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Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Persistence of Disney, Part 4: Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo

For a child the world can be a cold, mean place.  What is suppose to be – and often is – a wonderland of enchantment and discovery can often reveal itself to be bitter and unforgiving, swooping in and cruelly pointing out anything and everything that makes them different.  We’ve all been there.  We know that imperfections can be a target.  A kid can have big teeth, big hands, big feet, a funny laugh, bad skin, a big nose, an odd voice, strange hair.  They may be too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, too shy, too smart, too stupid.  I’ve never met a person in my life that didn’t have one attribute that another person couldn’t point out.  Dumbo is the perfect movie for children because, just like Pinocchio, it speaks directly to them.  In incorporating a hero who is shunned because of a pair of oversized ears that no one seems willing to overlook, it speaks directly to their experience.  In effect it says “You’re not alone.”

What I noticed this time in returning to Dumbo is that the cruelty comes from the adult world, in his case the world of adult elephants who cruelly change his name from Jumbo to Dumbo and later even dismiss his right to be called an elephant.  He doesn’t have any other friends and his only close relationship, at first, is with his mother.  There has never been another movie that dealt so beautifully with the bond between mother and child, with the comforting parent as a happy and nurturing place of safety and love.  When the rest of the world is ready to pounce, he returns to the comfort that she provides.  It is something that most of us can relate to, the idea of having a hard day out in the bitter cold of the world and then returning to the comfort of someone who gives us love and helps us to recharge the emotional batteries.  It can be a parent or a spouse or a brother or sister or even a friend.  We all need a comfortable nest.  Disney films are the most complex in this area because the best are  about growing up and leaving the comforts of home.

For this, the Disney films are famous for the parent-child relationships that are fraught with complications.  Disney movies are famous for relieving their heroes of one parent or the other.  Within Disney lore it has become something of a legend.  But why is that?  Disney producer Don Hahn who worked on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast told Glamour magazine in a 2014 interview that there are two reasons: “One reason is practical because the movies are 80 or 90 minutes long, and Disney films are about growing up. They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents.  Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand.”

The other reason, Hahn says, came from Disney himself.  Apparently sometime in the late 30s, Disney bought a house for this mother and father and had some studio guys come over to fix the furnace.  Something went wrong and his mother died due to a leak.  It was a tragedy that Disney carried with him the rest of his life.  He never spoke about it.  Something of that tragedy may be in his work.  Parental absence is a theme throughout.  Up till now we’ve covered the fact that Pinocchio essentially deals with surrogate parents: Jiminy Cricket and The Blue Fairy and now Dumbo whose father is absent and whose mother is locked away.  The father issue is easy to dismiss.  Bull elephants don’t stay in the herd to care for children any more than male lions.  The mother’s role is diminished by her incarceration though the movie gives her a happy ending.  This may have been a sense of reversing the events of Walt’s tragedy.  His mother died after he became a success; meanwhile Dumbo’s mother is freed from captivity after his.  Was this done on purpose?  Hard to say.

Whatever Disney’s motivation for making the film, it remains kind of an enigma for the studio.  The production was almost the exact opposite of that of Fantasia.  It was moved through very fast.  The crew of animators was very small.  It was created more in the style of the Silly Symphony short cartoons than as a major feature.  The narrative is simple, but not simple-minded.  Its length is unusual at only 64 minutes, though it still feels like a complete story.

Plus, it showed Disney’s intention to get back to making entertainment that wasn’t necessarily artistic exploration.  Fantasia showed the work of a man who wanted to push the horizons of his art form but had learned to cull his instincts when bad box office returns proved audience wasn’t interested in being challenged.  After the film failed Walt said regrettably “We’re through with caviar, from now on its mashed potatoes and gravy.”  Dumbo was the film that immediately followed but I don’t necessarily see it as any sort of step down.   It’s still a great artistic expression even if it isn’t quite as monumental or groundbreaking as Fantasia.  There is no sense that the movie is made on any sort of limited budget.  He was still making art but you sensed that he was making it easier for public consumption.

In the finished product you can still see a lot of the wonderful details that had made Pinocchio a success, the tiny elements in the corner, the small things that weren’t necessarily important to the story, but made the film special.  My favorite is the addition of “The Little Engine That Could.”  As the circus train, Casey Jr., makes his way up a hill he begins chanting the familiar “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”  Was it important to the story?  No but it gave the film a little more color, a little something extra, a little something special.  Plus the train is given an extra dimension, a personality as it struggles initially to pull its heavy load.  I love that it was created to have an engineer’s cap, and that it speaks through the train whistle.  It’s just wonderful.

There are colorful little moments tucked into Dumbo that don’t further the story but bring make the film feel alive.  For example, when the circus train arrives in town we get a shot of a gorilla roaring and shaking his cage until he accidentally pulls out one of the bars.  He looks sheepish for a moment and then tries to replace it.  Another favorite of mine are the clowns.  They’re presented as mean and kind of thoughtless (they want to put Dumbo on a platform 300 feet high) but their fireman act is a lot of fun, so much so that when I was a kid and I saw real life circus clowns I was disappointed that they weren’t as funny as the ones in Dumbo.

The emotional level is just as brilliant.  As I said before, this is a movie very much about the relationship between mother and child and the need for the comfort of a warm embrace.  It is one of the most touching that I can remember, especially when Dumbo sneaks out to her cage in the middle of the night to be cuddled by his mother as the scene is intercut with other animals comforting their own children.  When the little elephant wipes his tears on her trunk, I defy anyone with a heartbeat to keep a dry eye.

That visual palette makes for one the most colorful films I can remember.  The backgrounds are all watercolors and the details therein are kind of beautiful.  I love the landscapes as the train moves to it next destination.  It creates the world of the circus for all its colorful pageantry but also for all its ugly behind-the-scenes underpinnings, not just the clowns heading out to hit the boss up for a raise but the inability of the ringmaster to come up with a good idea for the show.

And then . . . the pink elephants.

Where in the name of Mother Mary did Walt’s animators come up with this sequence?  What drunken party wrought such a brilliant, bizarre acid trip of animation?  Within the film it makes no narrative sense and that lends the animators the freedom to play, to experiment, to express, to bend and twist the forms and the shapes into pretty much anything they want.  It is an excuse to play with black-eyed pink elephant balloons that do, pretty much anything until it climaxes in a bizarre crazy house of consciousness.  It’s a funny, horrifying, and curious piece of eye-popping animation.  Yet what was the thinking here?  Were the animators using this as just an artistic release?  Is its purpose to steer kids away from alcohol in the same way that the donkeys in Pinocchio were suppose to steer them away from cigars and pool?

I don’t think it has a purpose other than as a free-form of allowing the animators to work with abstract images.  The only requirement: do what you want but stay with the pink elephants.  The strange thing is that the hangover is what draws out Dumbo’s realization of his special ability – he can fly!  It’s an odd and funny way to introduce such a talent especially when the movie only has about ten minutes to go.  I don’t mind it.  Others don’t see it that way.  Henry Barnes of The Guardian made a much less jolly interpretation: “Dumbo wakes up in a tree with a hangover. Timothy wonders how they got up there and then realizes – it was the ears! Dumbo can fly! But it’s not Dumbo’s self-belief that leads him to salvation. It’s not pluck, nor guts, nor persistence. It’s booze that unlocks his gift.  That’s a terrible adult message.”

I would completely disagree.  In this case I say, get there any way you can.  Its function in the story isn’t exactly essential, but that’s not a criticism.  It serves only to break up the sadness of the story.  What follows only gets him to the meat of his abilities, but I don’t see that as destructive in any way.  Dumbo is the story of a kid who is dismissed by most until he finds an ability that makes him special.  He makes friends with those who share his world view of being outcasts: a mouse and a flock of crows.

With that, let’s talk about the elephant in the room (so to speak).  Are the black crows racist?  It would be easy to think so.  But I’m not so sure.  Their movements, vernacular and their attitudes are definitely modeled on African-American culture, but it’s not exactly blackface.  They aren’t serving anyone.  They seem happy.  They seem to have formed a tight group.  Their vernacular and their style are based very much on Harlem jazz scene of the times.  Sure one could argue that they seem lazy, but then again they’re crows.  They’re outcasts, scavengers by nature.  Like Timothy, they are seen by most of human nature as petulance.  Did African-Americans in the early 40s feel that they were seen this way by white America?  Does the movie suggest this?  Only in context.  In the age of political correctness it would seem easier to place these characters in a box and label it “racist” but I think that is dismissive.  I’m in the camp of “better negative than nothing.”  Personally, I never thought of stereotypes seeing the film as a kid.  I thought the crows were kind of interesting.  I liked the way they spoke.  I liked the fact that they identified with the hero and helped him along.  Plus, compared with other images of black characters in cartoons at the time, they seem to be far less racist than most.

Yet, how do you explain it to a kid?  As with anything else, I think it is dismissive and crude to simply bury it in the ground where an educational dialogue can’t be taught.  If it is to be seen as a negative, the positive can be a springboard to teach kids about African-American history at the time.  Plus it can be noted that all but one of the crows were voiced by African-American actors.  It could introduce them to those actors.  Furthur it could be a springboard for introducing them to the works of black filmmakers like Spencer Williams, Oscar Mischeaux, Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Julie Dash. Cheryl Dunne,
Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and The Hughes Brothers.  The point is, use it as a teaching tool, not a lightning rod for political correctness.  Let it start a dialogue instead of closing doors and minds.

There is so much goodness that comes out of a movie like Dumbo.  It is a teaching tool, a great education for kids that being different is not so bad.  They are stepping out into a cold world that will mean them harm, that will poke fun at their failings, but it might help them to know that they are not alone, that they must find what strengths lay within them.  It is a movie of sweet gentility that has a lot to say.  In that way, it’s a treasure.

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Previously:

Fantasia (1941)
Pinocchio (1940)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

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Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

BatmanTheKillingJoke

Batman: The Killing Joke clears up the most aggravating problem that I have with the latest glut of superhero movies – the producers always seem afraid to let their characters be characters.  As much as I’ve praised the recent spate of Marvel movies, I must admit that underneath my admiration there always rests a tiny volley of unanswered questions: Who are these people?  What makes them tick?  What does fighting megaloggins from outer space do to them psychologically?  Admittedly, the recent Superman movies have attempted to answer these questions but they are so incoherent that you walk away feeling like you just got slapped upside the head with a giant textbook.

Batman: The Killing Joke may be the first feature film to really get close to answering those key questions.  Much like The Dark Knight, it tries dig under this bat person and his cackling nemesis and find out not only what makes them tick, but what keeps them ticking.

Based on a 25 year old graphic novel by Alan Moore, the story has influenced a great deal of how Batman has been portrayed over the past quarter century.  It has been said that when Tim Burton wanted make Batman he told producers that “The Killing Joke” was what he had in mind.  Later, Christopher Nolan had it in mind when he put together The Dark Knight.  Now the story has its own movie and I’m glad it comes in the tapestry of Batman: The Animated Series because I think if the film were live action, there would be too much temptation on Hollywood’s part to give it more muscle and less heart.

The film debuted this year to a packed house (4,000 attendees) at Comic Con and premiered in select cities across the country as a Fathom event this past Monday night before it goes to DVD and Blu Ray on August 2nd.  It is unusual in a lot of ways, not the least of which that this is the first R-rated animated film ever from Warner Bros. (it could easily have been PG-13, but okay).  This is a grim story, full of the darkness that makes the modern Batman stories so palatable.  It’s also the first animated Batman movie to have its wide debut on theater screens since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm back in ’93.  Plus, it also reunites Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the voices of Batman and The Joker respectively.  Hamill’s involvement is special since this is the third time he’s played the character since twice announcing on Twitter that he retiring from the role.

Having read “The Killing Joke” I can say that the movie gets it right.  I have always been impressed by Batman in animated form because he’s always given more room for human dimensions.  If you’ve seen Batman: The Animated Series or the strikingly original Batman: Mask of the Phantasm then you know what I’m talking about.  The story here is very simple but it’s effective because it is based on motivation, not the demand for action beats.

The first half-hour is devoted to a story arch that wasn’t part of Moore’s work.  In fact, in that time we don’t even see the Joker.  Instead, we follow the strained relationship between Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) while working a complicated case.  Bruce wants her to back down because the case is getting too personal but she’s determined to see it through.  On a personal level Bruce admits that he has been to the edge of the abyss and (the movie suggests without words) he’s already lost one beloved sidekick and fears losing another.

This addition clears up the greatest problem with the original material wherein Barbara was more or less placed haphazardly in the story as a victim for the Joker.  Here the extra time gives her greater motivation and when she backs away from the Batgirl role it makes her downfall at the hands of the Joker hit much harder and more personal.  It’s her downfall rather than an exploitation of her tragedy as a prop for the problems of the male characters.

The rest of the story is almost beat for beat, word for word from Moore’s graphic novel.  The Joker goes on a mission of madness to prove that he can turn one man – in this case James Gordon – into a tormented pile of screaming neurosis.  His plan is overly complicated but you wouldn’t expect any plan from the Joker to be anything but elaborate.  In a strange twist, Batman wants to get inside his head.  At one point he confesses that he knows that someday one will kill the other and he sees that day in his mind’s eye.  Yet, maybe there’s some consolation between the two that won’t leave that day ending with a lot of question marks.

The question of the need for Batman is laid out here in subtle ways, not with a blunt instrument.  The police and the justice system are there to correct and punish those who choose to defy it.  The Joker goes to extremes to turn the world into chaos and prove that insanity is just a mind-trip away.  Between those extremes, the movie suggests, there is a need for a vigilante in a cape.  It’s a very simple idea that is given weight because we feel it from the characters, not by the manipulations of the plot.

How the story resolves itself is kind of wonderful.  I’ve complained recently that all tentpole movies seem required to have a bang-boom fight-to-the-finish third act that goes on for 45 minutes.  I saw it in Independence Day: Resurgence, Warcraft, Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond and at least a dozen others.  I get impatient.  Can’t filmmakers come up with a clever third act that doesn’t rely on crashing and bashing?  Batman: The Killing Joke ends on a note that I like.  I won’t spoil it but I’ll say that it is based on the characters and their psychological links to one another rather than any explosion.  Well, there is a small kind of explosion, but it’s not what you expect.

What I appreciated most about Batman: The Killing Joke is that is allows the characters room to breathe.  There is a moment when Barbara and Bruce are speaking over their communicators; Barbara asks an important question that Bruce doesn’t answer.  Because of the tension between them that silence comes with so much more dramatic weight than any explosion or car crash.  This is a movie about mind over matter and that’s what has kept these characters going and what keeps me coming back.  This is about the psychology of people who must wear masks to correct the insanity happening in the world when justice and common sense just won’t do.

 
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Posted by on 07/25/2016 in In Theaters, On Demand

 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 3: Fantasia (1940)

The Persistence of Disney, Part 3: Fantasia (1940)

In the same year that Walt Disney released Pinocchio he also released Fantasia.  Both were artistic milestones that pushed the boundaries of animation further than anyone imagined they could go and made them such enigmas that 75 e years later their impact is still being felt in the industry.  Yet, at the same time, they both failed at the box office and serve as a cautionary tale to film artists that it is often wise cull your instincts.  Disney’s dream was to explore new territory and take his medium as far as it would go.  Like earlier explorers of unmapped territory, he was going to test its limits and see what was out there.  Yet, in jumping head-first into these two ambitious projects he made a terrible oversight – commerce will always trump art.  Art and commerce are squabbling siblings, one has the brains and one has the muscle.

With his early features, Disney’s intent was to push the horizons.  If Snow White and Pinocchio were an equivalent to Columbus discovering the new world, Fantasia would be equivalent to a trip to the moon.  And yet, like our voyages to the moon he would find that the public’s yearning to be challenged is a bit of a gamble.  Time would be kind to Fantasia but Disney would discover that the audience wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as he was about exploring the horizons.

Fantasia is, even by today’s standards, a milestone not just of animation but of film itself.  Stripping away all sense of narrative, Disney wanted the film to be a sensory experience, the equivalent of spending an evening at the symphony.  It was to be the kind of movie that didn’t just happen in front of you; it was to be an experience that got inside of you.  If we are attending the symphony, we are anchored by the limits of stage production.  On film we can leave the space of the theater and float into streams of consciousness, so Walt wanted our eyes and our ears to be filled with the magic of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shubert, Muggsorgsky and Beethoven while our eyes were given visual sensory experience.  Some of the segments contain characters, others vague characters and at least one contains no characters at all.

It is interesting to me that he opens the film without any sort of characters on the screen.  In an age when the perception of filmmaking is that it lives and dies by what images open a film, it’s interesting that he challenges our perception of how a film is constructed.  This isn’t Snow White; this isn’t Pinocchio.  It doesn’t begin with characters and then run them through a plot.  It was a new experience and the opening images are reminders of the kinds of images we might see in a museum only they are moving to music, they are a merger of two great art forms of animation and music.  Then, as the movie goes along he settles us in with the more familiar images, with fairies and leaves and shimmering spider webs, the natural world mixed with fantasy characters, fairies spreading fairy dust that falls like gentle rain.

Revisiting the film last week I tried to be analytical about some of the images that were appearing, but it is difficult.  Its a little like analyzing a ballet.  You can only report back on how it made you feel.  Accompanied by the music Disney seems to be borrowing images (maybe stereotypes) of Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern influence.  Yet, what am I to make of it?  I can only report how I felt and I felt the same as I do when I hear the music by itself.  It is exhilarating.

The most famous segment, and the only one that actually tells a story, is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” featuring Mickey Mouse for the very first time with pupils in his eyes.  At the time, Mickey’s popularity was on the wane as he was being upstaged by the much more energetic Donald Duck.  Disney’s intent was to bring him back around to the public’s imagination and bring Mickey into the next phase of his popularity, but I think much of it was curtailed by the appearance of another cartoon icon who made his debut the same year.  Mickey, for all of his sweet gentility, just doesn’t have all the appealing mischief of Bugs Bunny.  As an icon, the mouse abides but as a character even in the Disney cannon I don’t think Mickey’s adventures are as familiar or as much fun as Goofy or Donald.  Maybe it was the massive availability of Looney Tunes on television when I was a kid versus Disney cartoons which were relegated to a few hours on Sunday night or tucked into the post show broadcasts after the Disney feature that would play on HBO.  I never felt like I grew up with Mickey.  As a matter of fact, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the only Mickey short that I can recall outside of “Steamboat Willie.”

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was actually the inspiration for Fantasia.  Disney was making this short for the Silly Symphony series and had a chance meeting at a party with Leopold Stokowski and so the short became the springboard for a much larger project.  The strange thing is, I always wanted to know the rest of Mickey’s story.  Why is working as a sorcerer’s apprentice?  Why is he there?  What are his lessons?  Did the wizard dismiss him?  What happened the next day?  I always wanted to know and I guess it says something that we don’t ever find out.  The wizard bats him in the butt with a broom and the piece ends.  I always wanted to know more.  Maybe that was the point.

“Rite of Spring” always seems the most out of place.  It is another experience that is supposed to feel like something that would be going through your mind when hearing the music, but I’m not sure how I’m suppose to feel watching it.  It follows the life and death of the age of the dinosaurs from their evolutionary origins (I imagine this segment has creationists cringing) through their demise, but it is interesting that Disney doesn’t give in to the temptation to make them into characters.  We are looking at what Jurassic Park might look like after the humans fled the island.  Did Stravinsky have dinosaurs in mind when he wrote the piece?

“The Pastoral Symphony” is a nice mixture of beautiful imagery and cuteness overload, reducing Beethoven’s four-hour symphony down to about 8 minutes and melding it with images of mythical Greco-Roman figures such as centaurs and “centaurettes”, cupids, fauns and other figures gathered for the festival of Bacchus.  Then Zeus decides to crash the party by throwing lightning bolts down from the heavens.

This is one of the most interesting segments because it is the most controversial.  All prints since 1968 have this segment edited down due to racial stereotypes – the infamous centaurette Sunflower, a blackface caricatures whose purpose is to serve as personal dresser to one of the other centaurettes.  If you know where the edits are, you can spot where the character comes into the movie, but the folks at Disney have been very careful to remove this character (you can see the side-by-side comparison here).  It’s hard to complain.  I do not believe in censorship especially with regards to art, but I’ve seen the unedited cut and I can’t complain about the character being edited out.  As a matter of fact, I think it says something about racial progress that we would want to eliminate such an image and there isn’t a controversy about it.  It isn’t seen a marring Disney’s work.

“Dance of the Hours,” I think, is the most Disney of all of the segments outside of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  This is the one, I think, that most likely gets under the skin of most purists of classical music.  Its a farcical, a comic ballet set to Ponchielli’s most famous work, portraying the hours of the day through dance.  Yet, I don’t imagine that the great Italian composer had hippos, elephants and alligators and ostriches in mind when he wrote it.  The piece is formed, of course, in four sections, Madame Upanova and her ostriches (Morning); Hyacinth Hippo and her servants (Afternoon); Elephanchine and her bubble-blowing elephant troupe (Evening) and Ben Ali Gator and his troop of alligators (Night). The finale finds all of the characters dancing together until their palace collapses.  Again, what am I to make of this?  Is Disney celebrating Ponchielli or mocking him?  Personally, I find it hilarious, energetic and fun.  Plus, based on the grim nature of what comes next, its almost essential.

“A Night of Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” are not just my favorite pieces in the film; they are my favorite pieces of animation ever.  I find it breathtaking; it’s like attending a great opera.  The forces of evil overtake the night as the demon pulls the strings on the legions of the dead.  The animation here reminds me of some of the images I’ve seen in paintings – the dancing demons, the floating spirits, and death riding his horse.  There isn’t much I can say about it except that it’s the least Disney animation that I can imagine.  It was a brave choice and one that is the most simplistic in terms of its theme.  The devil raises that dead and then is beaten back by the light and angelic music as a group of candle-bearing monks walk into the ruins of an old church.  There are many interpretations of this segment, but I have often seen it in the context of the times.  Watch both segments and imagine that this movie was made at the exact moment that Hitler and his thugs were goose-stepping across Europe.  Could it been seen as an allegory?  Its just a thought.

Some have complained that this last segment goes on too long and slows down the picture but I think it works beautifully and was the perfect note on which to end the picture.  The music fades out and the it stays in your mind because there are no distractions.  There are no end credits; the movie doesn’t add a button at the end to tell you when to leave.  You’re just kind of left with the feeling that the music that the music left you with.

Watching Fantasia again last week, trying to interpret it in my mind, I found that it was the most challenging of all of Disney’s works.  Its a vanity project from top to bottom, encapsulating a vain attempt to give pictures to classical music.  What pictures are appropriate for Stravinsky, Beethoven, Shubert and Mussorgsky?  What images capture what happens in your mind when hearing it?  Dancing Hippos?  Dinosaurs?  Mickey Mouse?  This is a movie that must have had purists tearing their hair out.  Was it an act of vanity to add Disney’s roly poly characters to the works of these incredible artists? That’s a debate for the ages.  Is it any more or less offensive to have dancing hippos wrapped around Ponchielli than it is to have Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd immersed in Rossini?  Mull that one over.

As breathtaking an experience as Fantasia is, it was never the success that Disney had wanted.  In making it, Disney went over his budget several times and curtailed the roadshow presentation because of a new “Sensaround” sound system that required theaters to be reformatted just for this film – he wanted his audience to feel the experience rather than just being in attendance.  That meant many cities didn’t get to see it.  It made money but it didn’t make back its budget.   It was proof that his ambition overreached his common sense.  With Hitler stomping all over Europe, the film’s distribution was, for the most part, cut off and that eliminated much of its overseas revenue.  It would take years and many re-releases for the film to bring forth a profit, but it became the breaking point to Disney’s ambition.

That’s the real tragedy because the film’s failure killed Disney’s desire to explore the limits of the medium.  “We’re through with caviar,” he said, “From now on its mashed potatoes and gravy.”  You can see that in the rest of his work.  For much of the decade, the films produced by the Disney company were compilations encompassing animated bits that were leftovers from a proposed Fantasia sequel and the rest of his life he would focus on fairy tales.  The failure of Fantasia financially, effectively ended Disney’s desire to explore.  Both Pinocchio and Fantasia are regarded as the greatest works of animation, not just in Disney’s cannon but in the world of cinema, but they are enigmas, they stand as the world of a man who had so much more potential than what he would later have the desire to do.

In many ways, Fantasia represents one of the greatest debates in all of cinema.  What kinds of films should Hollywood be making?  We are sitting in a summer right now that includes space aliens, comic book superheroes, ghost busters and treks through the stars, but very little that redefines what a movie is.  Francis Ford Coppola once lamented that we have only explored about 10% of what the movies can do, and 6% of that was discovered in the silent era.  Movies have such potential, but week after week I see Hollywood continually wading in the kiddie pool.  It’s distressing, and as a critic you find yourself often searching the edges of the film world for something that is attempting to push the medium forward.

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Citizen Kane, Fantasia is one of those art pieces of which no two people have the same opinion.  Its odd, strange, beautiful, brilliant, but much in the same vein of the music it employs, it challenges you to consider how you feel about it.  The critic Otis Ferguson wrote: “Dull as it is towards the end, ridiculous as it is in the bend of the knee before Art, and taking one thing with another, it is one of the strange and beautiful things that have happened in the world.”  I agree though I would never call it dull.  I’ve seen it at various points in my life and I always find myself with a differing opinion though I am always mesmerized by it.  It’s odd, strange, glorious and kind of brilliant at the same time.
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Previously:

Pinocchio (1940)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 2: Pinocchio (1940)

PinocchioFB

Kid’s movies don’t deal with consequences anymore.  In today’s society, we are so afraid of scaring kids straight that we avoid it all together, particularly in their media.  It’s important to notice how few modern movies made for children really deal with the issues they face, or the consequences of ignoring the warning signs.  Child characters nowadays borrow the model of Kevin in Home Alone by being so supremely confident that there’s no real concern for their well-being.  They are presented as wise-cracking pint-sized adults who have things all figured out while parental figures are just a source of misunderstanding frustration.  I feel like this is a method of trying not to be too harsh.  We don’t want to show them the consequences of being bad.

Walt Disney’s Pinocchio is one of the rare American films that doesn’t have that attitude.  Disney and his writing team wanted to pry a message from this material, to show kids the consequences of bad behavior, telling a lie and following a bad crowd.  That’s a stroke of genius because the movie has, for four generations, been showing kids a broad-lined example of a kid who does bad things and gets into trouble.  Of course, he learns his lesson and is rewarded, but what a dark twisted journey this is!

In diverting the clean narrative structure that flowed through Snow White, Pinocchio’s journey is more episodic.  Moving out into the world, his journey is more a series of events and smaller bite-sized adventures than an over-riding arch.  In that way, the story is more familiar to a child’s experiences.  Lessons are learned as the events build rather than one lesson that carries us through.  Pinocchio experiences much the same dangers that we all faced: he tells lies, he plays hooky from school, he hangs with a bad kid, and he talks to strangers – all things that our parents warned us about.  These episodes lead to near-consequences.  When The Blue Fairy asks about skipping school, Pinocchio (in one of the most famous scenes in movie history) finds that his nose is growing.  Disney, in a brilliant stroke of genius, uses this moment to literalize the lesson; the Blue Fairy tells him “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

Of course, the ultimate lesson comes with talking to strangers.  Twice, Pinocchio is faced with grave circumstances.  First, he is kidnapped by the gypsy puppeteer Stromboli and told that he will perform or else he will end up as firewood.  Second, he accepts an offer to Pleasure Island, a grand carnival of misbehavior where bad boys are promised free reign; they can smoke, drink, play pool, vandalize a house etc.  The ruse of course is that The Coachman is turning them all into donkeys to be sold to the salt mines and the circus.  Never has any kid’s movie laid out the dire consequences of disobedience in a scarier fashion (to this day I’ve never smoked a cigar).  Pinocchio manages to escape, but did you ever notice that he’s the only one?  The other boys apparently met their fate and never returned, and the villains are never punished.  That’s a hard lesson.

The tougher strains of Pinocchio’s journey are the difficult tugs at his conscience.  He’s pulled in both directions.  On one side are the swindlers who want to lead the boy astray.  On the other side are the more benign figures that want what is best for him.  Geppetto is ostensibly Pinocchio’s father but he’s less a fixture of lessons then he brings about the manifestation of his origin.  Actually Jiminy Cricket is more of a father-figure, knighted as Pinocchio’s conscience he has his work cut out for him.  In that way, represents the frustration of all parents who have to steer a child in the right direction.  He sermonizes and gives advice, but there are times when he wants to (and does!) simply give up and walk away.  Faced with a problem, Jiminy tries and tries to pull Pinocchio back to common sense.  My favorite quiet moment comes when Jiminy gives Pinocchio a sermon in morals when the boy is faced with an offer from Honest John.  Jiminy stands in the middle of a species of flower called a Jack in the Pulpit.

The mother figure, of course, is The Blue Fairy who brings Pinocchio to life – she’s also is the only female character in the film aside from Geppetto’s goldfish.  She’s a nurturing figure but she makes no excuses for Pinocchio’s behavior.  She lets him get into trouble, but pulls him back just when he gets to the point of no return.  She’s permissive, but she’s also restrictive.  There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not she is a far too convenient deus ex machina.  While it is true that she springs him out of the cage in Stromboli’s wagon, and later brings him back to life, it is only after he has discovered something important.  Her getting him out of a jam is really a reward for his progress.  Actually, in that way, I think the The Blue Fairy may be a more well-rounded character than Snow White.  She’s an integral part of the story; she has more of an independent spirit.  She wants Pinocchio to discover things for himself.  She has a hands-off approach to the young puppet.  He learns because he is allowed to experience things.

That speaks volumes about Pinocchio’s maturity.  Throughout the story, he is basically naïve and given the less cynical hardware that kids develop as they get older.  After his adventure on Pleasure Island, after he sees the horror of Lampwick transformed into a donkey, something in his perspective changes.  He isn’t led around but he does the leading.  When he returns home to Geppetto’s shop and finds it empty, The Blue Fairy drops him a note to inform him that his father has been swallowed by Monstro the whale.  Without a thought he runs out into to street on a mission to bring his father back.  That shows a lot of growth.

Pinocchio’s developing maturity was a construct that Disney had to give to the film.  The original source material presented the character in a way that no one would have been able to accept.  Pinocchio is a fairy tale that was wrought from a serialized tale (and later the famous book) by Italian author Carlo Collodi about a puppet who is granted life and then does very bad things.  Pinocchio in the book is a bad boy who does awful things (including killing Jiminy with a hammer!) until he gets himself in so much trouble that he needs help to get out of it.  It was a dark story that troubled Walt Disney because it had no heart, no soul, no love.  Pinocchio was a repellant character that no child would identify with.  So, when the story went into production, the character was brought down from his miscreant ways and given more of a human dimension, despite his wooden orientation.  That makes him more relatable.  If he were simply a bad kid, like say Lampwick, then the journey would be harder to care about.

If the movie had been simplistic then it would also have been hard to care about.  Disney could easily have made just a simple-minded kids cartoon with basic line drawings and no real depth.  That would have been okay but I don’t know if the movie would have had the staying power.  The reason that the movie stays with us is due to his conviction that the movie be something more than just line drawings.  He wanted to elevate a simple kids movie into a work of art.  This is one of the most beautifully drawn movies I’ve ever seen.  The details in Geppetto’s workshop show the work of animators who wanted to take simple drawings to the next level.  The clocks, the toys, the music boxes all are given an extra dimension and when they go off they play a jingly symphony all their own.

One beautiful detail that I noticed early in the film takes place before Pinocchio is given life.  Jiminy approaches Geppetto’s work table and we can see the lifeless Pinocchio sitting on top.  On the floor is a bucket of wood shavings, some of which have spilled on the floor.  That tiny detail tells a story.  It wasn’t necessary and the scene would have continued without it, but to have thought to add that touch shows the generosity they had.

That spirit is wrought from the early years of animated features.  Disney and his direct competitor Max Fleisher (the creator of Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons) had the vision to bring the characters off the screen, to give them dimensions that earlier short-subject cartoons didn’t have.  What they created was a style of mirroring the real world without copying it.  It was a sort of stylized reality that we could relate to while still feeling as if we were in a fantasy.  They experimented with giving the characters gravity and weight, for example in the scene when Geppetto dances with the lifeless Pinocchio puppet.  The little wooden puppet bounces and jitters just like a real puppet.  Later when Pinocchio dances on Stromboli’s stage, the other puppets have the bouncy movements of puppets but they are given just enough free movement that they don’t feel like carbon copies.

As with Snow White, the animators proved themselves the masters of the extra step.  That is, they took one idea and added something extra to it to make it extraordinary.  Yes, Pinocchio’s nose grows, but as it grows, it sprouts branches then leaves, then flowers, then a bird’s nest, then birds.  They kept the moment growing and kept adding inspiration after inspiration.

The Disney animators in these first few features were pioneers of experimenting animation techniques, especially in figuring out how to work with the space within the screen.  They could easily have just put characters in front of a colored background, but these animators wanted to put the characters inside of a three-dimensional space.  As with Snow White, they made use of the multi-plane camera, which allowed objects in the foreground and the background to move independently of one another and independently of the central action.  It also allowed the objects to move at various speeds and various distances to create a three-dimensional feel.  The most famous shot in the movie is an establishing shot when we see the town the Geppetto lives in.  The camera moves in past the rooftops and down into the street.  The objects in the foreground move independently of one another so we feel that we are closing in on the space that Pinocchio is occupying.  Think about that, and now imagine that in 1940, most live action movie sets had doors at both ends so that characters entered and exited, there was no depth, no deep focus.  And also remember that Pinocchio came out a year before Citizen Kane employed deep focus!

Sadly, this inspiration wouldn’t last very long.  Disney had such a massive will to push the animated form forward and explore its horizons, but the business end of filmmaking and the world situation were not in his favor.  In the same year that his studio produced Pinocchio it would also produce Fantasia and both films were examples of how art sometimes fights for control over commerce.  Money is always the key objective but in Disney’s case, his art outweighed his finances.  Pinocchio cost a fortune but it failed at the box office and wouldn’t recoup that loss until several reissues in the years to come.  Plus, with the war coming, it would take much of his staff overseas leaving him shorthanded.  Yet, the movie would stand as a prime example of what the animated form was capable of even if the business wasn’t able to keep up.  His later films were great but few had the full sense of really grabbing the art form and shaking it up.  He made it timeless and unforgettable because he wanted to create something great.  The films you’ve been watching, the animated films and the special effects pictures?  Those all owe something to Pinoccho.

Times change, people grow old and new ideas become old and outdated.  Yet, the most valuable asset to Pinocchio is that it remains a timeless parable that every kid of every generation can come back to.  It’s fun and entertaining but it teaching them something about their own identity and what is expected of them out there in the world.  Be a good person, be a responsible person.  Listen to your conscience.  Listen to your heart.  I don’t recall another film that drove those lessons home quite like this one did.  It was in the grace of the storytelling that the lessons remained.  “A boy who can’t be good,” The Blue fairy says, “might just as well be made of wood.”  Ain’t it the truth.

 

Ghostbusters (a video review)

 
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Posted by on 07/15/2016 in Uncategorized

 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Dali studied The Persistence of Memory.  I study The Persistence of Disney.

We stand today at a moment when Disney owns the landscape of film animation despite fierce competition from other studios.  This hasn’t always been the case.  Throughout it’s 90 year history, this company has become a multi-cultural phenomenon that has managed to stay with us while others have come and gone.  It is an essential element to American culture even while it’s placement in the landscape varies widely with the times.  It’s been such a part of our lives for so long that the word ‘Disney’ has practically become a verb.  Ask anyone about their first movie experience and I’ll be 9 out of 10 will name something from The Walt Disney Company.  Disney is part of your life.  It’s part of my life.

Disney’s first animated feature debuted 80 years ago, and with that I’m doing a little celebration.  Welcome to my newest project: The Persistence of Disney, a weekly series in which I will explore every single one of Disney’s theatrical animated movies from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  all the way through the latest animated feature Zootopia.  I will post a new essay every Sunday morning from now until we get through all of them.  So, make yourself some coffee and join me every Sunday.  I hope you’ll enjoy the magic.  Let’s start this week where it all began, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
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Snow White

If you’ve ever paid attention to the advertising for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs then you’ve probably noticed that it all tips at making the film look like a happy dancing comedy with lots of lively music and colorful imagery.  What is always missing in the ads are the darker portions of the film, the haunted forest, the old crone, Snow White’s wake.  The folks at Disney obviously want to sell the movie to kids, but they don’t want to push them away by suggesting that the film has dark corners.  I wish that wasn’t the case.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turns 80 years old in 2017 and it endures because of its darker edges and the way in which Disney and his animators balanced those scenes with the songs and the comedy.  This was, of course, Walt Disney’s first animated feature and it indeed has scary scenes that are all for the enhancement of the story.  This is not exclusive to Snow White.  This would follow into Pinocchio and into Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi.

Well rounded stories have to have dark corners because without the dark you cannot have the light.  It is one of the reasons that Disney films touch us so deeply.  Darkness, sadness and despair are part of the tapestry.  If it were all happy, there would be no journey, no lesson, no reward.  We wouldn’t be able to identify and the films would be no different than staring at a billboard.  Disney’s earlier characters (most of whom were reworked from other sources) were so well-rounded that we got a sense of standing in the room next to them.  Their journeys took us to some dark places to focus on real dangers along the way whether they occurred by design, by evil machinations, by mistake or by force of nature.

Revisiting Snow White the other night I arrived at its end with the same exhilaration that I did when I saw it as a child.  As the third act opens, the story has gotten as dark as it could get.  Snow White dies.  Well . . . okay, she goes into a deep sleep so everyone thinks she’s dead, but you get the idea.  All is lost.  The Dwarfs have lost their beloved princess.  Then the prince arrives and plants “Love’s first kiss” right on her ruby lips.  She wakes, they fall in love, and he carries her off to a castle in the sky while the music swells with angelic glory.  She’s not only alive, but she is swept off her feet to go and live in paradise.  It’s the happiest of happy endings perchance if you don’t read too much into it.  We’ll get to that in a moment.

What struck me seeing the film again after many years (I hadn’t seen it since I was a teenager back in the 80s) was just how beautifully drawn this movie is and what a technological leap the animators made.  The technological marvel was the multi-plane camera which allowed objects in the foreground and the background to move independently of one another and independently of the central action.  It also allowed the objects to move at various speeds and various distances to create a three-dimensional feel. This was long before computers, when animation was a painstaking practice in which each cell was drawn and painted one-by-one by hand (production on Snow White actually began in 1934). On the multi-plane camera, pieces of the artwork were laid on various platters on the camera that moved independently of one another so the various cells could move opposite of one another.  The result was that a house in the background could have objects moving independently in the foreground.

The animators had the talent to create a palette that was alive.  Take, for example, Snow White’s nightmare journey through the forest as the branches of the trees reach out and the eyes bear down upon her.  It would be enough just to have a girl frightened by the forest but to see it through her eyes to visualize the nightmare is part of the extra step, the further burst of inspiration.  The foreground objects move independently of Snow White so that she seems to exist in a three-dimensional space.  The effect is also used to great effect later when The Evil Queen takes her potion.  As it takes effect, the objects in room swirl around her as in a dream.  They move independently of her and the effect is mesmerizing.

Of course, any movie known for its technical innovations will inevitably become a victim of time.  Animated films, by their very nature, are almost completely made up of technological craftsmanship.  Yet, Snow White is the exception.  It hasn’t aged in any negative way.  The work on this film is so detailed, so lovingly put together that it endures even in the maw of the ceaseless adamant of time. It might have been easier for Disney and his animators to have made a cute animated movie with lots of music, but if he made it simple-minded, its impact would have dried up long ago.

Historically, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs might seem like a lucky break in which Disney and his animators poured their heart and soul into the production so much that what came out the other end was a collaboration of detail and work and imagination.  Everyone knows that this was Disney’s first full-length animated feature (contrary to popular belief this is not the first full-length animated feature, that honor belongs to a 1917 Argentinean picture called The Apostle and there were at least five others in between) but it didn’t come to life in a single burst of inspiration.

The gestation went back more than a decade.  Walt Disney spent 10 years putting together the “Silly Symphony” cartoons, a series of 77 shorts that he made between 1929 and 1939 at which time he made such well known films as The Three Little Pigs, Flowers and Trees and The Band Concert.  They were cute and colorful but they had an underlying purpose.  Walt had his eye on a full-length animated feature and the Silly Symphony cartoons were his laboratory.  He and his crew experimented with color, sound and new animation techniques, all of which led the way to Snow White.

Note the levels of generosity to the visuals.  There’s a moment when Snow White sings into the well and the camera looks up at her from beneath the water.  It’s not a practical shot, but it adds a level of great detail.  Think about it: somebody had to think up that shot and draw it and color it.  It wasn’t necessary, but it was a generous detail.

I also love the way that the entire frame is populated by supporting players,  Snow White doesn’t just gather just a few forest friends, she gathers at least four dozen.  There are small animals packed into every corner of the frame.  They’re all moving independently of one another so that screen is always vibrating, always moving, always bouncing along.

This was a project for which Walt was given a great deal of praise, as well as several special Oscars (one big one and seven little ones) but in pre-production his project was met with skepticism.  The press called it “Walt’s Folly” and even warned that watching an animated movie would hurt your eyes.  Walt’s family pleaded with him not to pursue this project especially after he financed it by mortgaging his house.  It could have gone wrong in so many ways, but it made a fortune and was the highest grossing movie of 1937.

Yet, it all would mean nothing if what is on the screen didn’t affect us so deeply.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an experience, a great emotional one.  I was surprised how moved I was by Snow White’s wake.  The Evil Queen has defeated our heroine and she lies in her glass coffin because the Dwarves (thankfully) couldn’t bring themselves to bury her.  I know that she’ll be alright, but the level of sadness and despair that the animators put into that scene is stunning.  The faces of the dwarfs are so expressive and so sad that you can feel that weight of each character’s heart.  The lighting, the music, the color, the sound all contribute to the effect.  And remember that it all had to be created from scratch.

I said that Snow White was an experience, but I will note that it is not a practical one.  You have to let your emotions overcome gaps of logic in the story.  When Snow White is awakened by Prince Charming, she is swept up onto his horse and carried off to paradise.  She’s found her prince, but if you follow the story logically, she’s being courted by a man she barely knows.  They’ve met (by the movie standards) only once and now she’s off to spend the rest of her life with him?  That’s a curious misstep but it’s not the point.  The movie isn’t really about characters, it’s about character types.  Note the way that the movie avoids proper names.  The names are more descriptive: Snow White, Prince Charming, The Evil Queen, Happy, Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful, Grumpy.  They’re all given a level of personality trait and that’s where they stay.  They are give a trait and it motivates their personality.

Those singular character traits make the characters a little less rounded, but they lend themselves to the story in the same way that they would in a fairy tale.  Surprisingly the least interesting character in the movies is Snow White herself.  She’s the key player here but she doesn’t seem to motivate the story by her actions.  The story really happens to her.  Her personality is kind of threadbare.  She happy, she’s maternal, she’s carefree, but she doesn’t seem to have a robust personality.  In most other movies, the supporting players inspire the central character to action.  Here it is the other way around.  Her adventure is motivated by the Evil Queen’s attempts (twice) to kill her and the first of these attempts pushes her into the haunted forest where she runs in to the seven dwarfs.  Her happy-go-lucky manner inspires them, up to and including tracking down the Queen when she kills Snow White with a poisoned apple.  She catches the attention of the Prince at the well.  Her innocence wounds the heart of The Huntsman who has been tasked with taking her into the woods where he is to cut out her heart.  She inspires the creatures of the forest – squirrels, rabbits, mince, birds, turtles etc. – to be her protectors and her friends.  And of course, she befriends the seven dwarfs by becoming the matriarch of their home.

Snow White was the antithesis of the times (note that she was created exclusively by men).  In 1937, the American woman’s lot in life had changed.  The jazz era of the 1920s had given women a new sense of freedom and independence that would lead to their liberation movement decades later.  Ever since the end of WWI, women had been moving away from their station as mother and wife and into a more profound sense of self.  The gestation of Snow White – from 1934 to 1937 – is seated in American history between the jazz era of the 20s and the workforce of women that blossomed in the 40s.  Therefore she represents a more domesticated model of home and family and children, a more paternal vision of what a woman’s role was to be (one of the home video ads, I noticed, had her dancing around with a broom).  Snow White has less a personality then attributes.  She’s beautiful, she’s cheerful, she’s virginal, and she’s pure.

Of course, if Snow White represents the positive image of a woman as wife and mother, then The Evil Queen represents the dangers of the independent woman.  She lives on her own in her castle, she’s vain to the point of murder and she has all the power she could ever need.  The madness that boils in her mind is focused squarely on her looks.  She’s beautiful but she wants to be “fairest in the land” and she’s willing to cast off her attractive face for that of an old crone in order to murder an innocent girl.  She lives in a large castle full of skulls and rotten old bones and her only associate is apparently The Huntsman and the image in The Magic Mirror.   What was the image of The Evil Queen telling young girls of the late 30?  Stay in the kitchen because a woman living on her own is vial, cruel, vain and prone to murder?  I’m sure that’s not what Disney had in mind, but it is a point to ponder.

What is the movie telling us?  What is it telling young girls?  For sure, the movie is slanted to a male  point of view, but there is a cautionary lesson to be learned about vanity.  Maybe that’s what it  is trying to say.  It’s placement of women in the picture as seen through a contemporary vantage point is appalling but if that lesson can be carried away, maybe it’s not for nothing.  Times will change, but the movies will stay the same.  They are a window on the world which represents the times in which they were made.  When you look at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs you are looking at a timeless film, yes, but you’re also looking at a product of 1937.  Can it be blamed for the message it was trying to send?  Of course not, but the movie has endured for four generations because of the care and love given to the artistry.  It endures in the same manner as The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, Star Wars, Batman or any of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  What Snow White represents was the vision of a group of artists who wanted to create not just an animated movie, but something that would retain it’s magic now and forever after.

 
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Posted by on 07/10/2016 in Uncategorized

 

A Study in Spielberg: 1941 (1979)

1941

A more appropriate name would be “Steven’s Folly.”

I suppose that every great director has to have at least one movie that tests the patience of the audience.  For Spielberg, that was a comedy misfire known simply as 1941.  Perched uncomfortably in his filmography between Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was a bizarre free-for-all that started at level 10 and never never dropped for a moment.  This was a noisy, relentless, overbearing bit of comedy tripe so obnoxious that Spielberg would later claim that audience members at the first test screening were holding their hands over their ears.

Set amid the paranoia of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the focuses a group of misfits in Southern California, 1941 doesn’t really have a plot structure so much as a gaggle of insane characters let loose on each other to do apparently whatever they like within the span of 90 minutes.  The problem, I discovered, is that none of the comedy sticks.  It’s just a series of nutty people allowed to say and do whatever they please in a sort of war-time version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  The comic invention is to gather together all sorts of wonderful actors, both serious and comic, and let them run around like idiots and make a lot of noise.  This, a comedy does not make.

Comedy has to have rules, it has to have structure, it has to have set up and payoff.  Even the Marx Brothers’ brand on insanity was written and rewritten, rehearsed and re-rehearsed.  It was perfected down to the last detail so it seemed to come from their guts.  That’s not the case here.

The movie has a cult status that I don’t understand.  I sat stone-faced through this whole production.  Not just stone-faced, but also frustrated as I watch a bilious amounts of comic invention burn on the screen.  It is one of those movies where you sense that it might have been funny in the moment, on the set, or in the screenwriting sessions.  But when you’re sitting there watching joke after joke fall over and die, you are left with the inevitable question, “what’s the point of all this?”