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).


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.


How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Carnegie Hall (airing on Tuesday at midnight—set your DVR) is an epic-length cinematic love letter to classical music from one of America’s most important, if elusive and enigmatic, directors.  It is also the movie that indirectly saved my DVD venture from premature death, and for that I owe it an eternal debt.

Maybe the title is unfamiliar.  I should ‘splain what it is first:



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.



Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]

The Minnellium: Yolanda and the Thief (1945)

Vincente Minnelli had been interested in making a surrealist musical since his days as a Broadway set designer and director. After he saw successful stagings of “Four Saints in Three Acts” (with libretto by Gertrude Stein) and “Pins and Needles” (starring members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union), he was convinced he could make it work. In 1938, he tried to woo musical comedy star Bea Lillie to take the lead role in a “surrealist revue” he titled “The Light Fantastic”. In a letter to Lillie, quoted in Minnelli’s autobiography, he wrote, “It sets out to prove that the world today is completely screwy. A surrealist fantasy set in jig time.” The project was shelved, and he moved on to direct “Very Warm For May”, the first Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein collaboration in eight years.

Once in Hollywood, and flush with studio goodwill off the hits Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945) (he had also directed the majority of the revue-style Ziegfeld Follies, which the studio tinkered with until ’46), he finally put his “Light Fantastic” inspiration into action, resulting in Yolanda and the Thief (1945), one of the strangest and most enchanting films ever released by a Hollywood studio. Released earlier this year on DVD by the Warner Archive, Yolanda and the Thief  is also screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October, as part of a complete retrospective of the director’s work (presented along with the Locarno Film Festival).


Life on Mars

“It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling “No”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?”
- From “Life On Mars” by David Bowie

In a 1997 interview David Bowie was asked what his song “Life On Mars” was about and he said, “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media. I think she finds herself disappointed with reality … although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.”


John Barry 1933-2011: The Beat Goes On

John Barry loved movies and the movies loved him. The British born composer passed away on Sunday, January 31st at age 77 following a heart attack but he left a rich legacy of musical accomplishments behind. Barry was a giant in the industry and the obituaries and tributes that have followed his death have reflected his importance as an Oscar winning film composer who worked on award winning films like Born Free (1966), The Lion in Winter (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Out of Africa (1986), Dances with Wolves (1990) and Chaplin (1992) as well as his contribution to the classic James Bond theme, which happens to be one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever recorded. John Barry’s work touched people and many of the heartfelt remembrances that I’ve read express a real connection to the man and his music. His soundtracks were often some of the first film scores that movie fans purchased and when a film was easily forgettable it was John Barry’s music that often stayed with viewers long after the credits rolled. Barry didn’t just make music, he made movie magic. The searing melodies, guitar driven rhythms, punchy horn sections and lush orchestration found in his scores have the ability to transport audiences to another place and time. Few artists can claim to have that kind of power but Barry’s musical wizardry is renowned. I thought it would be fun to take a look back at Barry’s impressive career and see how he progressed from a film projectionist’s son into an Oscar winning composer.


In Praise of Pee-wee

Probably everybody’s heard by now about the resurgence of Pee-wee Herman, actor Paul Reubens’ singular creation, who’s now enjoying a joyous renaissance on the Broadway stage after wowing audiences in L.A. with a new version of his classic stage show of the 1980s.  As a super fan of Pee-wee and Reuben I’ve been following the latest reviews since his show opened the other day.  While the Los Angeles critics seemed to be totally into the revivial, the NYC press is an interesting mix of reactions, from the adoring to the “Huh?”, which suggests to me that the latter reviewers simply never got into Pee-wee and his particular brand of absurdist amusement.  Not to say that everybody has to like the character or the show, but to not “get” Pee-wee…well, if you don’t buy into the premise, there’s no way his world view is going to make any sense, or more importantly, make you laugh.  But for those of us who love Pee-wee, and maybe even for people who don’t, 1985′s big screen success Pee-wee’s Big Adventure should provide enough evidence that Paul Reubens’ character of the child-man Pee-Wee Herman is a classic of movie comedy.


Eddie Cantor, Ali Baba, and the New Deal: Reading History in Film

Last Saturday morning, I spoke before a small crowd at Oakton Community College, advocating the teaching of media literacy to high-school and middle-school students. Among the many reasons for teaching media or film literacy is to understand how movies are cultural artifacts that capture the issues, problems, and concerns of the era that produced it. In my research, I found an article from the journal Social Studies in which education expert Trenia Walker, who teaches media literacy to high-school educators, noted that too often teachers use movies to “illustrate” a historical time period or event. In other words, they show something like JFK or Far and Away, because according to the teachers, “Students would see what a time period was really like” (“Historical Literacy: Reading History Through Film,” January/February 2006). But, the narrative feature film is a fictional mode, even when the story is a biopic or a historical drama based on an actual person or event. So, showing a movie in this manner misrepresents both the history and the film.

Movies can be used as a tool to help teach history but not in such a simplistic manner.  Instead, character types, plot events, themes, genre conventions, and bits of dialogue must be interpreted to understand how they recreate, reflect, or recast the issues, problems, concerns, and preoccupations of the era that produced the film. In other words, instead of showing Pearl Harbor (2001) to show the attitudes and concerns of America at the outbreak of World War II, teachers should be showing Casablanca (1942) and explaining the anti-isolationist position that is part of the film’s subtext. Unfortunately, as Ms. Walker pointed out in her article, the vast majority of teachers and schools associate “literacy” only with print media, and their methodologies and teaching models are all geared toward print literacy.

These ideas were still swirling around in my head when I attended the classic movie series at the Bank of America Theater that evening to see Eddie Cantor in Ali Baba Goes to Town, a vehicle tailor-made for the musical comedy star that turned out to be a perfect example of history via the movies.  Released in 1937, Ali Baba Goes to Town is a snapshot of Depression-era America, offering jokes, wisecracks, characters, and musical styles reflective of the politics, tastes, and culture of the time. [...MORE]

Do You Dig “The Mole People”?

There’s nothing like a monster movie from your childhood to keep hold of your imagination LONG after you’ve grown up — waaay up!  Though it isn’t a horror movie per se – not a mummy or a ghost in sight — Universal’s 1956 feature The Mole People has some creepy scaly reptilian underground monsters that give the Morlocks of The Time Machine a run for their money.  

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