Thursday, June 14, 2018

Soylent Green

Back in the 1970's, apocalypses were mostly nuclear, to the point that it had become almost a cliché -- actually, scratch that, it was a cliché. Soylent Green was far ahead of its time, staking its end-of-the-world scenario on a more gradual, but ultimately inescapable doom: the growing human population, a warming planet, and the ultimate depletion of nearly all the conventional sources of food. In a superheated city, with homeless people sleeping in stairwells to escape the stifling streets, the film deposited two old codgers: Charlton Heston (fresh from his last role as the Omega Man), and veteran Edward G. Robinson, better known for playing gangsters in the black-and-white era). Heston's a cop in an time when riot control means scooping people up with giant front-end loaders; Robinson is his "book" -- one of reclusive club of elders known as the Exchange, who preserve the knowledge of the old world, and have a knack for finding things out.

The stage is a crowded one -- there's room for a feminist subplot, as women come included with an apartment as "furniture" -- and for a cameo by Joseph Cotton as an executive with the mysterious Soylent company, apparently killed by a hired assassin. In a way, it's a genre-bender -- cop drama meets environmental fable -- but it's the final sequences that make it memorable. For among the other features of this distopian world, there's a voluntary euthanasia center with the sinister nickname "home," and when Robinson's character throws in the proverbial towel, it sets in motion a series of revelations that takes an already-horrific world in a yet more frightening direction (watch for Dick Van Patten as the attendant that Heston wrestles with). We all know the reveal, but it's no less terrible for all that -- unless in the form of the box of crackers (above) manufactured in anticipation of an (eventually abandoned) remake.

But it's hard to predict the future. The novel on which the film was based, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! was set in 1999, which at the time he wrote it was more than thirty years in the future. In it, the overpopulation of the earth has reached crisis levels, and the U.S. population has swollen to 344 million, represented as an unsustainable number. But here in 2018, it's already 325 million, and will reach the Soylent figure within the next few years; by 2050 it may well top 400 million. That is, if we're still here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Illusionist

Ever since he burst upon the literary scene in 1972 with his first book, Edwin Mullhouse -- a novel disguised as a biography disguised as a memoir penned by a child genius's best friend -- Steven Millhuaser has continued to confound. In some ways, he's a pure fabulist, along the lines of Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, but there's also something peculiarly American about him. His 1996 novel Martin Dressler, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, is in some sense a typical rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale -- except that it isn't. The boy who goes from cigar-shop assistant to hotel magnate ends up aiming for yet vaster things, reaching the point where he hires people to pretend to be customers and guests at his ever-more-ambitious hotels and arcades -- or does he? At some point, realism falls away like a discarded skin, and the fabulous worm writhes into delightful view.

But he's at his best in his short stories, of which he is a master. Mermaids sing in the basements of Barnum Museums, children float out their bedroom windows on magic carpets; a town is described where all the basements of all the houses are linked by a vast network of tunnels. Most of his tales are set in a recognizeable, somewhat suburban area (Millhauser grew up outside of Stratford, Connecticut), but some, such as Eisenheim, are placed in a slightly mystical version of some European country in its golden age, an age of horse-drawn carriages, gilded courts, and magicians in frock coats. The setting, in a way, almost becomes the tale.

The 2006 film version of "Eisenheim the Illusionist" could be said to be a somewhat unfaithful one. It introduces a love interest (Sofie, played by Jessica Biel), and greatly expands the role of the Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). And yet, when it comes to the spirit of the story, it remains true to the cool, dark tones of a tale in which a magician becomes -- or seems to become, we may never know -- something more than a caster of illusions.

The director and designers of the film made every effort to 'make it so' -- to avoid using too much CGI, they had Edward Norton take extensive lessons in 'sleight of hand,' with the famed British stage magician (and pickpocket) James Freedman as his tutor. And, for lighting the production designers used natural light wherever possible, along with kerosene lamps for the love scene, and gas lamps for Eisenheim's final series of stage appearances. The final result earned Director of Photography Dick Pope an Oscar® nomination for best cinematography.
Edward Norton and Jessica Biel in The Illusionist

But the proof is in the pudding -- we are the ultimate judges, and every time someone sees this film for the first time the same range of possibilities the the audience at its world premiere exists. So did, does, The Illusionist work its magic for you -- and how? Your comments below.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Animated Hobbit (1977)

The Rankin-Bass production of Tolkien's The Hobbit was notable in that the concept and character art -- the reference images from which the characters and monsters were meant to by drawn by the animators -- were done in the United States by American artists, while the animation itself was done by a team at Topcraft in Japan. For this concept art, Rankin and Bass turned to RISD graduate Lester Abrams, whose illustrations of Bilbo and Gollum for an excerpt of The Hobbit published in the February and March 1974 issues of the Children's Digest must have caught their attention. Abrams was certainly well-acquainted with Tolkien, as these drawings have every characteristic attributed to hobbits, including furry feet and long brown fingers. Bilbo's eyes are surrounded by bags (a visual in-joke, perhaps?) and he certainly looks like a mature, self-assured individual. Gollum has same the frog-like characteristics and saucery blank eyes that we've know from the finished production, but also a slender and more humanoid body that suggests that it could, indeed, be a very withered version of a hobbit (although the posture he takes on the cover illustration seems rather insectine). The detail is rich, and there's a celtic-style ornamental border.

One can also see Lester Abrams' hand at work in the character art which was used by Rankin-Bass on the cover of the LP sold to accompany the telecast; these appear to be very close to what was probably sent on to Topcraft.  There, under the overall direction of Toru Hara (later known for his work as supervising producer on My Neighbor Tortoro and Grave of the Fireflies), the animators set to work. Among the team were animation supervisor Tsuguyuki Kubo, known for his work with many US studios (his later projects included ThundercatsThe Wind in the Willowsand Darkwing Duck), Kazuyuki Kobayashi (Nausicaä of the Valley of the WindCastle in the Sky), and Hidemi Kumo (Flight of the DragonsBatman: Mask of the Phantasm). Many of these same animators, as the titles show, went on to work at Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyzaki, though others found their niche in continuing work for US television.

And yet, although Abrams' direction over what the animators did with his concepts was limited -- as  when Bilbo acquires large, anime-style eyes -- he did manage to have some significant influence over the production. According to his friend and erstwhile collaborator, Walt Simonson, with whom I spoke on the phone, Abrams was immensely fond of the art of Arthur Rackham, and it seems very likely that it was his suggestion that Rackham be used as a reference for the style of the backgrounds and overall feel of the production that was taken up by Rankin and Bass and passed along as a directive to Topcraft. Also, according to a 2002 interview in Cinefantastique, Abrams was also influential in the decision to retain the encounter with the spiders, as opposed to the Beorn episode, which eventually became the one not produced.

And Abrams' influence was to continue into the Rankin-Bass version of The Return of the King. Before their Hobbit even aired, the producers were anxious to start work on a version of the Lord of the Rings, to which they had acquired some rights. According to Simonson, the precise extent of these rights was unclear, and in the end Rankin and Bass were told by the production's underwriting company that their only clear rights were to the third and final volume of the trilogy. And so, they set to work with a script that used bits of The Hobbit to fill in the backstory missing in the first two volumes, which of course meant that the characters had to match. It was at this point that Simonson -- who had earlier, along with other artists, filled out needed panels and chapter heads for the Harry N. Abrams book of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, was asked to prepare some presentation panels that the company could use to help get backers for the project.  Simonson shares much of this art in a Facebook album; here we can see his Sam, his "old Bilbo" (holding a copy of his Translations from the Elvish!), Sam carrying Frodo while Gollum follows, and a Gandalf battling the Witch-king. While this art wasn't directly used in the production, it shows the concern of Rankin and Bass with continuity of look and feeling, and certainly may have influenced it in some ways.

Alas, the R/B version of The Return of the King is highly unsatisfying -- mostly because it's unable to follow the full plot, but also because its style doesn't quite match the high heroic tone of the Lord of the Rings. The success of their version of The Hobbit was in capturing its whimsy, that very quality which fades as Frodo takes up the quest of the ring. Still, Simonson's art suggests that it might, in a more ideal world, have been possible for Rankin and Bass to have made an animated LOTR that effectively blended whimsy and epic, and produced a movie worthy of its source.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Leaf by Niggle

Poster for 2106 theatrical version
The work of J.R.R. Tolkien is known worldwide, both through his books (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) and though the numerous audiobooks, plays, and films based upon them. Many regard the Rings trilogy as among the greatest works of "high fantasy" literature ever written, and there are more than 250 million copies of Tolkien's books in print.

But until quite recently, very few people seemed to know, or care, about the brief parable Tolkien published in 1945, Leaf by Niggle. Then, in 2016, a curious thing happened: a theatrical version starring and directed by Richard Medrington became a surprise hit, and, for the first time since its original appearance in the Dublin Quarterly, it was published as a stand-alone book. The reviews of the play have been stellar, with the Guardian punningly referring to it as the "Lord of Small Things," although its reviewer, as have many of the readers of the book, puzzled over what it's really all about. And that's the thing -- as Medrington muses in a preamble to the play, almost the moment the story begins, "the possible meanings “double, treble and quadruple” before your eyes."

And it's an intensely visual story, though presented without illustrations (save the cover), a tale of a would-be artist in an imperfect world, with considerable ambition but only modest talent, "the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees." Niggle knows that, at some point, there's a journey he has to take, which he ought to pack for -- but in the meantime, he has something more important to attend to. It's a grand painting -- in part composed by sticking together several smaller canvasses -- which depicts an enormous tree, within which are nesting birds, as well as a far-off range of snow-capped mountains. His work, however, has its costs: his garden is neglected, and he finds himself cursing and muttering uncharitable things (to himself) whenever he's interrupted. Which he is, particularly by his neighbor Parrish, who seems to have little regard for Niggle's great work, and is critical of his neglected property. Things come to a head when the local building inspector arrives, demanding that Niggle's canvas be taken and used to patch Parrish's leaky roof! And just then, to top it off, he learns that his long-postponed journey must begin.

Is Leaf by Niggle a metaphor for Tolkien's own work? After all, his conception of Middle Earth was, like Niggle's painting, a lifetime's labor, in which some smaller things (The Hobbit) were patched onto other things (The Lord of the Rings), and yet so much was left unfinished (The Silmarillion). Doubtless Tolkien, like Niggle, hated interruptions, and yet was always, unfailingly, polite about them, and a bit kind-hearted (though grumblingly at times). But perhaps Niggle is also all of us, with some larger thing we imagine and wish to be our life's great task, our escape from the mundane things of everyday life, our great reward -- and yet, again and again, life breaks in!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Arthur Gordon Pym

It's part adventure yarn about a young would-be sailor's first voyage, part grim shipwreck horror story, and part a fantastical journey to -- and perhaps off -- the very edges of the earth. It's also the only novel that Edgar Allan Poe, who constantly struggled throughout his life to earn a living with his pen, lived to complete.

Pym was written with an eye to the existing genre of narratives of journeys by sea, which encompassed both serious reports from explorers and fictional yarns filled with pirates and ghostly ships. Yet for most of the first part of the narrative, it remains firmly in the domain of realism, salted down with nautical language and exhibiting what seems a detailed familiarity with life at sea. So powerful was the effect that, when the book was encountered by readers in England unfamiliar with Poe's reputation, they took it for a narrative of an actual voyage! As later recalled by the American publishing magnate George Putnam,
“The late Mr. D. Appleton was sitting in our office in Paternoster Row. ‘Here is an American contribution to geographical science,’ I said to him. ‘This man has reached a higher latitude than any European navigator. Let us reprint this for the benefit of Mr. Bull.’ He assented, and took half share in the venture. The grave particularity of the title and of the narrative misled many of the critics as well as ourselves, and whole columns of these new ‘discoveries,’ including the hieroglyphics (!) found on the rocks, were copied by many of the English country papers as sober historical truth”
One might have thought that the idea of strange misty oceans giving way to an enormous hole where the south pole ought to have been would have been a clue to the story's fanciful nature, but such ideas were still being taken seriously by some. The American John Cleves Symmes had put forth a popular theory of a "hollow earth," reached via holes at each pole; among his converts was Poe's friend Jeremiah Reynolds, who was among those who called for the US Congress to fund an expedition in search of them. In the end, more sensible minds prevailed, and the first United States Exploring Expedition was simply sent with the mission to explore the "Southern Ocean," one which it performed admirably. The idea, however, persisted long afterwards among the fringes of science, and played a part in numerous science fiction and fantasy stories, from Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth to H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

Our film this week, The Forbidden Quest, takes up both the hollow earth theory and Poe's approach to making the most fantastical stories seem somehow realistic. The trick here is to introduce a seaman, ship's carpenter J.C. Sullivan, as the lone survivor of an Antarctic expedition; along with his memories, he has a box with the work of the "picture man" -- the film cameraman who shot footage of the actual expedition. The trick here is that this material, though it indeed consists of silent-era footage of polar expeditions, is only really "found footage" -- bits and scraps of different films, discovered by the director Peter Delpeut in an abandoned movie theatre. And yet, edited together with the carpenter's resonant Irish brogue, they take on the emotional cast of eyewitness testimony. We are not to blame if, like Mr. Appleton on reading Poe's Pym, we believe it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Return to Oz

In most cases, the words "Disney Live Action" spell disaster. Who can forget -- I mean, who can remember -- such cornball classics as "The Apple Dumpling Gang," "The Littlest Outlaw," "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones," or "Darby O'Gill and the Little People"? Still, every now and then a spark of genius got green-lighted, and Return to Oz is one of those. Uncle Walt (as I like to call him) was a forward-thinking fellow. He bought up the film rights to dozens of classics, not intending to necessarily make them all himself, but to prevent rivals from beating him to the punch. And, although the original Wizard of Oz entered the public domain in 1956, the Oz sequels were still in copyright well into the 1970's, and Disney bought up them all.  None ever got very far until the 1980's, when the last of the copyrights was due to expire. At that time, Disney's son-in-law Ronald W. Miller was the company's president; Miller was interested in expanding the Disney line and reaching older viewers. His production chief, Tom Wilhite, got to talking with Walter Murch, the award-winning sound designer whose work on Apocalypse Now! was already a legend, and asked him what kind of movie he'd like to make. Not knowing anything about Disney's properties, he said he'd like to make an Oz movie -- and the spark for this film was born.

Murch was an innovator, and in order to get all of the figures he wanted, he decided to use two different technologies -- puppets (some with animatronic components) and Claymation. For the puppets, he turned to the Jim Henson Company, and Claymation director Will Vinton (the singing California Raisins man) was hired to do the Nome segments. Murch went back to the original books, but also opted for a darker, more sinister tone; the Oz that this film returned to would not be the MGM one. His sole concession was the use of the ruby slippers, for which Disney paid MGM a substantial sum.

It almost didn't happen. Under a new production chief, Richard Berger, the budget was increased, but so were expectations. After Murch fell well behind schedule, he was briefly fired from the picture -- until his friends Francis Ford Coppolla and George Lucas stepped up to support him and he was re-hired (the original "Tik-Tok" from the film is now in Lucas's garden, a gift from the grateful director). The talented young Fairuza Balk -- who reached fame a few years later with Gas, Food, and Lodging -- was hired to play Dorothy, and Piper Laurie signed on as Aunt Em.

So think about it: what would your aunt and uncle do if, after having come to live with them in the Kansas prairies, you disappeared in a storm and came back with stories of talking tin men, dancing scarecrows, and tiny little people with blue hats? The film's answer -- an early version of electro-shock therapy -- sounds horrific, but is gently handled. Although this film got mixed reviews and was a box-office disaster, it's become more and more popular on video, and is now felt by many people -- myself among them -- to be one of the finest adaptations of L. Frank Baum's books ever made.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Map of Oz
First published in 1900, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is quite possibly the greatest distinctly American fairy tale ever written. The book itself has been a best-seller for 114 years, and the story of the Wizard has been adapted many times -- first in 1902, as a wildly successful stage play (for this version, Baum gave Dorothy a last name -- the playful "Gale"), then as a film by Selig Polyscope in 1910, then again in 1925 (with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man), and most famously in 1939 with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Frank Morgan.  Film and television versions continued, including a 1960 TV version starring Shirley Temple (whom the 1939 film's director, Victor Fleming, had originally wanted for the role of Dorothy), and the all-black cast "The Wiz" was a hit Broadway show in 1975.

L. Frank Baum wrote 13 additional "Oz" books before his death in 1919, and they were all enormously popular, although sales declined gradually over the period. Many of the greatest characters of the Land of Oz were introduced in these sequels, and would have been familiar to anyone growing up in the first half of the twentieth century: Jack Pumpkinhead, The Nome King, the Sawhorse, Professor Wogglebug, and Tik-Tok the Royal Army of Oz (he had his own modestly-successful Broadway show). Unbeknownst to many, Walt Disney acquired the rights to all the post-Wizard sequels back in the 1950's, but it wasn't until the early 1980's, when these rights were about to expire, that the Disney company showed much interest. The Disney producers brought Walter Murch,  Francis Ford Coppolla's longtime film and sound editor, aboard to direct, and engaged the services of stop-motion animator Will Vinton (famous for his commercials featuring the dancing California Raisins), along with some of the Jim Henson company's muppet designers and puppeteers. Murch had in mind a much darker tone than the 1939 film, and Disney grew alarmed as they saw the production designs and early tests. It was, according to Much, only because of George Lukas's personal intervention that he was not fired from the film. Fairuza Balk, a young actress who would later become well known for her roles in indie films such as Gas, Food, and Lodging, was cast as Dorothy, and Nicol Wiliamson -- known for his role as Merlin in John Boorman's Excalibur -- was cast as the Nome King.

The movie did poorly in its initial release -- I remember seeing in at a multiplex where I was one of only two or three people in the audience -- but has gained an enormous following on VHS and DVD; many Oz fans consider it to be, by far, the most faithful adaptation of any of Baum's books for the screen.

Since then, of course, Gregory McGuire's Wicked -- a book which brilliantly re-cast and re-shaped Oz and its denizens (who else would have suspected that the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda were college roommates?), and the resulting Broadway musical has been the highest-grossing of any theatrical Oz adaptation to date. More recently, 2007's Tin Man miniseries and 2013's prequel Oz the Great and Powerful have shown that, once again, Oz is a realm capable of continual reinvention.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Lucian's True History

Lucian of Samosata was anything but a stodgy old classical Greek writer. In fact, he made a living making fun of stodgy old classical Greek writers; one can think of him as a very early stand-up comic. He knew that his listeners were familiar with Homer and the other great Greek authors, and he used the classics as fodder for irreverent freestyles that brought him fame (and money) all over the eastern Mediterranean.

One of his styles was what was known as "Menippean" satire, which involved parodying men, ideas, and other styles of writing, often all at once. He was a particular master of one sub-genre of this kind, the so-called "Dialogues with the Dead." Here, Lucian, like an ancient version of Father Guido Sarducci, made mock visits to dead celebrities and conducted farcical interviews with them (you can see something of this in his interview with Homer in Book II of The True History). Menippean satire has had, largely because of Lucian, a lasting influence on English fiction, from Chaucer to Swift to Carlyle; more recent practitioners include the Irish novelist Flann O'Brien and the American Thomas Pynchon.

But what Lucian excelled at was, in a word, sheer invention. While loudly proclaiming that everything in his story was false, he set out a "true history" that opened the floodgates of fantasy and science fiction long before those genres came into their modern existence. 

You'll see Lucian's influence as well in the films of Terry Gilliam, especially in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The idea of a "King of the Moon" who rides on a three-headed vulture and casts asparagus-stalk spears is right out of the True History -- in part, this is Gilliam's fancy, but it's also because the original tales of Baron Münchausen penned by Raspé in the Eighteenth Century were richly plagiarized from other authors, Lucian chief among them.

So plunge in! Have fun! And remember, not a word of this is true!