Sunday, September 07, 2008

Spout Mavens Disc #14, Part 9 of 13: Shorts! Volume 3 - Clay Pride: Being Clay in America (2001)

Director: Jonathan Watts & David Karlsberg
U.S., 5 minutes, color animated
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

At least the filmmakers admit that their project is built upon a one-joke premise.

What producer/co-director David Karlsberg doesn’t really declare, perhaps out of a humility rarely found in filmmakers, is how well-sustained that one joke turns out to be. Granted, Clay Pride: Being Clay in America, yet another film on the Shorts! Volume 3 DVD collection, only runs a mere 5 minutes. But even with one joke, once you acknowledge that delivering humor in stop-motion clay animation is a good deal harder than telling the same type of joke with live-action – timing, the mainstay of all successful humor, is even tougher to achieve when you can only film your “actors” a split second at a time, frame by laborious frame – then you will be astounded by the overall effect and feel of this film.

On the commentary, Karlsberg also admits that the animation in Clay Pride is not necessarily that ambitious either, which is true, but as always, it ain’t what you got, but how well you use it. Karlsberg and creator/co-director/writer Jonathan Watts don’t go for obvious jokes here. They let the absurdity of the situation itself carry the film. The conceit, that clay-animated characters exist in a world with the “normals” in a manner directly parallel in which those of the homosexual affiliation exist within our world, is really primarily based around childlike pun play, simply replacing a letter with another pair of letters, like someone calling me “dick” or “prick” in the manner of the brute which has followed me about for much of my life. (I usually tell them, since my name does not contain a “c,” that their rhyme-play makes little sense, except in some foreign tongue, as if ordering Thai food or categorizing tiny and adorable African antelopes.)

But by embracing this entry-level pun, Watts (who apparently created this world first in a short film made in high school) pours his simple joke into what could pass, were it filmed for real in its parallel existence, for a rather somber documentary on intolerance and societal homophobia. Most of what is said by the characters – except for a timely cameo in the shadows by a certain slanty-headed green clayboy of great renown – is pretty straightforward and not much different from that which might be said in a parallel documentary on gay bashing in our society, with all of the humor gliding slyly off the premise that we are talking about clay-animated characters instead. There are no real sight gags here – a couple of jokey name references on signs is all – mainly, the film gets by on an easy assurance by the filmmakers that the strength of their premise carries that “one joke” through satisfactorily to the end. Which it does… mostly.

Forgive me this one reflection, but there is something about the premise that confuses me a little. If being clay is roughly parallel in that imaginary world to being gay in ours, does this mean that the clay characters are actually gay? If so, are there no “straight” clay animated characters? We see them in dance clubs and at confrontational meetings, and while there is little in the way of outwardly stereotypical “gay” behavior, the overall impression is that this is so. It is a little sad that the film doesn't (or perhaps, due to budgetary reasons, is unable to) show the clays within the world of the normals outright, interacting with their oppressors. Are they tiny compared to the rest of their world, or would we see a clay figure marching in a parade while redneck buffoons of equal size spit at them from the sidewalks. And what would those rednecks do when der Golem showed up to rend them asunder?

Golem joke aside, I’m very glad that Clay Pride remains a mostly subtle exercise, and doesn’t have Davey going doggy-style on Goliath or Gumby getting some Pokey. Such antics are perhaps better suited to the likes of Robot Chicken. But the subtlety does leave me wondering about their world. And is the repression towards “clays” in that world is more of a sexual thing than the makeup of their bodies? Because of this, is it racism or sexism? Or does it matter? Aren’t they both equally vile, and if combined in an attack, even more vile?

Tolerance, my friends, tolerance is the only way, clays or otherwise. Clay Pride succeeds admirably in this message, despite the slight doubting within my briefly pondered side-trip. Would it were so that all such films were so intently fixed upon their target.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Spout Mavens Disc #14, Part 5 of 13: Shorts! Volume 3 - Seventeen (2003)

Director: Hisko Hulsing
Netherlands, 12:00, color animated
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

At what level do we begin to recognize our own failure? If we start out with imperial ambitions, is everything else short of controlling the world considered to be a failure? Since most of us will never, or should never, wish for such power, I guess we all have to just be thankful for whatever success we might achieve, and accept our fate from there.

I worked at my previous job for 22 years. I won't go into the details of the five Ws and an H of the situation -- I have discussed these matters elsewhere in bits and pieces on the Cinema 4 Pylon, and if you are actually interested, for whatever reason, I suggest you delve into it there. My need to bring up the length of my stay at that particular hovel of a business was merely to impart the message that 22 years at any one place, home or business, is far too long a span. I started young, full of piss and vinegar, but not quite enough to make me burn the place down and move onward. I despised about 90 percent of the people, employees or customers, with whom I came into contact, and there were certain sections of the business where the workers were little more than savage animals in my eyes. I always felt that anytime soon, something would happen where I would be rid of them and their brutish ways. Either I would leave them behind as I sped towards better times, or they would die the deaths that they so richly deserved for their callowness and their uncaring attitudes towards everything except for the most base forms of human endeavor.

And then, almost imperceptibly, with the faucet slowly dripping away my youth, I found myself stuck. I could not leave the job due to my own fears, my own uncertainty for the future, and I accepted a fate where even a horrid career is better than a world without a clear destination ahead. And even after the worst moments -- those times where I swore I had had enough and would rather kill them all and face the most severe prison sentence ever than work one more day in that pit of damnation -- I found myself punching the clock again. And again. And after so many years, I found myself not warming to those whom I previously despised, but becoming instead enough like them where I could no longer hold myself to a loftier ideal. Soon, I stopped resisting their idiocies and fell into line alongside them. I had become the others.

It has been said for eons that our world is largely run, in nearly every aspect, by fear. Fear can keep us running when we both shouldn't, and fear can also keep from running when we should. Its not so much about overcoming our fears, as it is about coming to an understanding with them, figuring out when they are truly justified or when they are pure shite. My own fear of the future overrode my fear of being trapped in a lifeless hell, and for a long time, I was a horrible person for it. While I won't rule out that there were outside agents that allowed me to come to grips with my fears, in the end, I was the one who had to walk away and start over. I stopped the stagnation at 22 years, and set up elsewhere. No longer do I feel like one of those others that I found so despicable.

In Hisko Hulsing's superbly creepy animated short, Seventeen -- one of 16 films on the Shorts! Volume 3 DVD collection -- we meet a young man named Harry, almost the age I was when I began my 22-year run, in a similar situation. His afternoons are marked by his labors on a roofing job, far above the streets of a village surrounded by patchwork fields. He is surrounded at his job by workers almost exactly of the Cro-Magnon set, and they booze and prank each other to the point that little work seems to actually get done. He strains to shut out the ruffians, and distracts his attention by peering at a woman in the building adjacent to the worksite, who strips slowly and coyly catches Harry's eye as he sits numbly on the edge of the building, several stories above the ground. In fact, the woman is a prostitute, and soon her madam will catch onto Harry's spying and shut the curtains on his afternoon of naive peeping. Harry doesn't see her as a whore, but merely as a target for his youthfully urgent affection, and as he spies, he is dreamy eyed and wistful, completely forgetting his co-workers.

They have not forgotten him, however, and they catch him unaware, lost in his love at first sight daydreams. One of the ruffians grabs Harry's ponytail and pretends to shove him off the roof. Soon, they are attacking some nearby laundry on a drying line, dressing the young lad up in women's clothing, and even after fitting the dress over his head, we see from Harry's point of view that he imagines one of the men, in a hirsute, sweat-laden and frightening closeup, is looking at the innocent, comparatively waiflike and pony-tailed Harry in a lustful, drooling manner. It is but a small harbinger of the horrors to come for Harry, who will now spend the remainder of the film locked in a battle with his delusions -- drunken and real -- interpreting the actions of the citizenry of the village as increasingly aggressive and conspiratorial towards himself.

Obsessed by the beautiful prostitute, Harry attempts to buy a drink for her at a local carnival, but he lingers too long in doubt, and her time is taken by some of his co-workers. Later, he will awaken in a deeply drunken state and wander into a scene where two of those men are having sex with her, and he will not recognize the fact, as she checks her watch in uncaring boredom, that she is literally on the clock. He will only hear her false moaning as screams of agony, and will imagine she is being doubly raped. He will launch himself at the attackers, but he will embarrassingly end up only in sending her sprawling backwards into a mud puddle with his crotch landing on her face, and her potential johns, a winding string of whom are seen waiting around the side of the building and onward, will not take this lightly at all. Interrupted from their pleasures, the men will, in Harry's eyes, and thus ours, transform very nearly into zombies or at least creatures of some arcane night, and shamble after the boy until he is driven from town.

From here, Harry will meet many others who will come at him first as the gentle and friendly, and through our hero's nightmare eye, will reveal themselves as nothing more than hostiles. Women who would grant him sensual release will turn into harpies, those harpies would take on the face of a co-worker, those co-workers will join the rest of the citizenry in ritual sacrifice for a secret blood cult, and good Samaritans will always wish for something craven in return. The images fly fast, and every tiny thing skews threatening to the lad. A carnival which promises joy during the day becomes a bestial thing by night -- this is no profound statement the film is granting us, as we all naturally understand the dark side of such places. But it works remarkably well here, with zigzagging angles and monstrous shadows closing on Harry as he seeks an escape from his ceaseless, mostly self-imposed travails. The film, reflecting his rampant fears, will get the better of him.

The background paintings used to achieve these affects are rough but always lush in their hue and invention. The depth achieved in some of the pieces truly astounds, and despite how savage the film may seem content-wise, it is always stunningly gorgeous and composed. I must profess that even I, one who doesn't flinch at very much initially in any film, was taken aback somewhat by the carnality of the film. Not that I couldn't handle it, but after the comparative mellowness of the previous films on the disc, I wasn't expecting such brutality and menace, let alone the nudity and sex quotient. At times, the content is so grimy that one almost wishes to wash it away with a freakishly innocent episode of The Wiggles.

But it is all for purpose -- this is no gratuitous exercise in filth, but rather a very well-turned examination into stagnation and personal inertia. Harry himself will go back to his roofing job, day after day, slowly sucking into the world he despises and interprets as hostile. He will grow sloppier and unshaven, and his dreams will fade ever deeper into the back of his head as he surrenders only to the daily pleasures, which will fatten his body and weaken his resolve. He will likely even join the line of grunting Neanderthals lined up around the building waiting for a quickie release from a bored sex worker. He will become what he hates, and he will be unrecognizable from those whom he despises.

Hopefully after 22 years of this, he will truly wake up...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Poultry Pirates (1938)

Director: Isadore [Friz] Freleng
MGM, 0:09, b/w
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

Is it all that pent-up frustration over having two highly prolific brats within his household that causes der Captain to go all hellfire crazy on the behinds of a quintet of garden-rustling chickens?

Released from his torturous home life for at least this entry in MGM’s not entirely successful (but not entirely unworthy or uninteresting) series of adventures featuring The Captain and the Kids (also known as the Katzenjammers in their complicated history), 1938’s Poultry Pirates sees der Captain in a solo adventure wherein he must deal with a passel of ornery birds who are trying to overrun his immaculately kept vegetable garden. Naturally, the extremely short-fused Captain will blow his top with every single transgression upon his property or person, and much in the way regarding slapstick inanity will occur.

Directed by Friz Freleng during a brief respite from his Warner Bros. work (and credited here as “Isadore”), Poultry Pirates could just as easily be an adventure for any short-tempered cartoon blowhard, and never really separates itself from other similarly-styled scenarios, except for a couple of lines featuring der Captain’s usual mangled dialogue shtick. One could easily take Donald Duck or Porky Pig and drop them into this storyline (in fact, they pretty much had), and you would never tell the difference, apart from the different voices and looks of the characters themselves.

Basically, the film is a series of gags featuring chickens stealing der Captain’s vegetables, and with der Captain going nuts trying to stop them. At the beginning of the film, der Captain is almost instantly revealed as a chicken-beater of the first order. Five hens stick their scrawny little necks through a horizontal line of holes in a fence, but every time they reach out to grab something, der Captain peers around the corner to make them backtrack through the holes. After a couple of attempts, the hens are left to themselves as der Captain takes a new tack: sneak up behind them with a large board. He smacks all five hens across their bottoms, and they scatter out of the yard. In the vaudevillian-style, German immigrant shtick that served der Captain so well over the course of a century (and, oddly, in two opposing comic strips), he bellows, “Dat will teach you to keep from the garden out!”

Worn out from his battle, der Captain sits down to continue his garden guarding. At the point that he falls asleep, a heretofore unseen duck (it’s hard not to think of Daffy upon first seeing him, though there is nothing really Daffy-like about him except for his pesky attitude) sneaks past der Captain and steals a huge tomato from the garden. Slurping out the insides of the fruit, the duck then spits them out, acting very disgusted in the process. He marches up to der Captain and wakes him up. “Hey!,” he quacks in a semi-wiseguy voice, “Did you raise this to-mat-uh?” The duck wings the open tomato straight into the eyes of der Captain, splatting him messily. As the duck strides off, he mutters lowly, “What are you trying to do? Poison people?” Smacking the bird with the board fails several times, and then the duck zips inside der Captain's sleeve. There then occurs a chase through der Captain’s clothing, with the duck darting in and out of numerous articles, before zipping away towards an open shed. Der Captain follows the bird, but once inside, the duck sneaks through a hole and locks der Captain inside.

The duck lets all of the other fowl into the garden, and the mass of birds begin to level the place. Rows of plants are devoured in nearly perfect unison, except for one sloppy hen who is reprimanded by her cohorts. One hen eats corn with the usual typewriter-return gag (is there really any better way to eat corn on the cob in a cartoon?) Another hen is seen pecking away at a gigantic pumpkin, and she backs away to reveal a marvelous example of a jack-‘o-lantern. Oops! Not quite marvelous enough apparently for her, so she goes back in to peck perfect the smile, as any true artist would do. Tiny little chicks stack up on one another precariously to wrest far larger tomatoes from their stems, each orb dangerously being schlepped down the pile of chicks to be carried away awkwardly.

Der Captain, who has been trying to escape by pounding on the door, inadvertently succeeds in knocking down all of the walls around him – only he isn’t aware of it. He pulls furiously at the doorknob, yelling the entire time. Finally, he rears up several feet, beyond where the back wall had lain just moments before, and never noticing the damage peripherally, he charges forward to knock down the still standing doorway. He rumbles to his home, and comes back outside with a shotgun in his arms. Seeing the rampaging brood in front of him, he levels the gun at the lot, fires a shot over their heads, and orders them to return their stolen goods. They oblige, but the duck is holding out on der Captain. The duck pulls a tomato out from under his wing and hands it back under further orders from der Captain. Instantly, all of the chickens charge the unsuspecting oaf, and in a great flurry of activity and dust, they make off with the vegetables again. Except for the tomato. That remains with der Captain – until the duck zips back in and snags it anew. But he isn’t here to eat it. Oh, no... he merely takes the opportunity to steal it so he may splat der Captain once more in the face!

Meanwhile, one of the tiny chicks is shown laboriously attempting to carry off one of the far bigger tomatoes. Der Captain stands over the little bird and glares at him shamefully. The chick puts the tomato back, but is then picked up by der Captain and placed over – rather, atop – his enormous knee. Der Captain spanks him lightly a couple of times, and then gently places him back on the ground. The chick marches off with a sore, throbbin rear, and immediately tells the nearest rooster of the attack upon his personage, being very careful to demonstrate through singsong chirping and exaggerated pantomime the horrid actions of the hostile man, as well as imparting what an angel the little chick has been throughout the incident. (A halo magically appears over his noggin in the telling.) The rooster then tattles to another slightly bigger rooster… and so on… and so on… until the news has reached the ear of the largest rooster of them all. A rooster who stands head to head with der Captain when they eventually meet to do battle.

The rooster is more than a match for the der Captain, but many of the short gags fall flat in what should be a more dynamic sequence, and the fight is tragically ordinary. It is amusing when der Captain removes his coat, only to have the rooster remove his entire draft of feathers, revealing a naval tattoo. Der Captain meekly tries to stop the whole affair there by putting his coat back on, but the rooster will have none of it, and removes it every time der Captain attempts it again. The pair circle each other, with der Captain adopting the stance of his fowl opponent, acting for all the world like another chicken. And then der Captain is satisfactorily whupped in the course of the melee, including a series of clever shots where his face basically becomes Silly Putty, contorting with each blow from the bird's fists. Just at the most dire moment for the big blowhard (der Captain, I mean), he awakens from the dream he has been engaged in since he fell asleep on the watch -- and hopping madly on his chest is a normal-sized (though still relatively huge) rooster!

Der Captain gets outraged and goes after the bird, but with a mighty leap, he only succeeds in knocking down one of the boards in his garden fence... and then the adjacent board falls, and like so many dominoes, his entire garden fence lies in ruins. The birds converge on the now unguarded domain, and while der Captain lies defeated amongst the pile of boards, the little chick with the wounded rear marches up and kicks dirt in der Captain's face. Even without Hans und Fritz around to annoy him, children still get the best of him.

The solo adventures of der Captain really don't work that well, and one wishes that the remainder of the regulars (perhaps minus Mama) made an appearance here, if only fleetingly. Der Captain just really isn't strong or interesting enough a character to carry a film himself, and perhaps it was wise on Freleng's part to let the animals lead half of the film, even if the action is merely pedestrian. The most interesting part -- the duck -- is never used again after the second "Splat!," and so the viewer is left hanging waiting for the needed third part of the joke.

And still, there is the question of all that residual anger in der Captain. The film starts mid-theft, and our boy is already armed and ready to attack. Did he go into the garden ready to take out his frustrations on whatever crossed his path? What have those boys led him to? Was he keeping the garden to help soothe his nerves outside of his often tempestuous home setting? So many unanswered questions, and ones that are really unnecessary to watching the film itself. One thing's for sure: der Captain doesn't hesitate for a second to level violence upon the garden robbers. Even his most gentle act of the short is considered an act of child abuse in most circles. This might get looked at askance in this day and age, considering that it is basically man vs. animals, and rather defenseless ones at that.

I must point out that I did eat a chicken sandwich while writing this, so I guess I am just as bad as der Captain...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Goggle-Fishing Bear (1949)

Directors: Preston Blair & Michael Lah
MGM, 0:07 animated short, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 5
Shark appearance: cartoon shark (undefinable species), able to roar and growl, no sense of humor.

So, who has it worse? Sharks in the movies -- where they are employed mainly to threaten the lives of the (usually) human characters in the film, or at the very least, imply that said characters are in mortal danger -- or sharks in cartoons?

Certainly, the answers is "in the movies," since sharks almost always end up dying onscreen for their sins, and in some films (in the dark, olden days of the industry), really dying for our entertainment. Their menace is perceived as far more real, naturally, and the potential harm to the reputation of sharks in the real world is that much more immense.

Cartoon sharks, on the other hand, not being flesh and blood, have a cakewalk. Or is that "cake-swim"? Sure, they show up, flash their pearlies, frighten the protagonist(s) and generally have a fine, evil time of it as the contracted villain of the piece. They do what is expected of any shark in a film: be evil, get your comeuppance, end of story. Except cartoon sharks, given that they are in a piece where death is a rare (if ever) occurrence, don't get blown to smithereens (as a final blow, that is) or get a bullet through the head or get harpooned or electrocuted or spear-gunned. Cartoon sharks, though actually one of the rarer species on earth, most often survive their appearances in their films. The twist is that they often face a different sort of living death...

In Goggle-Fishing Bear, an MGM short from 1949, the shark in question literally and ultimately becomes the butt of the joke. Accompanied by the usual compliment of lush backgrounds, detailed closeups and sharp character work that was a hallmark at MGM in the '40s, ursine dope Barney Bear takes to his rowboat for a spot of fishing relaxation. Of course, anyone even remotely familiar with poor ol' Barney, or cartoons in general, knows that relaxation is definitely not in the cards. Even if he had opted to stay home and actually play cards instead, relaxation would not be ready to be paired with the misbegotten Barney. In much the same manner that sharks have their place to play in cartoons, so is Barney burdened with the yoke of playing the eternal lummox.

The opening third of the short concerns Barney's attempts at enjoying a day trident-fishing off his outboard motor boat as being initially thwarted by the intrusion of a typically cute sea lion pup (not a seal, though people will immediately see him and shout, like a small child would in delight, "seal!). The pup gives Barney the sort of hard time that one expects, but these frustrations immediately cease once the third character of the film is introduced: the shark.

His entrance is grand, far grander than the film itself deserves. As Barney and the sea lion pup go through their cutesy struggles with one another, at the point where the pup has been so fully shunned by the bear that he mopes away sadly on his own, a huge, looming shadow falls over him. The pup glances off to see what is causing the circling shadow, and as he does, a huge green and yellow shark turns about and makes a beeline for the pup. Panic ensues, but the pup retains just enough of his senses to try and warn his would-be playmate, Barney, of the impending doom. He zips between the bear's legs, sending the ursine spinning about and accidentally releasing the fish Barney has just caught. The pup barks madly in desperation. Barney is so annoyed by the pup by now that he ignores its warnings, and continues back to his trident-fishing. As the shark continues drifting forwards, closer and closer, the pup has no choice but to give up on his friend, scream frantically and head for the hills. Or the boat. Whatever the case may be.

So, now I ask, which is of more murderous intent? The natural hunger that continues the great Chain of Life, wherein a shark might instinctually seek out his prey, or a bear seeking to vent a few holes in a wholly innocent sea lion pup's head with a trident? When the shark pulls up and bumps Barney Bear in the bottom twice, the bear, believing it to be more goading from the pup, doesn't hesitate to stab his trident several times over into the snout of the shark. It slowly dawns on Barney what he has just done, and he steps away from the giant shark and acts sheepishly. The shark, angered, pulls forward and roars tremendously, its jaws fully open to allow its breath and sound waves to crash over Barney. The bear stands calmly and smartly shows the trident to the shark as if to display that it couldn't possibly do any harm, and then jabs himself in the chest as an example. Of course, it hurts Barney, and as a last desperate measure, Barney thrusts the trident over the shark's snout, pins it to the ocean floor, and makes a break for the boat, where the sea lion is already waiting to escape.

Being more than a match for a mere trident, the shark dispenses with the tool and snaps sharply onto the tips of Barney's flippers. The flippers stretch out to ridiculous lengths as Barney frantically swims for the surface. He reaches the boat, and the seal grabs his hands to pull him aboard. The boat tips upward with the weight of the bear, and when Barney grabs the slats serving as seats in the tiny craft, the boards are ripped out, and Barney zips back underwater and towards the waiting jaws of the massive shark. The fish takes a huge snap at Barney's backside, and scrapes off the poor bear's swimsuit and fur in the process, leaving Barney either bare-bottomed or bear-bottomed -- take your pick. Barney hides amongst some underwater weeds, and uses his trident to pull off a hastily improvised impersonation of King Neptune. He halts the shark with one steady hand, and then points away from him. The shark departs, but as Barney runs off in the opposite direction, the shark immediately turns about. There follows a series of snaps as Barney's person, but each snap is thwarted by the fact that Barney is running on a series of underwater moguls, and so he goes up and down with each attempted bite.

The shark swims far ahead, rests on the bottom, and opens his jaws wide like a cave. Naturally, Barney runs right in with his momentum, and the shark closes his mouth in triumph. Barney continues to run, and the shape of his body is seen walking to the end of the shark's tail. Barney realizes his mistake and turns around to run the other way. He smashes right through the teeth of the shark, leaving a silhouette of his body in the remainder of the shark's surprised grin. Barney finds a small rock and somehow manages to hide his own massive body underneath it. The rock sprouts eyes all of a sudden, but they aren't Barney's. As the shark pulls up to investigate, we find that the rock is actually an octopus, which screams at the sight of the monstrous fish and stretches up on its six legs (yes, this octopus only has six legs, not eight) in fright. It zips away, leaving an unaware Barney at the mercy of the shark.

Luckily, the sea lion pup comes to the rescue. As the shark closes its jaws in on the bear, the pup zooms into the shark's mouth and holds the jaws agape. As part of the struggle between pinniped and shark, the fish's teeth are shown to prod Barney in the rear, and the bear turns his head, presumably in anticipation of his own demise. Instead, he espies the brave little pup, straining mightily to keep the shark's jaws from snapping his would-be pal to pieces. Barney turns tail and exits the scene, only to return -- in a reminder of precisely why one indulges their mind with cartoon logic in the first place -- with a highly convenient car jack. He jams the jack in the shark's mouth and cranks it upward. The pup is no where to be seen, until it peeks out from underneath the huge tongue of the shark. The bear grabs the pup just as the shark breaks through the jack's resistance and slams its jaws shut.

Barney and the sea lion make their escape, the bear literally running upward through the water to the surface, with the shark close behind. Perhaps a bit too close for the pup's comfort, as once he sees the shark breathing hot on their necks, jumps out of Barney's grip and carries the bear himself all the way to the boat, finishing the effort with a massive leap far beyond what one expects from a tiny little sea lion pup encumbered by the weight of a portly ursine. They start the outboard engine and take off, but the shark soon catches up and uses his dorsal fin to saw the boat in twain. Barney pulls the halved pieces back together, but they sink immediately. The pup starts to bail water out, which is truly an impossible task if one is already completely underwater. But -- via that sweet cartoon logic again -- he manages to succeed. The boat pops back on the surface, somehow completely intact. The shark, not to be outdone, spins his tail section into a propeller and launches himself towards the boat like a torpedo. He strikes the boat full on, and a massive explosion ensues. Barney, the pup, the anchor and the myriad pieces of the wrecked boat fly upward, and then start to fall back to the surface of the water. The shark pops out and strikes his best pre-Jaws, mouth-agape, waiting-for-his-prey pose, a hungry smile formed on his cruel face.

But, did you really think that Barney Bear and an innocent and playful sea lion pup would really get devoured in a cartoon from 1949? In the days of the Code, would what is recognizable as evil by the bulk of the public at that time go unpunished? Of course not, and the shark receives his due according to this absurdly moral center: a faceful of anchor, a wrapping by the anchor line, and a newly outfitted yacht body courtesy of the remaining pieces of the boat, mysteriously nailed and perfectly aligned along the shark's back. The pup comes out wearing Barney's diving set and sporting the trident, which he pokes into the shark's rear, causing the fish to emit an anguished "Ooh!" Barney decides it would be fun to pantomime driving their new craft while the pup tortures the shark with a series of jabs to the rear. As they float off into the islanded sunset, the sharks cries are heard over and over again: "Oh!" "Ooh!" "Oh!"

As I said, our boy has become the butt of the joke. Maybe it would be better to get spear-gunned...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)

Director: Max Fleischer //
Jam Handy Organization, 1948
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

It's not Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's fault that he isn't Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Well, what I mean is it's not this innocent Max Fleischer-directed animated short from 1948's fault that it isn't the stop-motion television special created by Rankin-Bass in 1964. Barring the occasional heckling from someone who is just sooo post-post-post-post-everything they have to take such universally beloved things to the wall, that special is justifiably considered to be a Christmas classic. I include myself amongst that group, and I would be lying if I said that simple and ridiculous special wasn't one of the most formative ingredients in the way that I have approached all art and entertainment since I first laid eyes upon it.

And yet, fun as the stop-motion version is, it's really a dramatic expansion (and often outright reconfiguration) of the original story written by Robert May for Montgomery Ward in 1939. For a closer look at the real story, look no further than the 1948 version, where Rudolph is just some punk kid reindeer abused by the neighbor kids who gets accidentally discovered by Santa one exceedingly foggy Christmas Eve night. Since headlights aren't in Santa's magical bag of tricks (and yet, he and his elven slaves can create electric train sets, racing cars and robotic toys), it's lucky he wanders into Rudolph's home to fill the little whippersnapper's stocking and gets blinded by the glow from Rudolph's abnormal -- nay! -- mutated schnozz.

Since Jam Handy released oodles of promotional films for Chevrolet and other big companies (click here and here for my reviews of their pair of Cinderella car commercials), I half expected Santa's sleigh to actually start shifting about and have panels slide out and wheels manuever into place, and then suddenly the right jolly old elf would be riding about in some sort of coach car. Instead, the film is merely there to entertain... and seemingly to promote the newly written -- but not famous yet -- song version of Rudolph by Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law. The next year, Gene Autry would reluctantly record it, and as these things go, the rest is history: one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. (The Autry version would later be edited into the credits of this already released cartoon; the version I am reviewing does not include Autry's voice, but rather a choral arrangement of the tune.)

The animation is decent enough -- comparable to what was passing for quality at Famous Studios or Terrytoons at that time -- but the sound quality for the voices is abysmal, with the taunting reindeer sounding like they were recorded down the hall from Rudolph, their voices echoing harsher than their empty threats. I doubt the effect is stylistic, because such things just were not done. I should state here and now that the sight of reindeer walking about on their hind legs is just a tad creepy in my mind, and furthermore, even the male deer seems feminine within this aspect. In fact, they almost seem nude, like they lost their pants. Rudolph's mother, on the other hand, seems to be the only deer that dresses in actual human clothes, greeting her downtrodden son at the door in a smart housedress. Unlike the cave in the Rankin-Bass version, Rudolph actually lives in a home with furniture, and he hangs a stocking on the end of his bed, imaging a boatload of toys and goodies that will be left overnight by Santa, the way in which all human children dream too. But then his conflict over the teasing he receives from his constantly shining nose gets the better of him, and he cries himself to sleep.

The next section introduces Santa, and he is a magnificent rotund figure indeed (if not a bit flouncy in his gestures). Sadly, whoever is doing the voice for the great man seems to not be aware of just how jolly Santa is supposed to be, and comes off sounding completely blasé about the whole project. Any exclamation points in his lines seem to have been replaced by stifled yawns. (He does a much better job with his speech at the end, but it's no excuse for an overall lackluster performance, especially for someone who should as loud and boisterous as Santa.) Claus encounters endless interruptions of his route -- crashing into trees and roofs, and almost getting done away with by a plane, which he and his reindeer negotiate by prancing across the wings. Santa finds Rudolph just in time, and the little schnozzed one leaves a note behind, beginning it "Deer Mommy and Daddy..."

Rudolph, naturally, saves the day, taking Santa all the way to Bunnyville (who knew they all lived in one town?) and then the film concludes with Rudolph being honored before the entire population of his reindeer hometown with an elaborate ceremony in the town's stadium. His former taunters have been turned to admirers (though I like to believe that most of them are actually evil deer bullies who are jealous of his newfound fame and are plotting to bespoil his reputation). Rudolph is named "Commander-in-Chief" of all the reindeer, and he blushes, causing his fur to equal his nose in intensity. He wishes us "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night", as the final lines of the song run out, and the film closes.

It's so hard to imagine a time when this wasn't an already established part of the culture. We accept holiday folklore as having always been around, and it is surprising to learn that these traditions, in the form we know them, aren't really all that ancient. We just assume Santa's antiquity as an unspoken thing as a child, and as far as we can surmise, Rudolph has always been there with him. I saw this film long after the Rankin-Bass, and I was offended by how boring it seemed against a film filled with misfit toys, a flying lion king and an abominable snowman. Even though it was first aired just after my birth, I accepted the '64 film as gospel. That was, and still is, tradition to me (in fact, I am watching it right after I conclude writing this).

But I then think of those that preceded the arrival of both myself and that film, and how perhaps they looked to this simple animation as its own sort of tradition, and even perhaps as new and hip as the later one must have seemed at first glance. It bore a popular song of that day (by the same songwriter as the later film), and animated to the standard of its time. If I had grown up seeing this one instead every year of my childhood, perhaps I would hold far more nostalgia for it.

But, I don't. This Rudolph simply doesn't shine bright enough for me...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Man Who Had to Sing About "The Man Who Had to Sing"

[This post was originally placed on my main blogsite, The Cinema 4 Pylon, on February 2, 2007. For some reason I neglected to place it on here, so until I get a new review on here, this bit of mystery will have to suffice...]

When I first got the "series of tubes" (Ted Stevens, bless your technological acumen!) hooked up in April of 2005, just after I moved to Anaheim, before I even thought of starting up a blog, or even multiple blogs, I had a mission. Inspired by a small, obscure animated short that I had not seen for over a quarter century, but whose presence in my brain had stuck with me that entire time, I made my way to IMDB to start researching the film's whereabouts. Not only did the film appear to not have been released on DVD or VHS, at least in the English-speaking world as presented on the "BUY" section of the website, but the entry for this film didn't even have the minimum number of votes required (a mere 5) to qualify to have a rating on the site (it still doesn't, which seems to speak to its current obscurity). And because this lonely little film titled The Man Who Had to Sing, which seemed to me still like the scraggly, unloved Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown special, didn't have any user comments either, I felt compelled to leave this brief note regarding my past involvement with the film:

"I remember seeing this film back in the late 70's on PBS when I was a teenager, and just beginning to turn into an animation nut. The show was "The International Festival of Animation", hosted by Jean Marsh, and while there were a great many wonderful cartoons presented on the series, this is the one that stuck with my brother and I. The lead character's endlessly repeated singsong refrain of "Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah!" super-glued itself to my brain, and I still sing it all the time over 25 years later, though I have not seen hide nor hair of the film since that show went off the air. Unfortunately, I did not own a VCR until 1980, and never thought to tape it when I did get one. Hopefully, Spike and Mike or some similar group will collect some of these wonderful old films and let them find a new audience. Perhaps it wouldn't hold up in a fresher viewing, but it was a very sad, quirky but poignantly beautiful gem, at least, as I recall it.."

That was it. I titled the comment, "Sometimes You Just Have to Let It Out...", but to this day, I am unsure of whether I was merely referring to the character in the film or to myself, too. I also left a couple of other comments following this one for other likewise obscure and fondly remembered trifles of my youth, but my real hope with this particular one was to locate others who not only shared my love for this film, but to also track down a copy, by any means necessary.

Time passed, and I never received a reply. And more time passed... nothing. It seemed, apart from my brothers, that I was alone in my "Yeah-yeah-yeahing". And then, Wednesday night, I received an email from someone who was conducting a Google search for The Man Who Had to Sing. Nearly two years later, they ended up on my comment at IMDB, and they were then nice enough to contact me. The email as follows...

Hello - I went googling for this Yugoslavian Animation short tonight and found your comment on IMDB. I had such a similar experience that I had to write.

I also saw it with my brother who was a good deal older than me (now deceased). He used to watch the same PBS show late at night and I would get home from a night out and find him sitting there with a smile on his face watching this show. I had never seen stuff like this before and I found it really interesting, especially the Slavic stuff. And one night I saw "The Man Who Had To Sing" and we laughed ourselves silly... I also could not get that song out of my head and now years later at 53 I still remember the whacky, oblivious way that the guy went through life singing that same refrain over and over. Like you said, "... glued to my brain".

I wonder... did you ever get to see it again?

Well, thanks for listening. Just had to write. "Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah!"

I was elated that there was someone besides my brother and myself that had not just seen this in their youth, but had also become inflicted with the "yeah-yeah" madness. But it also served to remind me that my quest was far from over, and that I needed to start anew my search for this film. Unfortunately, Google offers little in the way of an immediate solution, but it did list a few potential bright spots:

  • A website for the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon lists the film in its rentable video library thusly:

    Media Type: Audio (Cassette(s))
    Audience Level: JHA
    A little guy (Charlie Brown type) goes through life with a song to sing ("Ya , ya, ya-ya") that nobody wants to hear. As a child he gets deserted by his parents, beaten up by other children, kicked out of school, and tagged
    Subjects: Growth & Development; Faith Enrichment; Self-Esteem; Life
    Running Time:10

    Mass Media Ministries

  • A website for the Ruth Dudley Resource Center, which also seems to be a religious library, offers this description:

    The Man Who Had to Sing
    A hilarious portrayal of the life of a luckless Charlie Brown-type, a real loser who had only one thing to offer -- a song for which the world had no need. 10 minutes. 1989. JH - A.

  • And best of all, the San Bernardino Valley College website offers up a list of their library films (which consists of the usual mix of public domain titles, industrial films and obscure art flicks). It gives more of the real deal on the film:

    The Man Who Had to Sing
    Year : 1971Type : FilmsColorization : colorLength : 10 min.
    This film is an animated cradle to grave fable - funny, quirky, and sad. A little guy goes through life with a song to sing that nobody wants to hear. As a child he gets deserted by his parents, beaten up by other children, kicked out of school. As a man he has a hard time with the army, with religion, with a wife who soon takes her leave of him, with psychiatrists who declare him hopeless, and with society in general. But he hangs in there, until an outraged public silences him in his grave. Or, is he silenced? The caricature becomes a clue to many problems of human interrelations and individual integrity.

I find it amusing that the Archdiocese's subject description notes "faith enhancement", when I believe that "The Man" finds just as little comfort in church as he does in the rest of his life, and is summarily dismissed from the environs when he takes up his Tourette's-like burst of inappropriately loud and off-key singing. Whatever people take from the film (and it has been so long since I have seen it, so that practically anything could be within the film and I would have forgotten much of it), I am glad that it is around in some form.

I can't rent from the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon because they limit their rentals to the borders of the state, unless you give them a good reason which they will study "case by case". I don't know whether my lack of religion will either hurt or help my case. This same problem might apply with the Ruth Dudley catalog. And I am pretty sure that one must be a student of the San Bernardino Valley College to rent from it, and even if I could, it would be hard to convince Jen that we need to make the trip to S.B. just to rent a 10-minute long obscure Yuogslavian cartoon with a guy who just blurts out nonsense lyrics at every given opportunity.

She would say that she already has someone like that around for real. Why would she need a cartoon for that?

Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah...

The Man Who Had to Sing [Covjek koji je morao pjevati] (1970)
Directed by Milan Blazekovic
Cinema 4 Rating (Distantly Remembering How Much I Loved It): 8

Sunday, April 15, 2007

In Which Everything Is Revealed to Be Nothing But Laziness On the Author's Part... Mostly...

Oi! What's that moving about in the corner? Could it be...? It is!

It's been months since the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc has betrayed any signs of life, and now, apparently the time is ripe for a return, albeit in a greatly reduced fashion. Though I am not picking up the cartoon-reviewing trail yet (though I would like to sooner than later), I wanted to pop in here briefly and perform a pair of rather important tasks.

I first want to state that while most of my actual friends -- none of them real cartoon buffs, mind you -- tend to not post on here (they save that for my other main blog, The Cinema 4 Pylon), I have received a good number of comments over the past year or so, and all from people that I have never met or even heard of before (except for a notable pair of rather well-known animation archivists -- well-known in animation circles, that is). Even a couple weeks ago, I found recent comments for posts that I wrote 7 months ago, which is part of what I love about the blog experience. And, except for a couple of dicey exchanges, the response to my essays -- not reviews, for the most part -- have been overwhelmingly positive. I have met some very nice people through these comments, and I thank them for taking part in this journey. The main trend that I have noticed whilst doing this, however, is that most of these people (not counting the animation nuts) are just people looking up a particular favorite cartoon and running smack into my blogpost regarding said cartoon. While this was not the purpose of writing these posts, it is a welcome side effect. I am first pleased that people found and read what I wrote; I am then pleased greatly that these people saw fit to respond to me, either positively or negatively.

I am not here to set the world on fire. Some days, I wouldn't mind if the entire planet, at least the human portions of it, did burst into flames, but on my personal end of things, that is not the objective blog-wise. I am merely doing this as an outlet to write. That some of you are able to obtain needed information from my random scribblings makes me most happy indeed; that some of you feel I am doing it well is merely a bonus. I am not a historian, nor do I wish to be (nothing against historians -- Jen's mother is one). I just love cartoons, and like the movies I write about on the Pylon, I am not reviewing movies because I want you to know my opinion about them. My opinion, like anybody's after all, doesn't really matter. My opinion may be voiced in whatever I am writing, but what I really want you to garner from my writing is my passion for the simple act of watching cartoons and movies. And also my anger when they are done incompetently, especially by those who have the potential and resources to do them well. Or my joy when they are done in an purposefully incompetent manner but are still excellent. Or when they are done... (Oh, you know... it's a slippery slope, this criticism thing... so many angles to consider...)

Right now, I am pissing off people who are animation nuts just because I am referring to animation as a whole as "cartoons", just as it has become politically correct to say "graphic novels" instead of "comics". Ultimately, to me, the battle between "cartoon" and "animated film" is the same as the battle between "film" and "movie". I understand that you can divide them into different categories, one more arty than the other to please the aesthetes, but in the end, it is all semantics, and I just don't give a fuck.

And this is why I stopped writing on the Cel Bloc for a while: the animation nuts. I must state, they did not do anything to me -- in fact, except for Stephen at the Animation Archive, those few who have run across this blog have been very kind and polite overall -- this is merely an observation from a sideline observer of their antics. I frequent many of their sites, and by and large these places, even when they purport to be as such, are not for the casual consumer of animation. The enthusiasts who run them tend to be, and I say this with tough love, "exclusivists". They might give you a glimpse into the world that breeds their passion -- but don't get too close, mister! You are not one of them. You might think you like Bugs Bunny cartoons, but if you are not an animator, then you couldn't possibly truly understand them. Even if you have seen What's Opera, Doc?, let's say, a thousand times since childhood, if you are not a member of their animation fraternity, within whatever invisible permutations that surround their exclusive little clique, then what you have to say really doesn't matter. At least, that's the impression I get from their comment lists and boards. Because I don't play these silly games, I have never engaged them in this; it is only what I have gathered from spying on numerous sites.

One site that I visit several times a week is Cartoon Brew, run by animation historians Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi. It is probably more immediately accessible than most of these places of which I am speaking, but even though I love it as a source of news and information, it is also part of the problem: running roughshod over films that haven't been released yet, praising to the heavens other films that are miles from coming into view, and then often paying a strange obeisance to certain artifacts of the past of dubious distinction or merit. (Nostalgia causes us to do strange, strange things...) So, it was with pleasure that I ran across an item on the Brew earlier this week where they were kind enough to tell their loyal readers of a Cartoon Brew spoof on the often amazing parody site (home of the nauseatingly great Horrors of Porn series). Because Mr. Beck is a good sport, he is big enough to admit just how dead-on the skewering actually is -- and it smokes -- oh, does it ever! (Please make sure to get all the way to the second page and check out the "John K." commentary. I'm sure Mr. K won't like it... it was written by a writer, after all; it couldn't actually be funny...)

So, by all means, check it out...

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Listen Up, You Bloc-Heads!!!

Rare is the post on this site that doesn't involve a review of some variety regarding an animated film of some vintage. In fact, this is only the third one in over six months that isn't built around a cartoon, but it is a necessary interruption in our normally scheduled program.

Since the beginning of the year, I have kept up this blog as a way of keeping myself in my writing trim, as it were; chiefly to force myself to constantly be at work on something, no matter how busy or lax the particular moment happened to be. It hasn't been easy for the last few months, especially after I worked myself into a certain style of lengthy essay each and every day, after beginning the project with each review sporting a mere two or three short paragraphs on each film. That truncated style has certainly gone the way of the dodo, but I could control this current wordiness if I were a better editor of my own voice. The thing is, I don't want to force brevity on my writing at this time. It is the very spirit of freestyling that I am trying to introduce into my writing, and besides, the bane of my existence has been my too-rigid self-editing reflex. As a matter of very definite fact, the true purpose of this blog was to help do away with that reflex, or at least quash about 75 percent of the hideous monster into the ground with the bootheel of my literary freedom.

So, what am I getting at here? I'm trying to explain that by no means was this blog meant to be an actual "daily" blog. And yet, until Thursday, I have kept it up as such. The blog is solely meant for my own personal growth, and while any visitors to it are welcomed heartily, I must stress that while I have strived thus far for historical accuracy and often do a good deal of research before writing each article, this is merely part of the exercise regimen that the site is meant to provide for me. I certainly write the posts to be read by anybody that is into animation -- after all, why else would a make a very public spectacle of myself? -- and the handful of people who have been so kind to check back every now and then and comment on the reviews, whether in the positive or the negative, and especially those who have provided even more information on each cartoon, I thank you all from the bottoms of my two hearts. (Sorry, a little too much Dr. Who lately...)

I must be making it seem like I am shutting down the blog, and you would only be partially right, but we would then be getting to my ultimate point here. I am stopping the site, but only briefly. Starting today, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc is going to be on hiatus until Sunday, September 6, 2006 when I shall return with a review of Max and Dave Fleischer's Ants in the Plants from 1940. (Ya gotta start somewhere, and it was the next one in line for review...)

The reasons for this much-needed battery-recharging break?
  • The busted ankle isn't getting any better with all of my desk-sitting. So, a little time to properly rest the thing is well overdue.
  • Other projects have sprung up for which I need to reserve more time.
  • Increased temporary duties at work have melted my brain into mush for the past month or so.
  • And, we are actually planning to take a decent-length vacation at some point in this hiatus.
I will still be posting sporadically on my other blogsite, The Cinema 4 Pylon, with the time that I do have for non-other-project-oriented writing this month. But the Cel Bloc is taking a short intermission, my friends.

Now, for the real reason that I am enacting this hiatus?

Jen read me the riot act regarding her wishes not to be wasting her vacation time waiting for me to finish writing every morning and every night. Very sound logic, that... don't want to wake up in a hotel in the middle of Arizona, New Mexico or Texas abandoned and girlfriendless.

See you in a month...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ain't Nature Grand! (1931)

Directors: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies, 0:07, b/w
Animators: Friz Freleng and Norm Blackburn
Music: Frank Marsales
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

Ah, wilderness! I moved away from it, at least, away from the largest single measure of it in the United States, when I left Alaska, and to a certain extent, I miss it dearly. Mainly, I miss the possibility that my dad might call me up spontaneously and ask me to go camping the next weekend. I'm sure that once he gets down to Idaho for good that we will get together and hit some of the National Parks together that lie outside of Alaska. But for now, I am a city mouse, and I shall have to live vicariously through outdoors adventures in the movies to get my camping kicks. In the great outdoors, I never seem to sleep more comfortably or seem as relaxed as when I am curled up in a sleeping bag, breathing in the fresh forest breeze, or just hanging about the campfire with friends or relations (or both).

Not that I shall find such happiness with Bosko when he takes to the outdoors in Ain't Nature Grand!, a Merrie Melodies from the Harman-Ising team in 1931. Not only has he taken the woods with only a fishing pole at his side, but he has also left civilization without his girl Honey, and especially without a reasonable plot or interesting situations. Bosko has left with so little, that he seems to have left half of himself behind as well, since he only seems to appear onscreen for about that much of the picture. In fact, the creators seem somewhat bored with the little guy in this picture, and spend much of the time communing with the worms, birds and bees rather than following the exploits of their supposed lead character. Outside of a couple whimsical moments, the film seems so lacking in anything interesting that upon viewing it, the film threatens to dissolve into snow on my television screen, somewhat like a reverse version of a magic picture poster.

After shooing his dog away, Bosko sits down on a lakebank to pursue a little fishing pleasure. For him, that is, not the fishies. Of course, he sits down next to a sign reading "NO FISHING", and while something will come out of this set-up, if you think any conflict with a park ranger or policeman will ensue here, then you have the wrong film, buster. Bosko wishes to bait his hook with the worm that he brought, but the little fellow pleads for mercy and a big-hearted Bosko lets him go. Desperate for something else to use as bait, Bosko has the swell idea of removing the letters N and O from the sign, not only using them as worms for the hook, but also making his actions completely legal (at least, on first appearance).

In an extended sequence, the worm scurries off to his hole, but a bird coyly follows him, but when the worm makes him out, the bird gives rapid chase to the panicking wriggler. The worm dives into a hole but the bird tries to pull him out. Luckily, there are three other holes nearby that form a square with the other hole, and the worm stretches his body so that he laces through all of them and ties himself about a plant stem. He then pulls the bird through all of the hole, subsequently defeathering the naked avian in the process. The bird picks up his feathers and dons them anew like a coat, and after the worm blows a raspberry at him, the bird highhats the wriggler and struts off.

Meanwhile, Bosko is getting no bites at first, but finally a fish grabs on and Bosko pulls him from the water. The little fella slips free of Bosko's grasp, but after a couple of similar swipes, Bosko finally manages to hang on to him. Bosko ask rhetorically, "Ain't that cute?", but the fish spits in Bosko's eye and makes his escape. Not that flibberdigibbit Bosko cares; he is off chasing a beautiful butterfly. (This part has some particularly fun animation, with Bosko and the butterfly moving closer and farther from the screen in turn throughout the chase.) Bosko comes upon a waterfall, where bees dance from rock to rock and a spider plays his web like a harp and rings flowers like percussional bells. Bosko starts to "La-la-la!" along with the music and then prances and skips through the waterfall and over the rocks. On the far side, a pelican spits up four frogs, and the amphibians link arms with Bosko and form a kickline.

A large spider dances along to the music, following by four spider babies (and I don't mean the Jack Hill sort). The spider shimmies up to the top of a flower and spreads its legs out, and the little spiders spin about from the legs as if they were dancing about a maypole. All of these sorry excuses for entertainment can only lead to trouble, and it does, in the form of two mischievous bees and their dragonfly buddy. The bees pluck a daisy, strip it down to two petals, strap it to the dragonfly's bent tail, and then wind up the daisy. The flower works like a propeller and the dragonfly zooms off with the bees on his back like bombadiers on a warplane. (Uh, the dragonfly can fly already, boys - he doesn't need a propeller.) Regardless, the illusion is completed by the fact that the bees have hefted a rock up with them, and when they fly over the still dancing Bosko and his froggy pals, the bees bomb the rock onto Bosko's head. The bombers then head to a tree and grab a beehive, tap it with a section of thin hollow log and then use it to machine gun Bosko with bee after angry little bee. They force Bosko to leap into a fountain, and the bees depart. Bosko pops up to the top of the fountain and poses like a statue. Iris out.

Zzzz... huh?! Wha-?! Oh, I'm sorry. I must have dozed off. Seriously though, what's up with the proportion on these bees? When they pick up the rock, it is barely the size of the pair of them together. But when they drop it on Bosko, it is bigger and wider than his head. When they get near him, it is easy to see that the size of the rock must have changed in mid-drop. Perhaps the bees (or beetles of some variety - they are bigger than all of the other bees and their unused wings are different, but they bear stripes like bees do) have magical abilities that allow them to change the mass of hurled projectiles. Or perhaps they used their mutant X-bee/beetle powers to effect this transformation.

Whatever they can do, if this is the best that Bosko's middling (though well-animated by Mssrs. Freleng and Blackburn) wilderness has to offer, then I need to dream about camping somewhere a little more exciting and not so generic. Someplace where the characters break into some actual scat singing instead of poncy la-la-la-ing. Someplace where the frogs skip the kicklines, and mainline instead with a trumpet valve. Some savage wilderness where a hot chick with a high garter dodges monsters and wolves, even of the human variety, disabling them all with her cool way with a red hot jazz tune. Anyplace but here in Generic Goody-Goody Land.

Mmm-mwyah! Huhmmm... why am I so sleepy? Oh, that's right. I've barely slept in days. Must be the city life and the business walk of the damned. I think it's time we escaped, my son! (Thanks, Ian Dury...) Hit the open road and take a relaxing trip to revisit the beauty and grandeur of nature. And, in the words of the similarly afflicted Mr. Fudd, get some "west and wewaxation at wast!"

Just can't do it in Bosko's neck of the woods. He'll la-la-la me to death...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Barnyard Brat (1939)

Director: Dave Fleischer //
A Max Fleischer Color Classic, Technicolor
Animators: Myron Waldman and Tony Pabian
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

Who deserves a spanking in The Barnyard Brat? The obnoxious little donkey turd named Spunky, the indecisive mother named Hunky, or the far too anxious to commit child abuse barnyard animals? Well, none of them. (Except that little brat donkey is asking for something horrible to happen to his innards...) No, the Fleischer Brothers deserve the worst beating imaginable for unleashing this weird series of donkey films on mankind. While I am the generally the biggest defender of the Fleischer Brothers in even their most unsuccessful turns (such as their forays into feature films), I have no love to spare for the Hunky and Spunky shorts, even the Oscar-nominated original short from 1938. Released as part of the Color Classic series, which went to great lengths to duplicate the mood and look of Disney's Silly Symphonies, the Hunky and Spunky featured an adult-and-child donkey pair possessed of little or no visual appeal whatsoever. Grotesque and grating at every turn, I'd sooner watch a donkey show than one of these donkey cartoons. At least with the donkey show, disgusting and weird as it might be, you'd at least can guess the sort of hellishness into which you are descending.

In The Barnyard Brat, the title refers to the annoying childish braying of Spunky as he throws an immense tantrum. He won't eat his hay, and just brays and cries. A grandmother duck comes up and motions to Hunky that she must punish Spunky with a good smacking. Spunky raises her hoof, but can't go through with the action. A rooster says something about smacking the brat, but Hunky tries to get her charge to eat a bucket of oats. Spunky butts the bucket into the air, and it sticks on his head. Hunky pulls the bucket off, but takes a spill and falls into the water trough. Spunky runs off and pulls all the wool off an unsuspecting lamb. The mother sheep discovers this and reports it to Hunky. Spunky drinks all the water in a small pond full of ducks, and they are left in the mud. The mother duck reports this to Hunky. Baby chicks, who are enjoying some corn off the cob, are shooed away by the pushy Spunky, who steals the corn and eats it.

The barnyard animals have had enough. After the rooster forms a committee and devises a plan to teach the youngster a lesson, the goat runs the bucket from the well towards Spunky and butts it over the young donkey's rear. The other animals winch Spunky towards the well with the bucket's rope, and then dunk Spunky over and over in the deep water of the well. Hunky, moping off by her lonesome, hears her child's cries of anguish and runs to his rescue. She kicks various items of trash at the barnyard animals to disperse them, and then she pulls Spunky out of the well. She tries to console the screeching Spunky, but he only kicks her in the face several times. Pushed to her limits, but unwilling to punish the kid directly, he does the only thing she can: he takes him back to the well and drowns him.

No, we couldn't be so lucky. Actually, she spanks him by turning the crank for the bucket and letting it swing around and around, swatting him each time. The barnyard animals cheer his comeuppance, and then Hunky brays to him that she wants him "to be a good boy." Spunky seems to do just that, and he attempts to make amends by skipping over to the corn bin and dropping out several ears for the other animals. He invites them over to partake of the kind gift, and they happily run over to do so. As they fill their mouths with the corn, Spunky kicks the bar out of the corn bin and covers the whole lot of them with a heaping pile of corn. He laughs and slides down the mountain of corn, but Hunky is waiting at the bottom. The gloves are off. She takes a swipe at his head with her hoof, and chases him into the corral. Iris out.

I don't know what is less appealing: the creepily large head that rests on Spunky's tiny shoulders or the use of child punishment as the theme for an entire cartoon. My own feelings towards the spanking of children are muddled, but then again, I wouldn't bring them into the world to begin with. Certainly there are children who need to be reminded of their place now and then, but I don't think the solution to this question is going to be found in a Fleischer Brothers cartoon. Especially when the solution to the question involving Spunky is that he should be swiftly and mercilessly eviscerated and then rendered into shellac. It's hard to work up any sympathy for a character when the immediate impulse at even his most appealing moments is to have him disemboweled.

Or, perhaps there is another way to go. How about a new form of donkey show? How about we take Spunky and shove his giant noggin up Hunky's ass? I go to Tijuana to see that. In fact, it's the only reason I'd go there. And the only reason I could possibly wish to allow myself to be in their company again.

Oh, crap... there are several other H&S films with which I must deal. Ohhhhh, crap...

[A word of warning if you are planning to look up images of Hunky and Spunky on the internet. Turn your safe mode ON. My goodness, the things you will see otherwise...]