Sunday, September 27, 2009
The crowd for Oz filled most of the stadium-style theatre, including most of the "eye-bugger" seats on the floor. We were half-expecting, half-dreading the appearance of folks in costume, but I only saw one person indulge, so to speak: a woman carried in a small basket with a stuffed Toto doll in it. Nicky, for her part, wore a shirt with a picture of The Scarecrow uttering her favorite line of the movie: "Oil can what?" (In case you're wondering, he says it during the scene in which he and Dorothy locate the rusted Tin Man.) The high-def "big picture" took a while to flash on-screen, thanks to some technical difficulties, but we only ended up missing the first couple of minutes of a documentary that we'd already seen anyway, since it was included on the two-disc collector's edition that was released several years ago. The movie itself looked great, though it didn't take up the entire screen.
A number of good books have been written about the process that brought Oz to the screen, some of them of the debunking variety, but, watching the film yet again, I was vividly reminded of how well the thing was, above all else, written. "Oil can what?" was merely a throwaway gag, yet the fact that it's Nicky's favorite line shows how beautifully the script was crafted. Would the movie have flowed as well had the deleted "Jitterbug" sequence been kept -- or, for that matter, had the film not jumped abruptly from the heroes' defeat of the Wicked Witch to the second audience with Oz the (supposedly) Great & Powerful? Maybe so, maybe not, but the movie definitely does not talk down to the audience, even the youngest viewers. Today, many filmmakers who create "family-friendly films" seem to believe that the only way to "connect" with everyone is via the pop-culture-reference route. They should watch Oz again... for the first time.
Some good news on the Disney-comics front: Boom! Studios will apparently make good on its promise to debut its new "classic" Disney comics line in September -- though just barely. ComicList lists MICKEY MOUSE AND FRIENDS #296 as scheduled for release on the 30th. I'm so pleased that I'll ignore the irritating fact that Boom! plans to issue three different covers for the book, including something called an "Incentive Cover Variant." Don't worry, fellows, I'll have plenty of incentive to visit the shop and test-drive your wares.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Book Review: THE CONSERVATIVES: IDEAS & PERSONALITIES THROUGHOUT AMERICAN HISTORY by Patrick Allitt (Yale University Press, 2009)
1. an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy;
2. a suspicion of democracy and equality, more specifically, the confusion between the notion of men as being legally and politically equal and being equal when it comes to virtues, abilities and talents;
3. the view that civilization is fragile and easily disrupted and we need virtuous citizens to keep our civilization whole;
4. the desire for a highly educated elite as guardians of civilization.
That's as elegant a summary of basic conservative ideas as I've ever read. Of course, being in academia, I know that we've got a "highly educated elite" in place; the problem is that too many of them are on the other side.
Liberals are especially encouraged to read this book. The first step to good debate is knowing and respecting where your opponent gets his ideas from.
Book Review: THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY: NANCY Vol. 1 by John Stanley and Dan Gormley (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)
Actually, the first appearance of the Wednesday Addams-like Oona highlights an important point about Stanley's approach to Ernie Bushmiller's characters. Having pretty much burned out on LITTLE LULU, Stanley was probably delighted to put a new set of "Lulu-esque" characters through their paces. The fact that Nancy, Sluggo, and company were well-established figures in a popular, long-running comic strip, however, must have given the creator some pause. Lulu, who began her career as a pantomime character in gag cartoons, had had plenty of room for development when Stanley began to flesh out her neighborhood. Nancy and Sluggo may have had shallow, uninspired personalities, but Stanley must have felt that he needed to hew to them, at least for a while, as he settled down to his task. One can therefore regard the eccentric Oona's appearance as something of a "sowing of the wind" with an eye towards reaping a later "whirlwind" of story possibilities. The rest of the early stories in this collection are fairly unremarkable, making Oona -- a black-clad girl with beady eyes who gives everyone around her a case of nerves and lives in a spooky house with a surprise (usually of the nasty variety) around every corner -- stand out all the more starkly.
Stanley's innovations in handling the NANCY characters didn't prevent him from borrowing liberally from the LULU "template." Rich kid Rollo Haveall is basically Wilbur van Snobbe, take two, while the crook Bill Bungle (aka Bill Bungler, aka Bill Bumble -- perhaps Bill's incompetence was catching) reflects Stanley's apparent delight in using an adult figure who is hopelessly inept at his supposed specialty, a la the truant officer Mr. McNabbem in the LULU stories. If the NANCY stories -- even at their best -- fall a little short of the quality of the LULU oeuvre, then one reason may be the lack of a strong "bench" of supporting players. In the stories collected here, at least, Nancy has no "girl sidekick" to compare with Lulu's Annie; eager though Oona is to make friends and do things with Nancy, she's essentially a walk-on oddball. Likewise, the annoying neighbor kid Pee Wee isn't nearly as memorable (or annoying) as Alvin of "Story Telling Time" fame. Given the raw materials that he had to work with, however, Stanley's NANCY tales are unexpectedly fun and entertaining.
The last page of this volume has a picture of John Stanley (in the company of his editor Oscar LeBeck, Dan Gormley, and other worthies at Western's New York office) and a brief biography -- which just happens to be the same one that appeared at the end of the earlier MELVIN MONSTER collection. What this Library really needs is a volume-by-volume, bit-by-bit biography of Stanley in the manner of the articles that appeared in Another Rainbow's LITTLE LULU LIBRARY. As long as Fantagraphics keeps reprinting the same two-page Charles Schulz bio in THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, though, I guess it would be hypocritical of me to complain about D&Q dropping the ball.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Though it stars a "cast of thousands" -- or, more accurately, "hundreds" cleverly manipulated by Griffith into looking like lots more -- Birth basically centers on the activities and interactions of two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, before, during, and after the Civil War. Working with a fairly limited budget -- at least compared to the coffers he drained to produce Intolerance -- and an equivalent paucity of sets, Griffith manages to give the movie a truly epic sweep, though sometimes he has to stretch reality a bit (case in point: the Camerons' genteel Southern mansion, complete with cotton fields, appears to be situated on the main street of a small town). A short but informative documentary that accompanies the DVD release explains how Griffith was able to "fake" a Civil War battle, the burning of Atlanta, Sherman's march, the assassination of Lincoln, and other noteworthy moments with a primitive but ingenious use of special effects, including drenching the screen in red to simulate fire. The carefully reconstructed Ford's Theater set, which was actually an open-air stage, is a particular marvel. The film also benefits from excellent acting performances by such luminaries as Lilian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Henry Walthall (Ben Cameron, aka "The Little Colonel"), and George Siegmann (Silas Lynch, the mulatto villain who tyrannizes the Camerons' "fallen" town of Piedmont at the behest of the ambitious Radical Congressman Stoneman). Histrionics there are aplenty, but even the actors in minor roles (including Joseph Henabery as a somewhat cadaverous, but nonetheless compassionate, Lincoln) hold up their ends nicely. Unless you get completely bent out of shape by the sight of actors in blackface and dislike the pro-Southern tilt -- e.g., "The Little Colonel" is nearly killed while heroically investing the Union fieldworks, leading even his enemies to applaud his bravery -- the first part of Birth can be enjoyed by viewers of all persuasions and can almost be taken as a dress rehearsal for the first part of Gone With the Wind.
After Birth was attacked by the NAACP and other groups for its crude and unsympathetic portrayal of blacks, Griffith insisted that he had meant no offense. It's strange, then, that he opens Part Two of the film with several lengthy quotes from then-President Woodrow Wilson on what "really" happened during Reconstruction. It's almost as if he's appealing to a higher authority without really wanting to admit why. At the end of the movie, we even get an Intolerance-style montage of Jesus Christ displacing the "god of war" and preaching a message of goodwill and unity. In between, though, we get the infamous scene of the black-dominated South Carolina legislature (complete with guys gnawing chicken and putting unshod feet up on the desk), one of the Cameron girls committing suicide rather than submit to a "renegade" black soldier, Silas Lynch (who looks and acts a little like a malevolent Ralph Kramden with a bad tan) slobbering all over Elsie Stoneman while trying to convince her to become "Queen" of his coming "Black Empire," and, of course, the final charge of the Klan into Piedmont which saves the day, routs the "darkies," and restores something approximating the "Old Order." I know that the Klan rally is famed as one of the great scenes in film history, but there's a certain element of "camp" surrounding it today, never mind the historical fact that the Klan typically operated only at night (the better to terrorize you with, my dear). The scene in the besieged cabin, where Northern and Southern ex-foes unite in "Aryan" solidarity (so saith the title card) to fight off the marauding black soldiers, is considerably more harrowing and, unfortunately, a lot more accurate in terms of reflecting the celerity with which the North dropped integration as an issue and the era of "Jim Crow" began a decade or two after the war's end.
The DVD release that Nicky and I viewed appeared to have been done on the cheap, more's the pity. The musical soundtrack during the movie itself -- precise vintage and origin unknown -- played the same themes over and over again, in the manner of a Hanna-Barbera or early Disney TV animated series. Not content to numb our senses with repetition, the track frequently drowned out the narrator's voice during the accompanying documentary. The picture itself was restored quite nicely. There do appear to be other DVD releases with shorter running times out there, so, if you decide to give Birth a look, be sure it's the three-hour print that you're getting.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
TCP is not the only Fantagraphics project that's been spinning its wheels recently. E.C. SEGAR'S POPEYE VOLUME 4, featuring the marvelous "Plunder Island" continuity, is now a month overdue, and I've all but given up on HERRIMAN'S HOOMINS, which was supposed to appear at the end of May. Then, of course, there's the reigning champion of ALL Fantagraphics filibusterers...
Originally slated for release in October 2007, Volume 1 of THE COMPLETE POGO was postponed to October '08... then November '09... and now, according to Fantagraphics' Kim Thompson, it won't appear until 2010 "at the earliest." The company's apparently having more trouble than expected restoring a number of the early Sunday strips, a number of which have never previously been collected. Fanta's guesstimate is actually optimistic compared to the forbidding omens for THE ART OF WALT KELLY, a book solicited some time ago in PREVIEWS. The putative publisher, The University Press of Mississippi, shows no sign of any sort of impending release on its Web site. Are the Kelly heirs mucking up the swamp waters again? As a result of the false starts and abrupt finishes of earlier Kelly projects, Kelly is now unknown to all but a circle of serious comic-strip fans and creators, which is a crying shame, given how popular and successful POGO actually was during its heyday.
Even Boom! Studios is cutting things close in order to fulfill its earlier promise that the company's first set of "classic" Disney comics will be released by the end of September. Next week's preliminary ComicList gives no joy. Nor is there any hint of an imminent release on Boom!'s Web site. Is the studio still trying to gather up its marbles after being decked with the Disney-Marvel "sucker punch"?
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Gilder's book breaks into three parts. The middle portion, with its lengthy description of how Israel shook up its slumbering socialist economy and encouraged venture capital to invest in the country, can be skimmed over by those not overly interested in contemporary technological developments. Even if "Israel Inside" doesn't interest you, you should still read the historical matter covering such important figures as John von Neumann and Albert Einstein. Parts one and three lay out the lineaments of Gilder's "test" in measured but straightforward language. I happen to believe that Gilder's argument holds water for the most part, though making it stick "on the ground" in the Middle East would be difficult; so many interests have a stake in the rather squalid status quo, and ethnic and religious disputes far predate the development of modern capitalism. Granted that its relentless focus on the importance of economic development leaves many other issues unexplored, Gilder's thesis is sound enough to be taken seriously by anyone interested in the maintenance and extension of political and economic freedom.
Friday, September 11, 2009
"World events"? Who could possibly have set in motion "world events" of sufficient gravity to force a small coffee shop-travel agency to close? I rather think that the "event" that spelled Java Journeys' doom occurred much closer to home: A Dunkin' Donuts opened in the same strip-mall complex a while back.
I'm not one of those folks who reflexively assail "greedy mega-chains" and make a fetish of shopping at independently owned stores. Too often, those who pursue such a self-righteous course are also loudly in favor of the taxes, regulations, and other governmental intrusions that make it hard for a small business to find its feet. I split my coffee- and pastry-buying fairly evenly between Java Journeys and Dunkin' Donuts. There's no denying, however, that the people at JJ always made us feel welcome and quickly learned to anticipate our needs. Chains are convenient and generally efficient but don't possess that same sense of "style." When Nicky and I find that rare chain with a unique approach -- Ukrop's Supermarkets, Chick-fil-a, and IKEA being three particularly good examples -- we go out of our way to support it. We do try, however, not to forget the "little guys."
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Those who know something about the Wallace novel say that MGM's first adaptation was a lot more faithful than the second to Wallace's plot. For sure, the subtitle was treated much more seriously in the former, as witness the '25 film's tagline: "The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!" The Technicolor sequences are almost entirely reserved for scenes involving Christ (whose face, as in '59, never appears on camera) and are treated with appropriate reverence. Strangely enough, the other major color-splurge, the scene in which Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) and his adoptive father Quintus Arrius ride through the streets of Rome to celebrate his feats as a charioteer, features a conga line of bare-breasted women (though they're only seen in a fairly long shot -- not allowing the mammaries to linger on, you might say). The rest of the film is in sepia tone, including the sea battle and the chariot race, both of which are fairly remarkable given the technology available to filmmakers at the time. There are a couple of hammy performances and one rather unfortunate lurch into 1920s fashion -- Massala's (Francis X. Bushman) sexy squeeze, Iras the Egyptian, romances Ben-Hur (Massala's friend-become-enemy and rival during the chariot race) while bearing a bobbed hairdo that F. Scott Fitzgerald's Bernice herself might have envied -- but the players trace the gnarled, just-this-side-of-hokey plot with aplomb. Especially memorable are the scenes in which Ben-Hur's leprous mother and sister first see and sorrow over their "untouchable" Judah and later are cured by Christ.
Numerous histories of silent movies have described how MGM's attempts to film the silent Ben-Hur in Italy proved to be a disastrous failure. Scott Eyman's biography of L.B. Mayer includes a brief but good summary of the particulars. With costs quickly spiraling out of control, Francis X. Bushman attempting to blackmail the studio by demanding a raise before he would consent to continue playing Massala, and the technological challenges daunting enough to begin with, it took all of Mayer's legendary organizational skills to get everyone back "on task" and bring the film to completion in time for a Christmas 1925 limited release. (The film went into general release in 1927.) Thanks to a gargantuan $3.9 million budget, the film made only a modest profit in its initial release, but quality told and Ben-Hur ultimately returned a nice profit to the studio. For better or worse -- usually the former -- Ben-Hur's troubled history also forged in steel MGM's longstanding commitment to keep as tight a rein on its films' production as possible.
Having just recently seen Intolerance -- the 1910s idea of a mammoth epic -- it's pretty amazing to me how quickly the art of epic storytelling had advanced by the time of Ben-Hur. Apart from the stagey style of acting favored by some of the players, Ben-Hur looks and moves like a movie any modern filmgoer who hasn't been shocked into insensibility by "shaky cams" and "two-by-four-to-the-head SFX" can easily recognize as "modern." Don't be fooled by the release date: if you liked the Heston Hur, you should like this one as well.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
"When the elephants fight, the ground gets trampled," the saying goes, but the same might be said of elephants' mating rituals. The folks at Boom! Studios must have taken this news as they would have absorbed a kick in the 'nads. Just when Boom! is about to roll out its new line of "classic-character" Disney comics -- with a daring new approach, to boot -- Disney buys one of the most effective comics producers and distributors of the past half-century. I'd say the chances of a renewal of Boom!'s license just shrank a tad, wouldn't you? The scary thing, of course, is that the one previous cooperative comics-producing venture between Disney and Marvel, back in the mid-1990s, was a financial flop and an aesthetic disaster. The Marvel-Disney DISNEY AFTERNOON title -- which its editor described with a straight face as "a comic Disney can be proud of" -- is almost legendarily awful, and the other M-D titles, while more readable, never really took hold. Granted, Marvel has changed some since then, but the company's established track record in dealing with licensed properties is decidedly mixed, as is its history in the "kids' comics" field (Star Comics, with its shamelessly "Harvey-Lite" approach, immediately comes to mind). Disney's lack of oversight with regards to some of Boom!'s more daring notions suggests that, if it decides to let Marvel take over the "classic" comics license at some future time, it might simply let "The House of Ideas" have carte blanche. Personally, I'd gladly watch a DVD of the collected Stan Lee's Stripperella rather than go through another Marvel-Disney nightmare, especially if it involves Mickey, Donald, Scrooge, and the cream of Disney's crop.