this is all another entry for another time.

This is starting to drag on so let’s move on to the other stuff on the disc. The commentary is a fine specimen of the academic sort. The guy seems mostly to be reading a script he wrote for himself, full of research into: Japanese kidnapping cases and police procedure, socio-economic trends in postwar Japan, Kurosawa’s techniques, interests, and possible motivation, and a very few bits of behind-the-scenes trivia that are duplicated from the Japanese TV documentary on the second disc. He seems to have a pretty good attitude and nothing he says is forced or blatantly irrelevant. But it’s still an academic commentary. Its tacit assumption is that we have “interpretation” to do.

I’ll repeat: “Interpretation” is interesting work, but shallow. Can’t everybody see, by now, that abstracting to the historical or the political is just a quickie device to get credit for “digging below the surface”? And that the very fact that this analytic pocketknife is universally applicable is exactly why its application should be viewed with intense skepticism? Just as the more applicable a molecule of humor is (Garfield’s hatred for Mondays is applicable every Monday), the less likely it is to be funny.

I’m not saying that “historicism” is an error and that “aestheticism” needs to be opposed to it. I’m just saying maybe we should try to hold ourselves to a higher standard and not say things about art just because they can be said. Because it’s very hard to unhear things. If someone made some arbitrary case to me about how High and Low is actually a coded allegory of the history of Japan — or the mind-body problem — or the story of Adam and Eve — I’d have a very hard time wiping the slate truly clean to watch it properly again. Interpretation in bad faith is a kind of mental vandalism. So what I’m saying is, Shut up everybody, unless you really mean it. It’s the sense that they don’t really mean it that frustrates me. And of course academics don’t really mean it — their interests couldn’t be more conflicted.

(I do believe them about global warming, though, just for the record.)

In addition to the Japanese TV documentary I mentioned, we get a new interview with Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays the Norman Batesy kidnapper, and also a quirky 1981 appearance by Toshiro Mifune on “Tetsuko’s Room,” a daytime TV interview show with the same pastel mindset as, say, Regis and Kathie Lee, but Japanese. Mifune talks about his childhood and wartime experiences; doesn’t mention High and Low once. Tetsuko asks Mifune why his pants are so short. He looks at them in surprise and says that they are old.

Something I learned from disc 2 is that it is standard for Japanese interviewers to constantly make breathy sounds of awed fascination while the other person is talking. Presumably this is to comfort the interviewees as they pass through the valley of the shadow of speaking aloud. I also had occasion to reflect on how differently the Japanese relate to fear generally. The stigma (as per my RoboCop entry) does not have the same sway over there, or at least didn’t for the older generation. Nearly every one of the aging men reflecting on his High and Low experience talks wide-eyed about how scared he was about messing up. “I was so nervous! I was shaking!” It seems like one after another of them wants to pronounce his own frailty and chuckle — like it’s great fun, or even just common courtesy, to make mention of one’s own crippling timidity. Is a culture of false strength better or worse than a culture of false weakness? Trick question, I hope.

Okay, I’ll be fair: I actually think the title High and Low is pretty good. The scheme of the movie is that heaven is a wealthy guy living in luxury on a hill, and hell is the poverty and resentment of the criminal in the city beneath him, so unlike “heaven and hell,” “high and low” applies directly in terms of both geography and class. Plus it echoes the phrase “searched high and low,” which suits the action, since the second half of the movie is a manhunt. And the religious overtones of “heaven and hell” are pretty much not to be found in the movie itself, whereas the abstraction of “high and low” feels suited to the slightly geometric, formalist style. And “heaven and hell” is simply more cliche.

Then again, Heaven and Hell sounds more like pulp noir. You decide: which title does this main title track sound more like? This is by the very prolific Masaru Sato, in the middle of a string of well-known Kurosawa movies. I don’t know what it’s doing exactly but it’s something. From what I just sampled of his work on Youtube, it sounds like it all has the same spirit: West meets East meets conservatory meets TV; we’ll be right back after these messages.

February 5, 2013

Disney Canon #44: Brother Bear (2003)

[Nadir-Fest part 1 of 3! We subjected ourselves to an all-afternoon triple-header viewing session intended to get us through a dreaded low point as quickly as possible. Parts 2 and 3 to follow.]


BROOM Our day of bad movies has begun correctly. The ways in which this was bad…

ADAM Were manifold.

BROOM … and also surprising to me. I found myself thinking about how a project like this comes to fail, because I think this movie failed, and yet I don’t think the initial impetus was doomed. I don’t think that every element of it was incompetent. It just didn’t work, and I found myself thinking managerially, imagining that I was working on it and knowing that it was going bad, and thinking, “What do I do? What is the key thing to do to try to make this better?”

ADAM Let’s start by saying what was good about it. Because I thought it was really lovely to look at it. They just went out of their way to make it lovely.

BETH I think they were pretty proud of that, too.

BROOM I thought the coloring looked blatantly like it had been done on a computer. The flat way that it was colored, but especially the crappy rounding shadows that looked like they had been applied in Photoshop. And I thought the foreground lay against the background in a dead-looking way.

ADAM Well, maybe I don’t have the technical competence to see that, but I thought that compared to, say, the way that Pocahontas thought it was lovely, this was actually much prettier to look at. There were a lot of satisfying touches, like the way they changed colors in the early morning light.

BETH I thought some of that was a little incompetent. But I thought their color palettes were very interesting and vibrant. They clearly cared about which colors they were choosing. And they were diverse, too; they really switched it up based on the locations. But their handling of light was a little strange and wrong. They were trying for accuracy and not hitting it, but being very overt about the attempt.

BROOM Are you talking about that mottled-light tree effect?


BROOM That was the first time I thought, “that’s an animation special effect, and it’s not entirely working.”

ADAM What was this?

BETH Early on, they were walking through sort of a sun-dappled forest landscape, and they were, you know, all splotchy, and it didn’t work. But it was interesting that they were trying.

BROOM I’m surprised that you thought the palettes were good. To me they were, like many aspects of the movie, a case of “I can see what you’re trying to do, but it doesn’t quite work.”

ADAM Well, look at those fish [in the animated DVD menu still onscreen], for example.

BETH This particular palette is kind of awful, but…

BROOM Well, it seems characteristic to me. The colors were all sort of tasteless, cheesy. It’s like you’re at a Disneyworld hotel, and everything’s some kind of souped-up salmon color.

BETH It’s like one of those moving “paintings” at a Chinese restaurant. Of a waterfall.

BROOM On a video screen, you mean?

BETH Kind of, but it’s not really on a video screen. It’s like a “moving painting.” Do you know what I’m talking about?

BROOM I think so. I’m not sure I’m picturing exactly what you are, but that kind of restaurant world of taste, and lack of taste, is how I felt about the way this looked. Someone’s idea of beauty was being played out, sort of, but it didn’t feel sharp.

ADAM The color palette was very unlike the color palette in your apartment.

BETH I just liked that they were being daring and diverse.

BROOM I agree for obvious reasons that it’s appropriate to compare this movie to Pocahontas. And I actually thought the palette was the strongest thing Pocahontas had going for it. The bold illustration style of Pocahontas is much more appealing to me than this touchy-feely pastel world.

BETH But as a child, watching the colors in this movie, I would have been riveted, because every shot was different, had different colors, and that’s enough to keep me watching.

ADAM As I child I was offended by when the Smurfs would go walking in the forest and it was just the same four trees rotated over and over. I think I would have been captivated by all the effort that went into this.

BROOM It has a kind of abundance, certainly. But especially with the presence of CGI elements — like that rippling water in the menu — my eye feels like there are actually too many colors there. There’s a certain sense of artistic care that comes of things being really chosen, whereas here it felt like there was just a lot of stuff.

BETH I agree with you as a grown-up. But as a kid, I think I would be taken with it.

ADAM Before we get into the things that didn’t work, was there anything else that worked?

BROOM Much as during The Fox and the Hound, which this resembled, I felt like the setup itself was promising. There were moments when I was sincerely thinking about the storyline and the substance. People from two different worlds; how are they going to relate? Being forced to empathize with your supposed enemies.

ADAM All that very grave multiculturalism at the beginning really felt like the first term of the Bush administration. I kept picturing Karen Hughes wearing a scarf and President Bush lecturing Muslim countries on the dignity of women. It sort of upset me, honestly.

BROOM Which was more politically offensive, this or Pocahontas?

ADAM It’s interesting — maybe I’m just constructing this after the fact, but Pocahontas felt to me like a more naive, dippy, Maya Angelou-type multiculturalism, whereas this was just so studied and self-important that it kind of grossed me out.

BROOM I feel like we’re in pretty much the same dimension here as there.

ADAM Yeah, we’re talking about two “Great Spirit” movies. Maybe I’m teasing out distinctions that aren’t there.

BETH Maybe it feels like they should have known better by now.

ADAM It felt like they had a lot of Native American consultants working on this movie. There was probably a lot of very studied attention to dignified detail about Native Americans’ lives. Even though the characters were all named after cities in Alaska.

BROOM Pocahontas was more explicitly sanctimonious about multiculturalism. This was a movie about universal empathy. I felt like the construction of this movie had more to do with basic human issues than the construction of Pocahontas.

ADAM That was about the clash of two different cultures, yes.

BROOM This one is basically the same concept as in The Sword in the Stone, where Merlin turns him into animals so he can learn about life as an animal. So of their two “Indian” movies, this one felt less offensive to me as far as its Indianness.

ADAM Pocahontas just seemed a little daffier. It was less self-important, and thus easier to take.

BROOM Yes, its ridiculous musical sequences were at least a spectacle, unlike these.

ADAM “Did you ever hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?” I mean…!

BROOM The thing is, that’s kind of a catchy song, by comparison… Pocahontas is one of the very worst movies in the entire sequence thus far, I would say, and this project resembled it somewhat, but it failed in different ways.

ADAM The main thing that bothered me in the first third of this was the three bro-y bros. But I guess you have to make them relatable somehow, and that’s the chintziest way to do it.

BROOM Well, I think that’s the dimension in which the movie failed most significantly: it’s supposed to be all about character, and they didn’t give us real character. Not even in the designs.

BETH They hardly distinguished them. I didn’t even know who the main character was until the other one died.

BROOM A time-honored technique for directing the audience’s attention! Yeah, the dead one was the most charismatic of the three. And then the hero’s journey of discovery is supposed to be about him being a teenager who thinks he has all the answers but doesn’t, and has a lot to learn… but his progression just played as “Go away kid, I’m sullen and annoyed. Oh wait, there’s fun in the world!” That was it, and that’s why this was super-boring.

ADAM Did you like Tanana?

BROOM The grandmother? No.

ADAM She was only onscreen for about thirty seconds, which was weird. I thought she was going to come back in some way. I guess she comes back at the very very end.

BROOM Her design was gross. Her eyes were too big and her face was funny. I didn’t like her.

BETH I didn’t dislike her.

ADAM Did you like the little bro’ bear? I must say I found him sort of appealing and cute.

BETH I found him annoying.

ADAM It was too much, but there were aspects of him that got me. I teared up a little at the end.

BROOM Is that true? You don’t need to be ashamed about it.

ADAM I was embarrassed, but…

BETH No, it’s good!

BROOM Which part of the end?

ADAM When he decided to stay a bear!

BROOM You teared up because of the emotion of that? I was truly shocked by it.

BETH I was too.

BROOM It seemed like the wrong ending.

ADAM Can we talk about that?


ADAM It is really weird, first of all. But maybe it’s just our human prejudice that makes us assume it’s better to be a human than a bear.

BETH But this guy has lived all of his life, except for a couple weeks, as a human.

ADAM He did look better as a bear.

BROOM Everyone looked better as a bear. The humans were all unappealing.

ADAM And he did have to atone in some way for killing Koda’s mother. It wouldn’t have been right to just leave Koda to his own devices after having killed his mother.

BROOM Did you get the impression that becoming a bear was presented as a noble sacrifice?

BETH No. He preferred being a bear.

ADAM It was like what’s-his-name staying on the Avatar planet at the end. Or like the Swiss family Robinson staying on the island.

BROOM But when I watch Close Encounters and he gets on that ship at the end, he’s done with planet Earth, I think, “whoa! I don’t know if that’s gonna work out for you!” And here, there was that, plus above and beyond that… The whole movie is presented as a coming-of-age story; like in The Sword in the Stone, this is all his education. You become an animal to learn something about God’s creation. But with this ending it seemed like they didn’t understand that, so the moral becomes “it’s good to be an animal.” It stops being about learning anything.

BETH Were we supposed to think that he decided to be a bear because he discovered that he loved his little brother bear?

BROOM “He needs me,” is what he said.

ADAM It would have been better if bear-to-human was a portal that they could slide through at will.

BETH It sounds like if you just go up to the top of that mountain you can switch.

BROOM It’s possible that some of these questions are answered in Brother Bear 2.

ADAM I was pleased that there were no overt fart jokes in this movie.

BROOM You’re right. The humor was terrible, but it was not infantile.

BETH But it was really bad.

ADAM The poster is a picture of Kenai and Koda in close-up, and the caption is “Nature Calls,” so I was worried. But it turned out to be more dignified than that.

BROOM Their indulgence of Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis was way out of proportion. I mean, I’ve never thought those guys are funny.

BETH Those guys aren’t funny, and kids, especially, have no reason to think those guys are funny.

ADAM Canadian kids might.

BROOM You did laugh when he said “I love dew.”

BETH I did.

BROOM It was kind of funny. Anyway, I expected this movie to be bad because I expected it to be sanctimonious and grating, and it turned out to be bad because it was just boring. And thin. I felt like pretty much every element wasn’t really at the level of execution they should have held it to.

ADAM It was a writing failure most of all. I mentioned Bongo earlier. What was the plot of Bongo?

BROOM Uh, he’s a circus bear…

ADAM And then he has to go into the woods and be with wild bears, is that right?

BROOM Bears “say it with a slap!” That’s what I remember.

ADAM And it was super-boring.

BROOM Bears are boring!

ADAM Well, I don’t think we’re going to have to encounter them again.

BROOM Talk about Phil Collins a little bit.

BETH Among the worst songs. They’ve been bad for a while, but these were worse.

ADAM They were also surprisingly intrusive. They were just suddenly some Phil Collins extravaganza coming at you, at the worst times. That song about how everything sucks!

BETH There was no subtlety to the lyrics at all.

BROOM My favorite part of watching this was that during Adam’s favorite song he immediately started trying to learn the lyrics so that he could sing along with the choruses.

BETH “This is our festival… and best of all…”

ADAM When I saw that part, I thought, “I don’t want to be in a family with these other weird bears.” All of whom seemed self-absorbed or strange in a way that didn’t really make me want to hang out with them.

BROOM There’s something very odd about this discipline Disney has become dependent on, of having a series of original songs in a non-musical, where the songs have generic lyrics about the generic emotion of the moment — “The songs will not have lyrics alluding to bears, salmon, or fishing, because that would be embarrassing” —

ADAM It wouldn’t be marketable on a CD.

BROOM I think of it as going back to Toy Story, with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” but especially the song he sings when Buzz Lightyear is depressed, about “I won’t go sailing again,” which has to be kind of coy about how it relates to what’s actually going on. Because there are to be no songs explicitly about toys. This movie had four songs in that category. I think they do it because they think it’s less absurd than singing about bears, but it actually becomes more absurd. Here comes Tina Turner singing something — is she singing about this bear movie? Because that would be weird. But is she not singing about this bear movie? Because that’s even weirder! That’s how I felt, especially during that first song — the montage is “Welcome to our beautiful Inuit world,” but the song really didn’t directly support that at all.

ADAM Well, “My Heart Will Go On” isn’t really about the Titanic. And it is not coincidental that “My Heart Will Go On” was an extremely successful radio single.

BROOM There was one song in that movie and you only heard it over the credits. That’s standard.

ADAM You heard it throughout, you just only heard the lyrics over the credits. And, like, what was the song for Pearl Harbor?

BROOM Yeah, but that’s how things have been forever. Since the 60s at least.

ADAM “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” [ed.: Armageddon]

BROOM We’re watching a scene where a man who killed a bear and then got turned into a bear is telling the son of the bear he killed that he used to be a man and that he killed his mother. That’s a very weird scene, and it’s the pivotal scene in this movie. And Phil Collins is singing a song as though it’s something you might have heard already on the radio… but it’s about that! When you listen to what he’s saying, he’s definitely singing about this bizarre scenario, but in code! There’s something very strange about that. And those lyrics were really grim. The lyrics of “Theme from Brother Bear” are, like, “There’s no way out of this dark place…”

ADAM Did this movie make you want to be a bear more than before? I would say “yes, a little.”


ADAM But only in prehistoric Alaska. It seemed fun when they were fishing.

BROOM Yes, obviously, being part of their festival seemed like it would have been a good time.

BETH There was a waterslide.

ADAM You’re right, all the landscapes did sort of look like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

BETH Yeah. But I like that!

ADAM And they have the garish coloration of the line for Splash Mountain.

BROOM Yeah. It felt like a resort. And, I guess, who doesn’t like a resort?

ADAM The color of those rocks in the menu is, like, Dusty Sedona.

BETH It looks almost like an early video game.

ADAM Like “Monkey Island.”

BROOM Yeah, like one of those adventure games. An “I can’t reach that from here” game.

BETH Where they only had thirty-two colors to work with, so they were all very extreme.

BROOM Well, this would be a two-hundred-fifty-six color game.

BETH Sorry!


BROOM That’s right.

ADAM I didn’t detect anything gay in this movie.

BROOM There was no romance of any kind. There were no women.

ADAM There was a little bit of feminine panic at the beginning, when he was like “Love? What a stupid totem!” “Hey, loverboy!”

BROOM I actually thought that was promising! I thought the best thing in the script was that he gets told his totem is love and he’s like, “Ugh, I don’t want that.” I was ready to get on board. I thought, “yeah, it’s going to be about him learning that love is not something mushy to be embarrassed about, it’s a spiritual and important thing.” That seemed like a good theme for a movie. But no.

[the review is read]

ADAM You wanted to talk about the widescreen? [ed. The first 24 minutes are standard ratio; the image becomes widescreen after the character is transformed into a bear]

BROOM Strange gimmick! When there was that message before the movie warning us that it was going to happen, I thought, “This is critic bait, so that there’d be something to write about in the papers. They did this so they could PR it out there that they had done this.” And yet Stephen Holden didn’t even mention it. I feel like I’ve heard of maybe one other movie that changes the aspect ratio in the middle.

BETH I think I’ve seen a movie that does it but I can’t remember what.

BROOM I thought it was going to happen as we watched, that the image would spread and get wider and wider. But no; it went black for five seconds, and then came back at the full ratio with a not-particularly-impressive first shot.

BETH It was a callback to The Wizard of Oz, kind of.

BROOM But I thought it would be like that, where a door opens and something is wonderful on the other side.

BETH Well, his eyes open and he’s sort of blurrily looking around.

ADAM Meh. It was an underwhelming effect for being trumpeted the way it was.

BETH I wanted to mention that there were “handheld” shots during the killing of the bear, which we haven’t seen before.

BROOM Yes, another technical idea that didn’t work.

[as counterpoint we read the heartfelt five-star reader review from the New York Times review page]

ADAM The person who wrote that comment has a “BELIEVE” bumper sticker on the back of their car, with a mandala and a star of David…

BROOM “Recommended by zero Readers.” Well, the point that there is no villain in the movie is well taken. And yet the movie fails, because they didn’t do a good job.

ADAM I kept thinking about William Faulkner’s “The Bear” while I watched this. And I thought, maybe Faulkner could have learned a thing or two. Imagine how that story would have been improved if there had been a bear’s-eye-view chapter. I think I’m done now.

BROOM Yeah, because we have miles to go before we sleep.