Wednesday, May 31, 2006

SUMMERTIME (1929)

I was going to speak about the changing definition of summer for me since I moved to a place where, if it is not sunny for just one day, people start seeing visions of four skeleton horses with riders galloping across the cloud-bedecked sky. I was also going to link the title of this cartoon to the Gershwin/Gershwin/Heyward song from Porgy and Bess, for while the show did not even exist as an opera until 1935, I cannot read the title without thinking of the beautiful and evocative "lullabye" of the same title. From here, I was going to launch into a wistful rememberance of a friend for whom the song had played a deeply important role in her happiness, and how I have not seen that friend for a number of years. I'm still going to discuss the friend and her song, but events occur which transform thought and memory, sometimes in shocking ways, and my interest in watching a simple cartoon (especially one of middling quality) was diminished by grim reality.

We flirted for a couple months at work, and early on, we had only one official "date" (which went alright), but somehow we still bonded as friends. For a few years, no matter what life put either one of us through, my friend Leah and I could also count on each other when we needed someone off of whom we could bounce any crazy ideas floating in our heads; when we had romantic troubles, we could call each other for a good platonic talk-down (booty calls were out of the question); and when I would get a little nutso with the self-pity (such as my silly "Suicide Night" of binge drinking many years ago - when you are clearly not a person meant to hold more than about 1-1/2 drinks max, 19 shots of Goldschlager is probably not the way to go about things), Leah was there to reprimand me in a way that none of my other friends were able to do at that time. (Even after they hold your head over a toilet one night, your guy friends are just a little too eager to continue the craziness the next.) We probably got along so well because she was the only person around who could outgab me in matters nonsensical, and I was actually able to breathe for a little while and let someone else carry on with the B.S.

But, to the matter of "Summertime", the Gershwin tune and the title of the cartoon I am supposed to discuss. At the time, my buddies and I often attended a blues jam on Sunday nights at a bar called Blues Central, a hole in the wall dive that nonetheless serves some pretty decent eats. Since it was on Sunday night, I didn't go there to drink, but rather to catch the tunes and hang with my buddy Robear (who kills, in a good way, on harmonica), usually subsisting on Cokes which the waitresses would often not charge us for as long as we ordered food and tipped them well. Leah started to show up when she heard that we often went, and it wasn't long before she worked up the nerve to take the stage herself. She had sung quite often in church (her father was a minister), but this was a different animal altogether, and the first time she hit the microphone, she understandably shook quite a lot. She sang "Summertime" that first time out, and for several weeks after that, it was her song; I know at some point she told me the significance of the song to her, but I don't remember why. I just liked the song because it was dripping with poignancy and beauty and hope, and it got to the point where even now I can't think of the song's title without thinking of Leah singng it. I won't go deep into how she sang it; her voice was nice, a little thin and untrained, but pleasant, and the soft Southern accent of her parentage became more pronounced when she sang the wistful lyrics. In a couple months, she started to branch out into things like "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and even started singing with a band at a few gigs. And at a certain point, knowing of her interest in blues music, our boss Bob loaned Leah a dual disc of Great Female Blues Singers like Bessie Smith and the like. Bob was a minor blues fan, and seemed to be tickled to find someone else in the office who liked the same music.

Eventually, she left the job to go elsewhere, but we kept in touch and hung out occasionally (including the only night that this partly Irish guy has ever gone to an Irish bar on St. Patrick's Day), and still used each other for sounding boards for our various miseries and missed opportunities. And then... she disappeared. I heard various rumors from people who had run into her that she was going to go to school somewhere, that she had moved to Georgia, that she was getting married. I never got confirmation on any of them, but I didn't really worry about it since I was moving along in my own life. And so a friend slipped out of my life without any conflict at the cause. Though I did have the opportunity to remain in touch with her, I simply could not be bothered with whatever direction my life was taking at that time, and so a friend was just... gone.

I bring this up because I got a call late last week, as I was preparing the notes for this very review, that my old boss Bob, the employer with the dual disc of Great Female Blues Singers, whom I knew for over twenty years, and had worked both with and for over the last twelve or so, had died. I was actually informed by email, and the verbiage used in it by a friend at the old gig was "passed on." I am not one to romanticize death; you do not pass on in my view, harsh as it seems. You just die. I was at my new job in my new town in my new life when I received this message, and I had to sit down very quickly when I read for fear of hitting the ground. This feeling overcame me because I felt that I was guilty of another missed opportunity to keep up a small friendship.

It's hard to dive into the inconsequential details of a silly cartoon after a feeling like that overtakes you. After the odd crowing of the live-action Pathe rooster, we are introduced to a disturbed-looking frog (his design, I believe, leaves much to be desired) who skips and capers along a forest path for what seems far too long, and in his hands, he carries an instrument case of unknown content. He stops beneath a tree and pops the case open, and inside is a large toadstool. He starts to play the toadstool like it was a flute, and in a nearby, a monkey pops out and starts to blow a horn of his own in time with the frog. The song they play is the famous novelty number Abba-Dabba Honeymoon, which details the wedding night of a monkey and a chimpanzee. There are no words here, though, merely the tune, and the frog and monkey toss it back and forth until it gains the notice of a curious squirrel.

At first not giving the music an approving look, the squirrel starts to rabidly applaud the concert, and it is his actions which serve to wake up a very grumpy owl in the same tree. The owl hoots a warning for the squirrel to shut up, but the applause continues. So, the owl hoists a boot out his window, which conks the squirrel and sends him bouncing down the tree, from branch to branch, until he lands on top of the frog and prematurely ends the song. This brings nothing but derisive laughter from the monkey when he sees the collision, and I can't help but think this might be a great way to run American Idol. Only, instead of a squirrel, we could just drop a whole tree on Katherine McPhee. Or Taylor Hicks. Whatever... they're interchangeable.

Sweating profusely from the heat of the day, a mouse makes his way towards two gossiping women. We briefly hear how the one woman wishes to keep her husband away "from that blonde hussy...", but all the mouse is concerned about is the shade that the very fat woman of the pair provides him. He sits down in her shadow and starts to play a tiny horn. As he plays, a mouse emerges from an abandoned mattress on a refuse pile and likes what he hears. He pulls a spring from the mattress and starts to bounce up and down on it. Soon, another mouse with a spring joins him and they leapfrog over one another on their way towards the horn-playing mouse. One there, they take turns leaping onto and sliding off of the heel of the fat lady. She finally discovers what is going on, sees the trio of mice at her feet, and she and the other lady swiftly depart, screaming all the way. The mice laugh heartily at their fear.

Stepping out of his house beneath the burning sun of the afternoon, Farmer Al Falfa watches with horror as the mercury on his thermometer rises and rises, reaching 100 degrees and threatening to burst over the top. The thermometer goes through wild contortions, and so do Al's eyes as the sun gets hotter and hotter, and the thermometer finally explodes. Al runs to the frame of his front door as the sun flies down towards him, growing larger as it moves straight to Al's front step. Al almost melts before the sun finally relents and moves back to its proper place in the sky. Inside his house, Al seeks relief from the heat by mixing a cool drink on the rocks. Three bottles on his kitchen table are meant to provide the goods, but only the first two pour with any sort of ease. The third bottle Al has to wrangle and squeeze harshly to even be able to get a single drop out of it. He stirs the mixture with a sigh of satisfaction and a thirsty tongue, but before he can drink it, a mouse hops onto Al's piano and steps out the first four notes of How Dry I Am. Al wings a bottle at the mouse, yelling "Get out of here!" and then returns to his drink. Another mouse picks up the next few bars on a tuba, and Al yells again. Just about to take a swig, Al finds the glass shatters when another mouse in front of a banjo shoots through the glass with a slingshot. Al starts to cry, as a whole crowd of laughing mice are seen just outside by his doorstep. Al picks up a shotgun and goes after the rodents. They run to where a goat is eating with his back turned, and when Al shoots at them, the bullet hits the goat in the rear. The goat turns on Al and chases him off, occasionally laying its horns into the soft flesh of Al's backside. Iris out. Then the film returns for the traditional Aesop's moral, which usually has nothing to do with the film itself, and which this time reads "Hair, brains and skirts are short this season."

There are probably films that are held together with even less of a theme than this one is, but I'm not going to seek them or call them out for the purposes of this review. Let's just say that it must have been as hot in the studio as the temperature displayed in this film, because it seems the filmmakers really had no desire to even make half an effort towards supplying a decent scenario for its characters. Or to supply decent characters, outside of Farmer Al Falfa. No character in any section has anything to do with the other sections, though you could surmise that the mice playing the pranks on Al are the same ones that messed with the fat lady. But since all the mice look the same, you can't say for sure. I'm sorry, but I don't feel that there is much else to say about this cartoon, not in light of certain feelings.

Not all people are the same, no matter how much I try to convince myself and the world that most people are disposable and ridiculous beings. Because when you actually make a connection with a person, get to know a person, and whether or not you agree with that person on most subjects, that connection is precisely what makes life worthwhile. It's just that too often the people who are worth knowing better slip out of your life, often to circumstances beyond anyone's control, and sometimes because you are just too busy with life to keep in touch with people that way that you should.

I didn't know Bob incredibly well, despite the two decades that I knew him, but we talked enough every day for a long time, that I felt that I could consider him a friend. We hardly agreed on anything, but that didn't matter. We agreed on college basketball, and that's all that we needed. For years, we would fill out our brackets each and every March, and then compare them and discuss the various permutations that certain results would bring about, and we rarely agreed on any of that, either. And we were both usually wrong, as is most of the college basketball fanbase. Which is precisely what makes things like March Madness so intruiging. We would also occasionally attend college basketball games together; Bob had regular tickets to the annual Great Alaska Shootout, and often he would have an empty seat or two, and I would catch a game with him. The difference between us was that for me, that basketball game was a fleeting thing, and the spectacle of the event was the main attraction. For Bob, each game meant the world, and he would get incredibly fired up on even the smallest play. It was a passion for sports in general that I can only play at having.

When I left the agency, I never talked to Bob again. I kept meaning to call and catch up with him, but I didn't. I had a box of magazines and other items that I have worked on since I moved to California, and a week didn't go by that I didn't think, "Oh, I need to get that in the mail to Bob." I once started a letter to him, but never got past the second paragraph (I know, it seems impossible). He got in a car accident in October, but I never heard about it until much later, so I never knew that I should contact him. He was remarried at the end of the year, and again, the news came as a belated surprise. And this recent March past, I printed up my brackets but never filled them in, even though I had intended on faxing them over to Bob for his amusement. Instead, I let each and every moment where I could have rekindled that ebbing flame of friendship pass by, and now he is gone. I never heard back from my friends at the old job about the services, where at least I could have given some word to his brothers. For most of this, I feel that I was the delinquent one; I feel that I should have acted sooner.

And now, another friend is gone.

"Summertime, and the living is easy..." Not for everyone.

Summertime (A Van Beuren Studios Aesop's Fable, 1929)
Directors: John Foster & Harry Bailey
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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