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Sunday, Jun 24, 2007

It’s enough to make fans of Disney’s old fashioned artistry weep openly. On 19 June, Sharon Morrill, longtime President of the company’s DisneyToons Studios, was out of a job. Throughout the course of her 13 years as head of said division, Morrill led the animation giant into one of its most profitable – and controversial – ventures ever: the reconfiguration of classic cartoon titles into cheap, easily knocked-off, direct to home video sequels. From Brother Bear II and various configurations of Lilo and Stitch to the complete bastardization of timeless treasures like Bambi, Peter Pan and Cinderella, the studios desire to maximize profitability (and trade on its Good Housekeeping Seal level of reputation) did more to destroy the marquee value of the studios most important asset – it’s heritage – than anything else in its 85 year history.

At least, that’s what John Lasseter and Ed Catmull thought. Back when Disney was courting Pixar for some manner of partnership/revenue sharing agreement, the eventual buyout of the CGI gods brought two of its chief components into brand new roles at the House of Mouse. Lasseter was named Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, while Catmull was put in charge as President. Both wanted to drastically alter the direction the business was going it. Prior to their taking over, Uncle Walt’s world had just announced a decision to abandon traditional pen and ink cartoons, instead opting for the fading fad of 3D computer creations. But with the box office failings of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, the new duo decided to reverse the ridiculous decision. In fact, Mickey’s kingdom made headlines earlier this year when a new 2D title, featuring the first heroine of color in any Disney cartoon, was proposed (it will be called The Princess and the Frog and is set for 2009).

Next on the agenda – the seemingly endless stream of subpar product pouring out of Morrill’s sector. Now, it has to be said that this effective executive is playing scapegoat for a series of practices that has haunted the studio since The Lion King resurrected Disney’s blockbuster realities. Previously, both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast had reestablished the company’s artistic fortunes, but King’s kid friendly storyline brought in the big bucks – and the suits (including former CEO Michael Eisner) were looking for more. Along with Aladdin, the Mouse House saw a way of quickly and efficiently maximizing their returns. They would take all the left over footage created for their animated films, and make rapid turnaround sequels, striking while the interest irons were hot. Believe it or not, full length cartoons can be completely reworked between the script and drawing stage, and even more changes can occur once test screenings dictate the direction. So it was a win-win for the company. It used up some of the otherwise useless material, and extended a title’s potential payout.

With well received direct to video efforts like Return of Jafar and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, the stage was set for a whole new revenue stream. And the marketplace was more than eager to open their billfolds. Back in the mid-‘80s, when the VCR became the de facto babysitter for hundreds of blasé boomer parents, Disney was the name everyone turned to. Warners was viewed as too archaic (and violent) while other cartoon wares were dismissed as artificial and driven by commercial considerations (product tie-ins, etc.). No, Uncle Walt and his magical world was the way to go for most enlightened Moms and Dads, and with the company’s oddly effective embargo policies (a famous title would go on sale, only to be pulled from stores a few months later and mothballed for up to seven years) any additional Disney release was greeted with wide wallets. 

Thus, the vaults were unsealed, and any and all previous material was up for sequelization. Initially, no one much cared. These were offerings aimed at the wee ones, starter sets, if you will, for unformed minds. The hope was that, as the big budget theatrical releases cemented their status as unpolished gems, the direct to video films would fill in the gaps, appeasing a rabid retail demographic until the sell through hit came along. DVD threw the company a curve ball it wasn’t expecting, and it didn’t win over many fans with its decision to go with the pay-to-play technology known as DIVX. In truth, Disney badly mismanaged the transfer over to digital, and had to try and catch up with the rest of the industry throughout most the late ‘90s. The glut of releases, combined with the fading fortunes of their theatrical efforts (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range all tanked) placed the company in a precarious position.

It was Morrill and her division that kept them afloat. It was also her decisions that finally pushed matters over the edge. Since she took over in 1994, DisneyToons Studios produced almost 50 ‘original’ titles. Many took already established series (Winnie the Pooh, The Adventures of Goofy) and continued the franchise. Others were far more questionable, utilizing beloved favorites (Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, Pinocchio) as jumping off points for narratively inconsistent efforts. While it acted as a cash machine for the company, it also created an artistic impact that few could have envisioned. In essence, the direct to video offerings diluted the original films, making them feel like part of a production line process instead of individual statements of creative pride. Slowly but surely, each new Disney release was viewed through a veiled cloud of cynicism – and it was a suspicion rewarded when, less than a year later, an ‘all new’ sequel was waiting for your mindless consumption.

Granted, it was a brilliant strategy, one based on the inherent disconnect the audience had for the original sources. Kids, by their very nature, are not the most discerning consumers. They will take anything that provides 60 to 90 minutes of bright colored craziness, as long as it satisfies their sugar-rush reality. They could care less if Belle’s Magical World is based on an Oscar nominated masterpiece. They want more anthropomorphic objects and they want them now. So all Morrill did was deliver what the buyer was craving – more and more monotonous eye candy for the children to chew on while forcing Fruit Roll-ups into their craw. They even went so far as to restructure theatrical films into long running TV series – Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, Tale Spin – anything for a bit more black ink.

But not even Disney could have predicted Pixar’s eventual importance to the genre. It couldn’t have conceived the mainstream hysteria over the smugly ironic 3D offerings from Dreamworks and Fox. Suddenly, Mickey’s Manor was trailing in the artform it helped build from the ground up, and all it had was Lasseter’s computer generated gems to rely on. It tried its own hand at bitmap rendering (Dinosaurs being a decent example), but overall, Walt’s ways were viewed as old fashioned, behind the times, and perhaps worst of all, completely antithetical to the bottom line. Along with soon to be exiting Eisner, Morrill had made the once proud name of Disney into a trademark tainted by nothing but dollar signs.

The final straw was a fairy, apparently. Lasseter’s tenure as Chief Creative Officer was cutthroat from the very beginning. He restarted 2D animation, backed off the company’s CG only stance, and started dropping proposed Morrill merchandise (The Aristocats II, The Ugly Duckling Story) left and right. But it wasn’t until he saw the horrendous (and soon to be released) The Tinkerbell Story that Mr. Pixar was convinced that Morrill had to go. Taking the classic character and trying to cram her into a Bratz like girl power paradigm seemed unthinkable. In addition, this sloppy salvo was just the opening tact in an overall product strategy that seemed based on marketing research and consulting rather than creativity and artistry.

Calling it “unwatchable” Lasseter demanded a change. With pal Catmull at his side, they pulled the plug on Morrill’s tenure, and decided to take DisneyToon’s Studio in a slightly different direction. Instead of pulling from the classics catalog, the sector will now draw from the wealth of content currently available on the Playhouse Disney Channel. There will still be a few left over sequels to contractually cater to (The Little Mermaid III for one), but after that, the House of Mouse will have reformed their warping ways – and for many, it may be too little too late. While the founding father himself must be smiling over the Lasseter/Catmull hire, he has to be worried about the longevity and legacy of the company named after him. Prior to the ‘80s, Disney was known for timeless, quality family entertainment. Today, it’s sneered at, earning a tag of merchandising charlatans, whoring out their traditions for the sake of some extra sales.

But it goes far beyond that. Like many corporate entities in the last two decades, Disney decided to stop making product for the people, and instead, manufactured artifice for its bean counters. Just like Hollywood’s micromanaged motion pictures, purposefully cobbled together out of various clichés and stereotypes to be everything to every paying patron, the business plan didn’t care that its animated films were flopping. They had built in so many potential ways of recouping their costs (between direct to video, merchandising and theme parks tie-ins) that it didn’t matter. Mediocrity could be as lucrative as a masterwork. And with the trend away from 2D animation and the seemingly untouchable magic of Pixar, there was no need to push itself.

Thankfully, Lasseter and Catmull are now in charge, and while they have a long way to go toward achieving the near impossible – rebuilding the company’s creative fortunes – they’ve taken a remarkable first step. There will be those who lament not having another narrative go round with their favorite characters, and parents may wonder what they will do once the Disney cartoon conveyor belt comes to a screeching halt, but for the men behind the recent radical restructuring, protecting this cinematic symbol’s tattered and tarnished reputation seems like a wise executive decision. The House of Mouse may never go back to an impervious icon of quality and family friendly filmmaking, but it can at least reclaim some of its soul. With Morrill’s departure, the process has already begun.

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Sunday, Jun 24, 2007
by Jonathon B. Walter

The Age of Wire and String: Stories
By Ben Marcus
October 2005, 144 pages

Heaven: Area of final containment. It is modeled after the first house. It may be hooked and slid and shifted. The bottom may be sawed through.”
—Ben Marcus, “The Age of Wire and String”

That’s probably as good a definition of heaven as has ever been written by any theologian, and yet the book it comes from might be one of the strangest and most baffling pieces of experimental fiction ever published in the United States. Calling this thing “fiction” is actually being kind; Ben Marcus’s collection of alien yet strangely logical how-to articles and wild definitions stretches the definition of literature itself. The terms “how-to articles” and “definitions” might be awkward and ungainly, and in fact barely scratch the surface of what Marcus is trying to accomplish, but they’ll have to do because nobody else seems to have any idea what to call this idiosyncratic, confusing and just plain odd piece of fiction. Even the publishers themselves seem split; the back cover proclaims it “a collection of stories” while the front cover, conversely, states it is “a novel”.

What it resembles most is a kind of nihilistic Boy Scout handbook from another planet, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic Earth, where words no longer mean quite what they meant before. Marcus holds to the basic rules of grammar and syntax, sure (and thank God for that), but replaces certain nouns and verbs with different ones in specific places so that the reader is forever this close to understanding what’s being said—but not quite. The final effect of this over 140 pages is genuinely weird and unsettling; the word “dreamlike” is tossed around like confetti in book reviews, but this might be the first book I’ve ever read where a description of the prose might actually warrant its use.

The book’s various pieces are split into sections with titles like “GOD”, “FOOD”, and “HOUSE”, with a “TERMS” section at the end of each in which the various strange objects (and people) used as nouns in that particular section are defined just as strangely. The author even defines himself (three different ways), stating that the “Ben Marcus” is a “false map, scroll, caul, or parchment” or “the garment that is too heavy to allow movement” or “figure from which the antiperson is derived; or, simply, the antiperson.” Some short pieces, like “Leg of Brother Who Died Early”, have been suggested by some to be autobiographical, but that seems to be a rather desperate clutching for meaning seeing that the book’s elliptical, unknowable language makes it impossible to assume anything at all.

To get more concrete, reading The Age of Wire and String is comparable to listening to a bearded psychotic complete with grocery cart and incomprehensible Xeroxed handouts rant and rave on a public street corner. In both cases, there’s clearly some kind of logic to what’s being said (it’s not just random words), but damned if anyone but the person speaking can understand it. A sample: “When children sleep on these points of lawn, the funeral of air passes just above their heads in a crosswind with the body. Funerals generally are staged in pollinated wind frames, so that the air can shoot to the east off of the children’s breath, dying elsewhere along the way, allowing fresh, living air to swoop in on the blast-back to attack the house ...” And the book generally goes on like that, at varying levels of comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, until it just…stops. There is no character development, no plot (and therefore no resolution), no situation, no theme, no real setting.

Only one section of the book courts, however obliquely, with a plot—“The Weather Killer”, which may in fact be its greatest moment, a disturbing collection of anecdotes (“The morning sun was loud, and they ran into the open and gouged at their ears with wire. He collected oil from broken drums and led them in prayer. A rag was found hooked on a tree branch. Men could no longer urinate and their hips blackened”) that completely dispenses with the “handbook” language and uses simple third-person prose. While it is impossible to comprehend exactly what happens in “The Weather Killer” (the setting and characters, if any, remain oblique) the general feeling created is one of utter terror, destruction and pointless violence. To completely alter the meaning of words and still maintain a sense of impending doom is a real literary achievement. The obvious precursor to this kind of writing is Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons (which gave us the infamous “Out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle”) went down similar avenues of pure linguistic musicality; but Marcus’s attempt may even outdo hers in its uncanny ability to generate a feeling, a mood, using nothing but the beautiful and jarring sounds created by one word placed after another.


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Saturday, Jun 23, 2007

When someone says they don’t make movies like they used to, they are probably referring to a title like 1408. Reviving a lost subgenre like the psychological thriller is not an easy task, and when you consider the author of the source material is none other than cinematic hit or miss Stephen King, the odds are substantially stacked against you. Even worse, the release carries a PG-13 rating, which tells most dread die-hards that the narrative they’re about to see has been sanitized for the protection of the viewing public. The final nail in the nonevent coffin is the presence of Swedish unknown Mikael Håfström behind the lens. While his native language efforts have been well received, his 2005 disaster Derailed doesn’t speak well for his ability with suspense.

Luckily, the planets were all in alignment when stars Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack decided to take on this basically two person drama, and the results more than speak for themselves. While not actually scary, 1408 is unsettling and intense, taking its own sweet time building to a truly disconcerting climax. Predating post-modern horror by a chainsaw or two, and delivering ample angst without having to resort to bloodshed or gratuity, Håfström helms the perfect antidote to all the ‘gorno’ currently claiming the creepshow mantel. His take on King’s sensational short story is a devious little mind game, an eerie examination of one man’s inner demons and how those pent up issues can do much more than haunt a human soul. They can take on an afterlife in the real world as well.

Cynical as hell and falsely heroic, Cusack is Mike Enslin, a writer of horror-themed travel guides. He visits supposedly haunted locales and writes up reviews, Michelin style, of their significant scare factors. Of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a dyed in the wool skeptic and blames desperate hotel owners for concocting – and in some cases, creating – the spook shows for the benefit of their lagging bottom line. One day, Enslin receives a postcard warning him away from the title room, a particularly evil space in New York’s old money Dolphin Hotel. Only problem is, the establishment won’t let him in. After confronting manager Gerald Olin (a smooth and suave Samuel L.) over occupancy, Enslin gets his wish – and a warning. No one has ever lasted more than an hour in the room, the result being death, or dementia. It’s the kind of challenge Enslin can’t pass up. Once he’s inside 1408, however, he realizes he should have heeded Olin’s advice.

To go any further in the plot summary would ruin 1408’s many macabre moments (though, as usual, the preview trailers have happily spoiled more than one). To his credit, Håfström doesn’t rush his prologue. We get to know Mike Enslin very well, his superstitious little quirks, the stinging sarcasm covering up for deep personal pain, and as he moves ever so steadily toward his confrontation with the name terror, we begin to build up a lot of sympathy and caring for him. True, this is your typical King protagonist – self destructive and markedly egotistic, requiring a kind of metaphysical just deserts to reset his stagnant priorities – but thanks to Cusack’s ability to humanize Enslin’s hubris, we find ourselves on the world weary writer’s side. On the other hand, Sam Jackson is not given much to do, but what he has to work with is choice. His initial meeting with Cusack is so classic in its performance potency, it’s like the Closer’s Contest pitch made by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry, Glen Ross.

While there are other famous names in the cast – Tony Shalhoub as Enslin’s publisher, Mary McCormack as his distant wife – they are more like cameos. This is Cusack’s show almost exclusively and your reactions will be wholly based on how you connect with him. He gives an amazing turn, on screen alone for minutes at a time and capturing completely a man caught off guard by circumstances he didn’t anticipate. Nothing is more deliciously enjoyable than watching a know it all proven unprepared, and the initial scenes where room 1408 starts to take on a life of its own offers the actor at his best. Later on, Cusack must turn on the waterworks and the histrionics, and for the most part, he keeps his obvious emotions in check. It’s a tour de force, and the production couldn’t have picked a better star to handle it.

On the other hand, Håfström’s work is much more subtle. There are riffs to many previous King adaptations (The Shining and The Dark Half for starters) and this Swedish cinephile understands the basic elements of suspense. There are several edge of the seat sequences in 1408, moments where we fear, along with our hero, what’s around the next corner, or waiting for us in the shadows of the ceiling vent. This is not a film that wants to quicken your pulse or send shockwaves through your spine so much as deliberately dig down just beneath the top layers of your flesh to settle in under your skin. For every set piece of rushing water, freezing interior spaces and grue-gushing walls, there are small, seemingly insignificant beats which tend to amplify the angst. There are even a couple of epic CG shots to spice up the spectacle. But by constantly keeping the film founded in the personal, Håfström’s paranormal excesses work that much better.

It has to be said that the last few decades, a time that literally redefined and reconfigured the thriller/chiller genre, will render 1408 inconsequential to some fright fans. For them, nothing says fear like flowing rivers of bodily fluids, along with the occasional misplaced organ. Others need the celluloid rollercoaster simulation – build-up/release, build-up/release – of the genres more extreme examples. But when you look at how well made and managed this movie is, when you recognize that the seemingly random scenes all have a logical reason to exist (and potentially payoff in the end) you can’t deny 1408’s effectiveness. You can mock its casual style and lack of aggressive arterial spray, but the refreshing nature of such a narrative twist will end up annoying only the most narrow-minded of macabre mavens.

For everyone else, 1408 will be a nostalgic callback to a time when films used ideas and invention to sell its scares. There is nary a moment of snuff stunt showboating or special effects sluice to be seen. In its place are tight construction, tripwire direction, superb acting, and an uncomfortable sense of the sinister. While it may not answer the near half century old debate regarding subtlety vs. splatter as the most successful fear factor, Håfström’s engaging experiment in unforced fright is well worth a look. It definitely defines the kind of movies old fashioned film fans pine for – and may even capture the imagination of the contemporary doom and gloom crowd as well.

7 out of 10

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Friday, Jun 22, 2007

When Gigi took the Best Picture Oscar in 1958, sweeping the ceremony with a startling nine wins, it signaled the end of an era. For the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli and producer, legendary MGM Svengali Arthur Freed, the movie symbolized the zenith of their professional success in a partnership that produced an array of breezy ‘50s Technicolor extravaganzas - Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, and Brigadoon; But the massive productions, complete with unfolding glittering sets and hordes of extras, were becoming too expensive for the studios to finance given the increasingly modest revenues they were generating. The Hollywood musical was losing its popularity. People were more easily bored; they became less inclined to sit through a twenty-minute interpretive dance sequence, even if Gene Kelly was its star. By the time the screen rights for Gigi were up for grabs in the early ‘50s, no studio wanted to touch it. When Paramount passed, MGM gingerly bought them, due in part to the pleadings of its musical-theater genius, Minnelli.

The trends of pop culture, like history, are cyclical. Musicals are back. Rob Marshall’s Chicago, Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, and Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls are lavish spectacles in the tradition of Freed and Minnelli. It’s a trend that began with Baz Luhrman’s irreverent, iconoclastic, Moulin Rouge, a heady blend of Minnelli, Ken Russell-rock opera (Tommy and Mahler) and plodding Gilbert and Sullivan. I think something about troubled political times makes us cling to the enchantment of musicals and its promise of escapism, whether you’re trying to cope with the memory of a devastating world war, or struggling to deal with a current one.

Gigi is not as well known today as the other Lerner and Loewe favorite that it’s compared too, My Fair Lady. Both are about eager, gauche young women who are transformed into graceful swans by a little manners, money, and the love of a shallow, but earnest, rich young man. Sounds an awful lot like the storyline to Pretty Woman. The plot is banal, and the movie is no more than an Ugly Duckling-style romantic comedy, but it’s enough. It’s not the reason why the movie is a success, or why you should watch it in the first place.

Leslie Caron plays as the adolescent girl, Gigi, who is tutored to be a courtesan by her great-aunt (Isabel Jeans) and grandmother (Hermione Gingold), but is so charmingly innocent and guileless that she winds up married to the richest, handsomest young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan).  Jourdan, arch and imperially slim, brings the appropriate hauteur to the part of this jaded dandy.  Like Rupert Everett, he has the insolent confidence and the elusive sophistication that can turn mannerisms into style. 

In between, the film is serenaded by the august Maurice Chevalier as Gaston’s worldly uncle. Chevalier’s years of experience and his love of performing come together joyously.  His easy manner recalls the atmosphere of 1920s Parisian music halls seen most recently in Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf’s biopic, La Vie en Rose - eloquent, sophisticated and unapologetic - a style of entertainment that got France through two world wars, and defined their culture through the 20th century.

Chevalier’s knowing rendition of, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung as he leeringly gazes at burgeoning young pre-adolescents in the Bois de Boulougne does not go over so well in our age as it did back then. We’re asked essentially to applaud this dirty old man, and marvel at his wit. The screen persona spawned a thousand imitations, everything from Chuck Jones’s Pépé le Pew to Lumière the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast.

But one of the basic joys of Gigi is pure escapism. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why people are drawn to movies: to marvel at the flow of moving images across the screen. The picture has a buoyancy and playfulness that few movie musicals have. The glorious saturated Technicolor of Minnelli’s images: the oxblood red of the brocade walls of Mamita’s apartment; the vivid green and purple tartan of Gigi’s dress; the sleekness of the men and women all taken from images out of Renoir’s paintings, (the stately tour of Parisian high life is like a two-hour slide show for art-history majors); Cecil Beaton’s lush costumes, all lace and crinoline (he transferred his memories of Edwardian England onto 1900s Paris); the energy and dynamism of the score, jaunty and robust in its musical depiction of fin-de-siècle Paris, which evokes Bizet and Offenbach.

There are some glorious moments: the gossip at Maxim’s sequence is a masterpiece of balletic musical theater. Minnelli with his costume designer and set consultant, artist and bon vivant, Cecil Beaton, recreate an environment of elegance and imaginary innocence. And the scene where Gaston mulls over his growing fondness for Gigi, his top-hatted silhouette against the nighttime streets and fountains of Paris as he roams disconsolately, stunned by the realization that he’s falling in love, is a beautifully laid out sequence—a late Impressionist mood-piece haunted by sketches of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Minnelli was a director primarily interested in the pictorial effect of cinema.  He connected deeply with painters and his most successful, lovingly made movies, Lust for Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, reflect his vision of a film a moving canvas.  He understood more than anyone else that the spectator’s receptiveness to film hinges on visual pleasure, and Gigi is rapturous in that respect.

*Gigi will be playing on Turner Classic Movies at 11AM, Sunday, 1 Julyt

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Friday, Jun 22, 2007

Sick of the bland, unimaginative playlists at most stations?  Wish that you could have more of a choice on the radio?  Then you need to support low power radio so that it will flourish throughout the land.  A bill is coming up in Congress now and you can do your part to support this cause.  See the Take Action site for more details.

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