Cinecon 48 DAY 1: “Always A Bridesmaid” (1943) and “Drums of Jeopardy” (1923)

Tonight was the premiere of Cinecon 48, which I will try to attend every day through Labor Day.  And tonight was off to a great start.  The first feature was the Andrews Sisters comedy “Always a Bridesmaid”, which was very enjoyable. I’ve seen the Andrews Sisters as supporting players in most features, and this film isn’t much different, considering the main lovers the film focuses on.  But this film at least the Sisters are the headline stars.  I enjoyed them as well in the Abbott and Costello feature “Buck Privates”.  Here the sisters run a kind of matchmaking agency which they broadcast through the radio.  Unlike some of the Laurel and Hardy features, where the boys wind up playing second banana to the bland lovestruck heroes, the lovers in the film are at least tolerable and have their moments.  My only real complaint with this film is that while Patty Andrews is undeniably the youngest and most attractive of the trio, and the most razor sharp wit, she gets a lot more lines and attention than her two other sisters, Maxine and Laverne Andrews, who are good looking but aren’t quite as attractive as Patty.  Which is a shame because I would have liked to have seen them get the spotlight a little more and be developed as characters as well.  Oh well, the bias of Hollywood I suppose.  Oh, and my other complaint is the obnoxious “Jivin Jacks and Jills”, a group of dancing teenage brats who boast about their youth and whine about why the old folks can’t seem to get with it.  Lame brats need to get run over by a steamroller!  But the real star of this film is Billy Gilbert, who steals practically every scene he’s in as a buffoonish restaurant owner.  Gilbert has always been hilarious in his supporting roles in the Laurel and Hardy films (In the Music Box he’s especially great).  Animation fans will also note him as the voice of Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  He’s just a brilliant comic actor, who practically explodes on every emotion (with hilarious effect I might add).  Charles Butterworth is also great as Col. who invented a formula for rubber and can’t seem to stop boasting to everyone about it.  Its definitely a sign of the times, but the film’s a good romp with a few great musical numbers by The Andrews Sisters.

My favorite film of the night however was “Drums of Jeopardy”, a 1923 silent feature, and a kind of adventure/drama.  The story by todays standards is pretty typical mystery plot and has a few predictable moments.  But the reason I loved this film was for its level of sophistication in the development of cinema.  For a silent film, and as my friend Jim Harwood pointed out, the performances were surprisingly restrained.  Most silents of that era would have actors making broad over the top gestures, having to telegraph practically every emotion.  Not this film.  Here you watch the man and the woman having a normal conversation, and even though there’s no dialogue, you can still feel the chemistry between them in the subtle movements they make.  The story structure of the film was also interesting to note, as the male protagonist we’ve been following gets captured halfway through the film, and the focus switches to the woman for the second half as she searches for him, especially after he becomes suspect for murder.  This film also features the great Wallace Beery (as the villain of course).  There was also a butler character (David Torrence) who was used as great comic relief during the films more tense moments.  But the other thing I admired was the lush, beautiful cinematography, costumes, staging, and production design.  This was coming from a smaller production company as well, but whatever resources they used they got great milage out of, because the film is just a visual treat.  Its got the adventure and mystery aspect, and from what I was told it borrowed some from the serials of the time (from a 21st century viewpoint, it was a little Indiana Jonsish in places as part of the plot involved a supernatural set of drumming figures).  The story is one we’ve pretty much seen before, but as a peek into the transition of cinema in the silent era, you could tell this film was trying to take its audience more seriously, because audiences were indeed becoming more sophisticated.  This film was remade in 1931, but I doubt the ’23 version is available anywhere else.  Which is all the more reason to attend Cinecon, and see the unknown jewels of the silver screen.  I will be writing more about the films I see at Cinecon through the weekend.  Cinecon runs through Labor Day Monday.  Tickets are $30 for the day.  If you have the time, come check it out!    

Wallace Beery

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My Journey into Animation: Part 1 “Beginnings”

Hey everyone.  So I know it might be a little fast to start a new series so fast after writing the start of my series about the “Decline of Feature Animation”.  But before I continue writing my opinions about that, I first wanted to write a couple of posts to talk about myself a little bit to give you some backstory as to where I’m coming from with my opinions.  I know not everyone understands why I’ve been so hard on todays animated films.  I seem to have given some people the idea that I’m overly critical and that I expect too much out of films that tend to be geared towards a younger audience.  I’ve already explained in my recent post about the issues I have with films skimping around important themes and talking down to children.  But I’m only critical because I love the medium of animation, especially feature animation.  Watching feature animation as a kid is what got me hooked on this wonderful medium in the first place and made me want to pursue a career in the field.  I decided when I was 10 years old I wanted to become an animator for Disney.  A Supervising Animator like Glen Keane, to have my own character to be in charge of.  I suppose even at that early age I had a desire to be in a leadership position.  But my history with animation goes way back, and already I was introduced to Disney practically two weeks after my birth.

My parents were avid lovers of Disneyland before I was born.  It was one of their absolute favorite places to visit.  In late November of 1981, two weeks after I was born, my parents took me on my very first trip to Disneyland.  It was a family trip, and my aunt who lived in New Jersey was visiting and came with us.  Of course, I had no idea what the hell this place was.  My parents took me on “its a small world”.  My aunt had her super 8 movie camera on me the whole time as I spent the whole ride in fascination staring up at all the colored lights on the ceiling.  Forget the songs and all the dancing dolls!  A few years later my parents and I got the very first annual passports in 1984, which for adults cost $65 and for Children $45.  It’s about half of what a day admission costs at the park today.  But at any rate, we were Disney fanatics.

My favorite animated film at the time was Pinocchio.  Of course, it scared the crap out of me every time I watched it.  I had to run into the other room and close my eyes when Stromboli or Monstro showed up.  Everyone usually says it’s the children turning into donkeys scene that freaked them out, but I never quite got that.  I remember it was scary, but it wasn’t as terrifying to me as Stromboli.  As a kid, I was right there with Pinocchio all the way, completely moved every time I watched it.  I was even Pinocchio for Halloween when I was 5.  For a kid like me to be so freaked out and yet so obsessed with this cartoon, its amusing every time I think about it, as if I was going “I love this movie, yet it scares the shit out of me!  But why do I still love this movie?  Let me watch it again….AHHHH!!!”)  It wasn’t just Pinocchio though.  Everything fucking freaked me out.  Maleficent’s transformation into the dragon, Snow White running through the woods, the witch in Snow White, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and yet I seemed to enjoy traumatizing myself every time I watched a Disney cartoon!

I was into a lot of other cartoons as well.  On TV I watched Ninja Turtles like every other kid, but I was mostly drawn to the funny cartoons.  Garfield and Friends was probably my favorite cartoon on TV when I was 7 or 8, and I also used to read the Jim Davis comic all the time.  My all time favorite cartoon was Garfield And Friends.  And here’s my all time favorite Garfield strip:

As the years went on I got into the Disney Afternoon shows and eventually more of the funny stuff, like Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, and my all time favorite cartoon show growing up, Pinky and the Brain.  During those early years though I didn’t think of becoming an animator right away.  I was so enamored with Disneyland during that time that my first life goal was to become an imagineer.  It would be that I would start designing rides, and whenever we went to restaurants, I always tried talking my parents to going to places I knew they had paper placemats so I could draw on them and design my dream rides.  They were usually dark rides.  But what was funny about this is how it related to my future in becoming a filmmaker.  What was I would go to the movies with my parents, and then I would RECREATE the entire story of the movie as a ride just like they would do at Disneyland.  My parents took me to practically every movie, even R rated ones (light R-rated adult films, rarely ever horror or films with hardcore violence and nudity in them-they did take me to see “Misery” though, which looking back I thought was kinda funny).  But aside from giving me a good film education at an early age, I would make the rides out of them…Goonies The Ride, Roger Rabbit: The Ride…then they got more amusing…Three Men and a Baby: The Ride, Field of Dreams: The Ride!  But like a filmmaker looking for the most important beats of the story, I was picking out the most important parts of the story to put into the ride.  Which is pretty fascinating to me now that I think about it.

I also discovered at an early age the films of Ray Harryhausen.  The monsters in those films captivated me like nothing else.  Clash of the Titans was the first one I saw, which of course was Ray’s swan song, and yet Medusa in Clash remains as my favorite creation of his, as she is absolutely terrifying.  It led to some interest in playing around with stop motion animation and making clay figures move from plasticine I bought at a model shop.  Later I made films that I put my friends in being chased by an animated three inch figure.  It was great stuff.

In 1991 though, at ten years old, I suddenly found a new calling in life, and it was one that would forever change me and take me into the world of animation.  That film was “Beauty and the Beast”.  It not only had its funny moments, but even as a kid I was so moved by the emotion of it, particularly in the now famous Beasts death scene, which also left me in tears.  Up to that time, in my eyes, it was the single most amazing animated film I had ever seen.  What sealed it for me though…my parents bought me my first “grown up animation book”, The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas.  It cost $40 at the time, which for 1991 was pretty expensive.  But it had a whole section in the back on the making of Beauty and the Beast, and I was introduced to the greats like Andreas Deja and Glen Keane.  But like many others, it was Glen, who had animated the Beast, that became my idol.  I even started memorizing how to draw the beast straight of the book (and for a long time after I liked to impress my friends that I could draw the Beast!)

So as you can see, up to this point in my life I was pretty enamored by Disney.  But I was into plenty of other cartoons as well, and there were the jewels I saw such as Will Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain, Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn.  I owe a debt of gratitude to my Uncle who used to babysit me when I was younger while my mom went to choir practice on Thursday nights.  My uncle collected animation from all over, so every week he’d show me something different.  Sometimes it was Disney, but I saw a lot of early Don Bluth work…He had the complete animation for the Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace Video games, and he also first showed me The Secret of Nimh (I was too young when it first came out in theaters).  He exposed me  to a lot of great stuff.  But at that early time, it was never just the animation that held me, it was the always the power of the emotional moments those films had to offer.  Especially when they went to a dark place or started talking about things such as life and death and the mystery of life…these were subjects tackled in animation back then!  But even as I revisited those films today, it amazed me how much those stories really held their own.  They weren’t afraid to tackle big issues, and yet they never talked down to children.  Those films spoke to me, and they took me seriously as a kid.  But really when I watched those films, as much as I loved watching the animation, it was really the power of the storytelling that had a hold over me.  I could also tell when it wasn’t working for me either.  There were a few not so great films I remember loving at the time.  I LOVED Oliver and Company when it came out, but it was one of those films looking back on it I could see the new Disney was still trying to find their footing with an audience, which was the year before The Little Mermaid became  their smash hit that revived the studio.  But Oliver was a better film than some of what came later on, after The Lion King, which we got Pocahontas (a major disappointment for me), and then Hunchback (beautiful, but too much of the Disney influence was forced on it for a story that was supposed to be much darker)….Hercules was a bit of a comeback, and so was Mulan.  Tarzan was also beautifully done, but much of the Disneyfied gorillas and the obnoxious Rosie O’Donnell held it back for me.

Looking back on myself as a young kid, its interesting to me to see the kind of stuff I was into.  I seemed to be really fascinated with films that scared the crap out of me.  Sort of like at Disneyland it took me years before I found the courage to ride The Haunted Mansion or Big Thunder…even the Snow White and Pinocchio rides freaked me out!  But the things that scared me and all the darkest elements of a animated films that gave me a feeling of foreboding or talked about the dark side of life…those moments seem to be part of my vocabulary now as a filmmaker.  There were times for me as a kid where it seemed like I was afraid of everything.  But now it’s those things that scared me so much that have become fascinating to me.  Because practically all the things that scared me were coming out of films that (to everyone else) was geared towards children!  They were subjects that today it seems a lot of filmmakers making movies for kids are to afraid to talk about…subjects like death…and the feeling of leaving behind one part of your life and moving onto the next.  I always felt something inside about those things.  But as Joseph Campbell would say, it seems to be the goal of society to keep that child around instead of letting kids understand how to move forward.  I understand this just as well, coming from a conservative upbringing.  I don’t mean to say my parents were horribly right wing conservative…nothing like that.  They took me to R-rated movies all the time.  I was exposed to a lot of good stuff with them, and they generally had good taste in movies.  But emotionally I felt held back from a lot of my peers…and its probably why I was scared so much when I watched these films as a kid.

 My grandfather especially collected classic films and was a complete biography of Hollywood history.  It was through my grandfather at the age of seven I was introduced to “Modern Times”, which today still remains my favorite Charlie Chaplin film.  I was always into comedy and funny stuff, but I also loved dark humor, Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Jay Ward…later I got into Jack Benny’s show, and Bob Hope.  I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here, but classic comedy for me is where its at, and there’s so much to learn from it.  I also loved intentionally unexplained endings in films.  Many people I know don’t care for this film, but I loved the movie “Contact” when it came out.  I got the ending.  I wasn’t disappointed that she may or may not have reached the center of the galaxy.  Because that really wasn’t the point.  It was a test of her faith.  To tell you the truth, I was slightly annoyed that she had “evidence” of her trip through the 17hours of recorded static, because its not really that important, and it felt more like they were throwing the audience members a bone who wanted to believe she went on this far off place.  Those people were still just as pissed by the ending, so I don’t think it would have mattered much. Kind of like the stupid tag at the end of Prometheus because no xenomorph aliens appeared in the film except at the very end, and it had nothing to do with the rest of the story.  But what I’m saying is that I love more obscure endings (when they’re intentional) because they force you to think and sometimes come up with your own answers, as if inviting you to the conversation.  I love it when a film does that.     

During the early 90’s I started noticing this guy show up named Brad Bird.  Now, I know some people might be asking how I could know who Brad was at that early age when it wasn’t until “The Iron Giant” that really called attention to him.  Well, from the time I was born to when my parents first started taking me to the movies, we always stayed through the end credits.  My dad worked for MGM as a lab tech. in those days and many times he had people and friends he knew pop up in the credits.  Well, because of that, I started seeing big names appear over and over again, and pretty soon I started to keep track of them, even if it might have been a more unknown actor and filmmaker.  Brad was one of those people.  He was known by people in the industry and animation community for his work on Family Dog for Amazing Stories, but at the time I was just a kid, so I had no real connection to the animation community.  But I first got to know him after watching “The Simpsons” as he was credited as a creative consultant.  He also directed a few first season episodes, including the classic “Krusty Gets Busted”, which introduced Sideshow Bob as a villain, and “Like Father, Like Clown”, which Krusty meets his estranged father Rabbi Krustofski (voiced by the great Jackie Mason).  After a few years I saw Brad’s name as director of Family Dog, so I got a peek at the incredible talent this guy had.  I saw the trailers for Iron Giant when it came out which didn’t exactly blow me away, but I did find out Brad was the director on it.  So I went to see it assuming he was behind it the film would probably be alright.  Of course, once the film was over, the word “alright” dropped from my mind immediately.

The year was 1999.  I was 17 years old when The Iron Giant came out.  I was still very much into Disney, even though the last string of films that came out weren’t as strong as the films of the early 90’s.  But I was still pretty intent on becoming an animator.  Well, The Iron Giant changed all that.  At the time when I saw the film, to me…it was the single most beautiful story I had ever seen in an animated film.  The story blew my mind.  The animation in it didn’t matter so much.  It was economical for feature animation.  Because of the time and limited budget, there was no room for the flair of a film like Tarzan which came out earlier that summer.  But it was the story that mattered most.  The film not only went to a dark place, it had a tearful goodbye, and not necessarily a happy ending…but an optimistic one.  Being an animator didn’t seem so important to me anymore.  I wanted to become a filmmaker.  I wanted to become a director.

I wrote to Brad shortly after the film came out.  At the time I was in the Boy Scouts and I was preparing for my Eagle Scout ceremony.  I wrote to him the first time to ask if he could send a congratulatory card that I could put into a book of cards.  Basically when you reach Eagle, you can mail to people like the President of the United States, Congressmen, etc to send you letters of congratulations to put them in an album.  Well Brad sent me one.  Iron Giant was a flop at the Box Office so he still had yet to be known in the eyes of the public, which was good for me because it gave me access at the time to write to him and for me to get more of personal response from him.  And when he did respond, it melted my heart.  That card was more important to me than the letter I got from the President of the United States.  Because it was from my hero, and it was a personal note.  It wrote about the great achievement I made, signifying the importance of leadership in becoming an Eagle Scout.  But at the end he added, “…and never forget the sage advice of young Hogarth Hughes: You are who you chose to be”.  It was never a more perfect line from a perfect film that would have such a great impact on the future of my career.

NEXT: PART 2: CAL ARTS…My journey through the worlds most prominent animation school…and the greater unexpected life changes that resulted from it.

CINECON 48 Classic Films Festival: Aug. 30th – Sept. 3rd

For all you classic film lovers and aspiring filmmakers, if you live in the Los Angeles area, I want to call to your attention one of the greatest classic film festivals out there, CINECON 48.  I’ve attended this festival for 3 years now, and its outstanding.  You’ll get to see rarely seen Hollywood films from the 10s, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s…everything from short subjects to feature films.  You’ll get to discover a few stars of the time you may have never heard of, and sometimes the stars of those films make special guest visits to Cinecon.  If you are a film student, this is a great way to increase your film education 10 fold!

From “Gentle Julia” playing this year at Cinecon

Many of the films listed I haven’t seen, but last year I was introduced to a great film called “Stormy Weather”, an all African-American musical, featuring Cab Calloway, and my first introduction to The Nicholas Brothers, an absolutely incredible tap dancing duo.  There are some classic comedy shorts as well including a Harold Lloyd short “Hot Water”.  You can watch a time when these classic comedians did incredible, unbelievable stunts that no studio would EVER let their big star do today.  One of my favorite all time classic shorts is Buster Keaton’s High Sign, which feature a chase through a house, built like a dollhouse, where you can see Keaton running through several rooms and trap doors, climbing up several times to the second story part of the house, while falling back down…and watching it all done in one take.  It’s UNBELIEVABLE.

One film I have seen on the list that I highly recommend you check out is Laurel and Hardy’s “Way Out West”.  It’s one of the duo’s best films next to “March of the Wooden Soldiers”, and the great thing about it is that it doesn’t feature a love interest or a bland hero character that make the boy’s supporting players in the film.  This is a film about the two of them, just like any of their short subjects.  It’s funny and brilliant, and I can’t wait to see it come alive on the big screen.

Harold Lloyd in the short “Hot Water”  

I’m also planning to check out “Fearless Flanagan” with the amazing Janet Leigh, “Always a Bridesmaid”, and a few others.  It is an amazing and rare opportunity to see these great classics on the big screen run on 35mm.  We all know there are the cemented classics like “Gone with the Wind”, “Casablanca”, “Some Like It Hot”, “Sing’n in the Rain”, etc.  But it’s important to expand your base of knowledge, as from even the films were the stories aren’t still good, there is still plenty to learn from the technique, cutting, and cinematography employed in these films.  If you are indeed a lover of film, do not miss out on this incredible event. CLICK HERE FOR FILM SCHEDULE

Fearless Flanagan

It’s in the Bag! (1945) Dir. Richard Wallace

Jack Benny and Fred Allen in “It’s in the Bag!”
Time for a movie review, and here’s a great film I discovered a few weeks ago, starring Fred Allen called “It’s in the Bag!”.  For those of you who don’t know who Fred Allen was, he was a very popular comedian on the radio in the 40’s and 50’s.  Like many other radio comedians in the 50’s, he took his show to television.  He didn’t have the kind of career in feature films that Jack Benny did, and when “It’s in the Bag!” came out it unfortunately wasn’t very successful.  Which is a shame really, because it is a very funny film.  Benny tried to help Fred out by making a cameo appearance in possibly the films best and funniest moment.  There was a joke between Jack Benny and Fred Allen that the two of them had this ongoing rivalry and distain for each other on their shows.  Of course, it was all pretend, and the two of them would always appear on each others shows to make jokes at the expense of the other.
The story the film was based on was later remade by Mel Brooks called “The Twelve Chairs”, and the basic story is Fred Floogle inherits $12 million from a wealthy old relative is murdered.  Of course, once Fred finds out about the inheritance, all that money goes to his head, but when the millionaires fortune becomes dissipated, Fred is left with 5 chairs that he winds up selling off.  What he didn’t know was that the millionaire stuffed one of the chairs with hundreds of thousands of dollars right before he died, and after Fred finds this out, he goes on a search through out the city to find out who bought the chairs and get the fortune.  And of course, one of those people who bought a chair was Jack Benny!  
But aside from Benny, there’s just an enormous list of guest stars and supporting players, including Don Ameche, William Bendix (radio’s Riley on Life of Riley), Rudy Valee who all play themselves.  And then the incredible list of supporting actors including Jerry Colonna (animation fans know him as The March Hare in Alice in Wonderland), John Carradine, and Robert Benchley.  It’s really fun watching all these great actors get into it.  I enjoyed Dickie Tylers performance as Homer Floogle, Fred’s 12 year old wannabe psychiatrist son.  I’d say the only issue was the kid playing the part seemed to have a little trouble pulling off an accent and in some of his scenes its a little hard to understand him.  
But if you’ve never seen or heard and Fred Allan or Jack Benny shows, by all means watch some before you watch this film!  Especially in the scene with Benny and Allen, which is so much funnier if you’ve actually watched their shows and know about their rivalry.  This film is a hidden gem, and is worth your time just to see so many great actors at work.  “It’s in the Bag!” is available on Netflix instant streaming.  Check it out!       
Fred Allen with the great John Carradine

The Decline of Feature Animation: “We shouldn’t take it seriously because its for kids”

I’m sure if you haven’t figured it out by now, I have some pretty serious opinions when it comes to American feature animation.  A part of it is that I feel that most people now have given in to the kind of mediocracy of the storytelling in movies, especially in family films.  Visually you can say, yes, the style and technique of these films improves greatly with every feature.  But dumping all this money on visual flair that doesn’t really serve the story being told instead creates a hollow shell of a movie, as pretty and as exotic as that shell may look.  We all know its whats inside that counts.  But I think one of the biggest excuses we pass off for sloppy storytelling in family entertainment is “…well, its just for kids anyway”.  I may have strong opinions about animated films, but I have even stronger opinions about what kids are exposed to in family films, and it angers me when I see this neglectfulness in a film that cheating kids out of a mature story.
Writing off a bad film to say “it’s just for kids”, to me, is an insult to the intelligence of all kids.  For one thing, a kid won’t know any better when a film is created to please them on every superficial level.  It’s the overabundance of sugar with every hyper active eccentric character the film can throw at them,  but then there’s also a preachy moral attached so parents can at least be satisfied their kids will learn something, even if the parents know the moral is preachy.  But really, why do filmmakers feel the need to pander to children?  And by pandering, I don’t just mean the elements like goofy sidekicks that don’t add anything to the story, I also mean writing stories for kids that want to say something to them, only to have those stories make incredible leaps in logic to get their message across, reducing characters into one dimensional stereotypes.  To say “kids won’t notice, its really the message that counts” only takes advantage of the child’s ignorance.  Its not only bad writing that panders to children, but it also tells me that these filmmakers aren’t really taking the kids in their audience seriously.
Kids want to be taken seriously.  They always want to be into the cool stuff that grown ups are into.  My six year old cousins favorite movie is The Incredibles.  There’s kids portrayed in that film, but the story never, EVER panders to children.  It’s an entirely mature storyline.  I’m sorry again to bring up Brad Bird as an example, I know everyone here knows I love his work and I’ve used him as an example a lot.  But to give other examples, there’s a maturity at work in Finding Nemo, How to Train Your Dragon, or Kung Fu Panda, that all have elements that children can relate to, but the films never talk directly down to them.  Even films going back to Walt Disney still resonate with us, like Pinocchio, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.  There’s a lot of mature content in those films, and its one of the reasons we still adore them and never grow past them when we become adults.
I’d like to tell one particular story.  I have a grandmother, who is very down to Earth and straight laced.  Not that thats a bad thing at all, its simply how she was raised, and because she’s down to Earth its one of the reasons I’ve been able to relate to her.  But she was never fond of me for wanting to go into the film business.  Her idea of a legitimate occupation was becoming a plumber, or a carpenter.  And the idea of movies and fantasy to her was all kids stuff that a grown adult doesn’t need to indulge in.  Well, when I was 10 years old, Disney re-released Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in theaters.  As a kid I would visit her in New Jersey every summer, and the year I was there when she found out Snow White was in theaters, she had to go see it!  My grandmother never went to the movies, so it was a huge surprise to me that she wanted to see it.  I sat in that theater while the film was running, and I literally watched with amazement as my grandmother suddenly became like a child again.  She was reliving the experience she had watching the film when she was just a young girl in 1937 when the film premiered.  She laughed at the dwarves antics.  She reacted in surprise and shock as Snow White fled through the scary forest…to the transformation of the queen into the witch.  And she cried at the very end at Snow White’s funeral.  Then of course, it wasn’t long after the film was over, she switched back to her old self and told me I should still get a real job!
But looking back on that experience with my grandmother, it was proof to me that what we do expose our children to does have a tremendous impact, when it is great entertainment, and that’s the real power of film.  We want to be taken on an emotional experience, but in making films for kids to also enjoy, we shouldn’t pander to any of their age groups.  I mean, it seems like this generation of animated features wants to grow up and be taken seriously.  But the storytelling now feels schizophrenic.  The mindset seems to be this dual notion that we have to throw gags to please adults, and goofy schtick to appeal to children.  It’s the result of marketing research in some attempt to try to please everyone.  Well, there’s only one thing you can do that’s going to please everyone: just tell a great story, and let it be based on your own life experiences and what’s most important to you.  Don’t try to gear any particular part of it to any particular age group.  Just be willing to take the audience on a journey, and if its okay, bring the kids along to.  It’s like a family vacation where you want to enjoy something for everyone.  To me, that’s what a family film should be.

Paranorman, Brad Bird, And The Virtues of Life Experience

I’ve noticed an increase in traffic on my blog since I posted my thoughts on Paranorman on Cartoon Brew.  So for those of you who have been coming back the last few days, welcome!  If you participated in the CB discussion and might have responded to some of my posts, I appreciate your comments even if you disagreed.  But I also appreciate those of you who have an interest in my opinions, and this is definitely the place for it.  Since the Paranorman talkback is now closed, I just wanted to do a quick recap and try to answer a few questions I keep getting.  There are some people out there who believe that my goal was to only focus on the negative aspects of Paranorman, as if to try and bring the film down.  Not true.  I want everyone to know that I do acknowledge the positive aspects of Paranorman, and I admire how much of a technical achievement it is (I didn’t need to mention it really because most of the other talkbackers already mentioned those aspects for me).  It is a very beautifully crafted film, and there were some moments visually that just took my breath away.  My intention wasn’t simply to call out this film because of its story issues, it was a call out to all animated films in the last 8 to 10 years that I believe suffer from the exact same issues as Paranorman.  When I bring up a film as great as The Iron Giant as an example and comparison, here’s what I was trying to say.

Brad Bird set the bar very high, with both The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.  And yet its like nobody in the industry seems to believe they can ever meet that challenge.  Most people will say, well, Brad Bird directed it, and the guy’s a genius, so of course most other movies aren’t going to be as good.  As somebody said, if all movies were like The Iron Giant, there would be no bad movies.  Well…yeah.  Maybe that should kind of be the goal.

But Brad’s not simply a genius.  He struggled for 20 years in the industry before he made The Iron Giant, and even then that film was a failure at the Box Office.  The Simpsons became his training ground as a filmmaker (he worked for the first seven seasons of the show).  On that show he had to work fast and just make decisions without over thinking them because they were working on a weekly show with strict deadlines.  It was film boot camp for him.  When The Iron Giant was made, the production schedule was just over two years, not a long time at all for making an animated feature, which normally takes 4 years.  But look at what a masterpiece that film is, a result out of all that struggle, toil, and training he went through having worked in television.  He didn’t simply start at a studio like Pixar and work his way up until they allowed him to direct a feature.  Pixar came to him.

Brad took the path less trodded.  He learned screenwriting through live action (check out episodes he wrote for Amazing Stories and his feature script with Matthew Robbins, *batteries not included).  I’ve followed his career before The Iron Giant came out through the Simpsons, and it wasn’t until I saw Family Dog and The Simpsons episode he directed “Krusty gets Busted” that I first saw the sparks of his unique vision.  Another classic he directed was “Bart gets an F”, one of the first emotional turning points for Bart Simpson that for the first time made us believe The Simpsons had depth.  I remember as a kid the very first time I watched “Krusty gets Busted” and how I felt, and even the ominous laugh of Sideshow Bob when he’s revealed to be a villain.  When Brad made The Incredibles, that film is all about his personal struggle in raising a family while he struggled to launch his filmmaking career.  The character Bob faces that challenge to either answer the call to his career or being present for his family.  There’s personal wisdom you learn, from struggle and strife that is of value to your own artistic vision.

The problem I have with most feature animation directors today is difficult to say.  I can only site as an example the kind of people I’ve known during my time at Cal Arts, with a few who became TV show creators and some who have worked their way up the ladder in feature.  But its a combination of issues I have with most of these people who wind up becoming directors for feature.  There is a lack of a voice in animated features, and the films may have their moments, but they are most commonly struck down with pretentious morals that preach to their audience (my big problem with Paranorman).  For those films that do get preachy (and there are a lot of them) I owe this to a lack of life experience on the filmmakers part.  I see it as a detriment, because especially people from Cal Arts, who graduate from school and climb the ladder until they get their shot to direct…but as storytellers, to always be within the studio system, never being able to leave your friends from collage because they all work at the same studios…it’s like there’s this clique, this group mentality trapped in time…and I’ve known former Cal Arts students who can’t stand the thought of breaking away from that.  But to always have that influence of your college friends and never really breaking off to the outside world to figure out what you have to say, and what’s REALLY important in your life…well then your just holding yourself back.  And with those people always surrounded by the influence of their friends who wind up directing these features, I rarely feel like I’m hearing the true voice of the filmmaker.  Brad Bird broke off from the industry.  So did John Lasseter when he started experimenting and pioneering animation on computers. I’m not saying Brad or John are the only directors who had to fight and suffer for their work, there are others who have made great works based on the strength of their own life experiences because they actually got out of the basement and discovered their own truth that influenced their voice.  But for most people directing features now, how do you understand that deeper life experience when you’re always surrounded by your peers from art school, who may have dedicated their lives to getting into Pixar/Disney/Laika, etc. but have never really personally struggled in their adult life and never really had those life experiences they were able to apply it to their own work?  Are you going to fight for your vision?  Or are you going to play by the rules?  Either is okay depending on the person, but if you’re compelled to fight for your own vision, it usually means there’s something deeper inside you calling out to be heard.

By life experiences, I’m not simply talking about the usual things people go through…a death in the family, death of a friend, traumas from childhood.  I’m talking about experiences outside your career…the adventure of life and the deeper struggle to find what it is you most want for yourself and what’s really important to you (which is what makes The Incredibles so potent and real).  The message of Paranorman is all on the surface.  Tolerance for others is a nice message, don’t get me wrong, but its not fueled by anything deeper than that.  The emotions I might have felt from the characters of the film to me didn’t feel like they were coming from the characters themselves, it was just a reaffirmation of my own belief system regarding the message.  Nothing the characters did in the film really justified how they were able to come to their own conclusions.  Its not truthful, but most filmmakers have gotten very good at making you believe you did go on a journey and have an emotional experience when nothing really happened at all.  I don’t think the filmmakers are doing it on purpose.  But this is exactly what I mean by filmmakers having that lack of life experience, and why it keeps their films from being as good or superior to, say the films of Walt Disney, Ralph Bakshi, Will Vinton, Rankin/Bass, Brad Bird…they all fought and suffered for their own vision.  Because the truth is, out of the ashes comes great art.

I have more to say about life experience and young artists as well, which I will post at a later time.

The Mission (1985) Dir. Steven Spielberg

I’ve been pretty harsh on a lot of movies lately, and I think much of my reasoning for that is justified.  But when I have been critical of them there are some people (friends included) who think I’m just too literal…that I won’t allow my Suspension of Disbelief to kick in and allow myself to just sit back and enjoy what I’m watching.  That’s not the problem I have.  My issue with films today is that it seems the filmmakers expect the audiences to use their Suspension of Disbelief to make up for their incoherent storylines…or better yet…lazy writing.  We all so badly want movies to be really great again, and everyone is always on the look out for that next classic…the film that we’ll all swoon for and take with us for the rest of our lives, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, The Iron Giant (well, that film will always be with me anyway).  But instead we get everything else to make up for the lack of solid storytelling…namely spectacle.  The films of today can generate emotion in us…the problem for me though is that the emotion the film wants us to feel doesn’t always come from an honest place.  The film might have a message that everyone can agree on and feel for…but the filmmakers never challenge the audience further than that…never challenging their own belief systems.  So in the end result, everything becomes didactic, and this is the problem where we might be inclined to use our suspension of disbelief to cover up those logic holes in the story, making up excuses as we go along because we so badly want the message of the film to be justified in our minds, however good it may be.  It’s not the audiences fault though for wanting to make up those excuses though.  It’s what the filmmakers expect from us now…to make us believe we went on this harrowing journey with the film…when really all we got was a reaffirmation of what we already knew…and yet, nothing to challenge us.

Well here’s a short film that does challenge that belief, especially when it comes to suspending your disbelief.  Because for the first 40 minutes of The Mission, we’re taken on a harsh realistic journey with these WWII aviators, knowing the serious danger these men face, and the fate of young aviator trapped in the belly gunner of the plane, with the landing gear destroyed and no possible hope of escape, except to be crushed when the plane has to make a forced landing on its belly in order for the rest of the crew to survive.  But then in the last five minutes the absolute impossible happens…a miracle so far fetched and out there that it’s just beyond comprehension.  Of course…Spielberg does this on purpose…and you really have to ask yourself if you’re just going to accept it for what it is…to suspend your disbelief in the wildest most ridiculous fashion.  For me, I can do that.  I believe in what Spielberg has challenged in me, and I say yes.

But secretly though…to tell you the truth, he had me pretty much from the get go.  Because the hero of the film as it turns out is an artist.  Better yet, when he gets out of the military he wants to be an animator and go work for Walt Disney.  How crazy wonderful is that?  A hero in a Steven Spielberg film who wants to be an animator.  So I’m biased, my justification for believing in him was the guy wants to be an animator.  They can’t let him die!  But believing in that characters dream is also your entrance in allowing yourself to accept the ending.  For all we know, the kid could have died.  He could have been killed by the oncoming shrapnel we see before he becomes trapped and this could just be paving the way for some wonderful afterlife where you’re reunited with loved ones and everything turns out all right in the end…if you want to get literal about that.  But that’s not really how I’d like to see it.  I like the notion of believing in miracles, that strange, possibly magical occurances can happen without explanation.  With this film, I don’t feel cheated by that notion.  It works because Spielberg, using sleight of hand, prepares us for it, with the imagination of this young pilot, and all the cartoon caricatures, drawings, paintings of sexy girls on the side of the plane…this boy is off in his own universe, and he makes the impossible happen.  It’s a great little story.

As for my own thoughts on Suspension of Disbelief, you can’t say I don’t believe in it at all…I use it all the time.  I remember in Superman II when Superman is at the North Pole and he loses all his powers.  And then somehow, by himself, he walks through the freezing cold North Pole landscape and out of nowhere ends up in a small town that looks like Vermont…as a human without any powers.  That’s really stretching it.  But I’m okay with it because the major jump in logic doesn’t interfere with the themes of the rest of the story.  They just needed to get him quickly from point A to B, and he still gets the shit kicked out of him by everyone.  So I said, “okay”.  It’s when I see a jump in logic that forces a character down a particular road in order to meet the needs of the “message” of the story, then I have a problem.  Because when that happens, to me, that character is not following their own truth…they are being pulled by the will of the filmmakers.  You have to treat your characters as if they are their own entities.  As you begin to realize who they are, you are also getting to know them, and its amazing to watch after awhile because then the character starts telling you what he/she desires most.  They are prodded and challenged through their whole journey…will they make it and get what they want?  That depends on what you have to say about the character.  But it never feels right to me when I see a character cheated out of their greatest adventure in life because they have to learn some stupid moral, and to cover it up by making the audience fill in the blanks so they can justify the lack of logic…well, I get pissed then.        

But for all the naysayers in my own life, for those who believe I’ve become too critical/literal and that I’ve lost my suspension of disbelief, here’s a film I totally believe in that asks us to say yes to the impossible.  And I very much say yes!  Below you can watch the 45 minute episode, from Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series, “The Mission”.  

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