Daliwood

Salvador Dali’s surrealist career was bookended by his experiences in the movies.

I have to couch that statement with the limiter “surrealist career” because Dali was a prolific and prodigious talent whose larger artistic career in toto is almost incomprehensibly vast—he was painting like a pro when he was a small child, and kept at it until 1989.  That’s right, Dali was around to witness the first Internet virus.  Just wrap your head around that.

But… he is known and celebrated primarily as a surrealist, and it is that phase of his career which intersects the world of movies.  And therein lies our tale.

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Zip a Dee Doo Dah

While celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary at Walt Disney World a couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to think about racist content in family movies.

No, no–hold on, bear with me. I was having a great time and was fully immersed in the magical world of Disney like I was supposed to, but I ran across an interesting paradox that got me thinking. You see, over the years, Disney has retired some rides because their source material was deemed too obscure (bye bye Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), and even some that didn’t seem all that obscure got the axe to make way for attractions based on the latest releases (bye bye 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

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Given this policy, the enduring popularity of Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom is something to marvel at, since the ride is based on perhaps the most obscure work in the entire Disney canon, Song of the South. Weirder still, Splash Mountain debuted in 1989, a few years after its source material Song of the South was decommissioned and mothballed. It would have been easier to just forget Song of the South ever existed–but there’s something about this film that is not so easily forgotten.

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Nature and Nurture: Wolf Children

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One of these images is from James Benning’s long-take experiment in landscape photography, 13 Lakes (2004), and the other is from the hit Japanese anime of 2012, Wolf Children. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Outgrossing Pixar’s Brave in its home country, Wolf Children crowned director Mamoru Hosoda as a legitimate heir to Hayao Miyazaki (for whom he initially developed Howl’s Moving Castle), and is now available to English speakers on Hong Kong Blu-Ray and DVD. Both directors are concerned with the relationship between nature and civilization, but while Miyazaki’s eco-parables soar into faraway lands, with Wolf Children Hosoda had directed his focus on the miniature dramas of everyday life. Wolf Children uses lycanthropy as an excuse to mount a gorgeous melodrama about the hard work of motherhood, and the resulting heartbreak when children heed the call to the wilds of adult life, away from home.

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TO LAUGH, TO CRY, TO SAY GOODBYE.

Last week the film series I program was graced by a visit from Eric Stough, the animation director for South Park. He was kind enough to let me select a recent episode for him to both screen and then provide us with a behind-the-scenes look at how it got made, along with a Q&A session. I picked the show they aired last October, A Nightmare on Face Time, because its riff on The Shining dovetailed nicely with the recent theatrical release of Room 237, and because it deals with a subject of interest to any movie lover: the demise of the video store.

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Which dreamed it?

Alice was a real person.  Her name was Alice Lidell, and the Alice in Wonderland stories are littered with genuine biographical details.  Lewis Carroll, however, was not a real person—that was just a pen name for Charles Dodgson, a complicated genius.  Dodgson was trained as a clergyman but was never ordained; he taught mathematics but resisted the most interesting mathematical discoveries of his era; he was a logician who turned his paradoxes and logic puzzles into children’s stories and absurdist poems.  He told Alice these fantastical tales as a way of entertaining her, and on her insistence he composed them into book form, a single private copy he gave to her in 1864.  Upon further prodding he expanded the text into the form we know it today, and published it for all to enjoy.  The final binding of Alice in Wonderland in 1897 combined Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel Through The Looking-Glass.  By that point, the thing had evolved into a ripe tangle of puns and non-sequiters, parodies of other children’s literature, Lidell-family in-jokes, and ridiculous situations.

During her travels, Alice is told that she is merely a figment of someone else’s dream.  It’s a wild and wonderful idea, equal measures disturbing and intriguing, that may be a bit outré for a children’s book.   In a way, it was true: Alice was merely “a sort of a thing” in someone else’s dream, and as such she could continue her adventures indefinitely, rummaging around the unconscious minds of generations of artists to come.

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Dreams of a Rare Artistic Fiend

While we’re on the topic of great animators, it’s well past time I got around to saying a few words about Winsor McCay.

He’s rightly hailed as one of the early pioneers of animated cartoons. You can’t call him the creator of cartoons–not only did others get there a little before he did, but really, every single movie ever made is animation. Real life proceeds seamlessly, continuously, while movies sample intermittent fragments. Live action takes samples at the same rate at which the resulting sequence of stills is going to replayed–the interstitial moments can be safely ignored. But anytime you extend that interstitial gap, and replay the footage at a different rate than that at which it was taken, you are invoking the principle of animation. This is the gimmick that underlies Melies’ trickery as much as it is the way that drawings can come to life.

But that didn’t stop McCay from staking out a claim for himself as the first cartoonist in his 1911 movie debut, Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the NY Herald and His Moving Comics.

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The secret genius of Preston Blair

There are certain names that have gone in history as legends of animation: Walt Disney, of course, Max Fleischer, Winsor McKay, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, John Hubley… but amongst their ranks there is an artist whose visionary talents graced some of the most important, influential, and beloved classics of animation but whose name did not pass on to posterity. A man who personally crafted some of the most memorable and beautiful moments of some of the most critically acclaimed animated features, while also being responsible foe some of the nuttiest moments of cartoon comedy.  His creations are thrilling, hilarious, sexy, and beautiful–sometimes all at once. 

This, then, is a tribute to the secret genius of Preston Blair.

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Whozzat? you say?  Well, gather round, and hear my tale.

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Children of Fantasia

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I had the privilege and pleasure of attending a rare screening of a more-or-less unique version of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  The venue was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Riccardo Muti and the conducting of Ludwig Wicki, performing live to a screening of selections from both Fantasia  and  Fantasia 2000.

It was, in a way, a realization of Disney’s original ambition back in 1940.  He had cooked up the idea that Fantasia would remain in a state of perpetual flux, with musical selections being rotated out and in continually.  One such alternate selection was prepared, but not used, or at least not used for its originally intended purpose, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s version of Fantasia presented this scene, re-integrated in amongst Mickey the wanna-be Sorceror and the dancing alligators.

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After the Party’s Over: Gerry Anderson 1929-2012

Gerry Anderson Producer of 'Captain Scarlet and the Spectrum', 1967
I celebrate my birthday on December 26th and this year I woke up to the sad news that the man who was responsible for some of my favorite childhood memories had passed away on the same day that I was born. It’s not the kind of news you want to hear when you’re trying to celebrate your birthday but instead of becoming melancholy about Gerry Anderson’s death I became nostalgic about my childhood and increasingly grateful for the various opportunities I had thanks to being born and (mostly) raised in the Bay Area.

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We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate

This is a season of traditions: those comforting rituals that we reiterate on an annual basis because no matter how small some of them may be (like the making of home-baked ginger snaps), they have become imbued with powerful memories of home and loved ones, such that these little ceremonies carry a weight of meaning far in excess of their actual ability to signify.

There used to be a coterie of movies that belonged to these same holiday traditions—certain films like The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life that were consistently and regularly replayed on commercial television on certain holidays.  You could almost set your watch to them. 

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Since its original broadcast in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been one of the most enduring and beloved holiday mainstays—and its history has a curious Mobius strip like effect.  When you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas this year—in whatever media you do (broadcast, on-demand, iTunes download, DVD, Blu-Ray, hallucinatory memory)—you are participating in a metatextual reconfiguration of its core themes!  Betcha didn’t even know that!

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