Sunday, January 9, 2011

Children Will Listen

In September 2010, after a rash of young gay men committed suicide, the mass media finally awoke to the cost of homophobic bullying in the nation's schools. Although some good did come from the string of unnecessary deaths (most especially the It Gets Better Project launched by Dan Savage), nothing will ever bring those unfortunate young people back to life.

This weekend's tragic events in Tucson, Arizona left several dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life. In his diary on DailyKos, blogger BoyBlue wrote:
"I had been invited to attend the event, but my mom, who has health issues, had dizzying spells; thus, at the very last minute, I decided not to go to the event. My reason for going to the event would have been to ask her [Giffords] what was she thinking by feeding into this anti-Pelosi and anti-111th Congress as being too liberal for the nation narrative. My mom is grateful she was dizzy, because I could have been a casualty. I live seven miles from the location of the event. I would bet my house that it will come out that some disgruntled former Jesse Kelly rightwing supporters did this. Most of you have no idea just what kind of far rightwing nut Jesse Kelly is and just how crazed, not unlike Nazis, his supporters were. I was at Tucson's yearly gay pride festival in October. I was driving a full-size pickup (I'm a good liberal now, driving a hybrid, haha). I had Gabby paraphernalia all over the truck, including large yard signs attached to it. I was attempting to leave, making an attempt to drive out of the park's parking lot where the gay pride event was held, and a bunch of Kelly 'church' people literally attacked my vehicle, banging on it, including one with a large stick.
They yelled that 'of course all of that bitch's [Giffords] supporters were 'god-hating' faggots!' They threatened to pull me out of my truck and beat 'some sense' into me. I replied to them in very vulgar terms and told them through my rolled-down window that if they didn't get out of the way, I'd proceed to go and they'd get ran over. They replied, 'Go ahead, AIDS-spreading faggot!' So I promptly drove forward. Obviously, they all got out of the way. When I got home, I noticed they had managed to rip most of my 'Giffords for Congress' stuff off my truck. So it is not surprising to me seeing the ugliest campaign I have ever seen, that supporters of the fascist side would not take his loss lightly. And the gun laws here in Arizona are far too lax."
Since Saturday's shootings, some interesting facts and thoughts have surfaced amidst the nation's outpouring of grief and concern.

The bottom line is that, as children, people like Loughner learn to hate by listening to the toxic spew that emanates from the mouths of their parents, peers, politicians, pastors, and favorite television pundits. As Stephen Sondheim stressed in his 1987 musical, Into the Woods, children will listen.

America's obsession with violence as a means to an end is passed down to kids at a very early age. Children absorb thousands of violent images while watching television, movies, and playing video games. Sometimes their source of learning is a source their parents trust without question, a point that was driven home last week as I watched two full-length animated features.

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Watch any of Walt Disney's full-length animated features and you're bound to notice that the music often heightens the suspense as threatening characters challenge the hero. There are lots of fights, scary moments, and narrow escapes.

Disney's 50th full length animated feature, Tangled, is no different. Its hero, Flynn Rider (a/k/a/ Eugene Fitzherbert), is an adventurous thief backed up by a pair of huge thugs who gets himself into plenty of trouble before seeking refuge in a strangely isolated tower where the heroine, Rapunzel, lives with her creepily narcissistic and manipulative mother. Of the three official trailers, this one is pitched most obviously toward young boys who might otherwise resist seeing another Disney Princess movie:

Rapunzel, as you may recall, was noted for her extremely long hair that, in the Disney film, is possessed with remarkable powers and tensile talents. My main reason for seeing Tangled was that I wanted to see how the film would look from an artistic standpoint. There had been a great deal of publicity about the challenges faced by Disney's animation team in getting CGI scripting to do a good job with the main character's golden tresses. According to Wikipedia:
"One of the main goals of the animators was to create movement that mimicked the soft fluidity of the hand-drawn art found in older Disney animated films. Glen Keane credited Disney 3D animator Kyle Strawitz with helping to combine CGI with the traditional hand-drawn style. 'He took the house from Snow White and built it and painted it so that it looked like a flat painting that suddenly started to move, and it had dimension and kept all of the soft, round curves of the brushstrokes of watercolor. Kyle helped us get that Fragonard look of that girl on the swing… We are using subsurface scattering and global illumination and all of the latest techniques to pull off convincing human characters and rich environments.'"
Tangled has many assets. There is a beautiful scene on the lake as hundreds of lanterns are lit to celebrate the lost Princess's birthday. I especially like the overemotional white horse (another great Disney animal character). But the film has a certain coldness that comes from being clinically gorgeous but lacking in soul.

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Quite the opposite could be said of The Illusionist, an entrancing new full-length animation feature from Sylvain Chomet (who wrote and directed The Triplets of Belleville). Set in 1959, the film's protagonist is an aging magician whose vaudeville-like act is becoming obsolete as rock and roll starts to sweep the entertainment industry.

Billy Boy and the Brittoons

Put an old man with a crotchety rabbit up against four sexy young men with electric guitars and the magician is bound to lose. Unless, of course, he attracts the attention of a teenage girl whose sense of wonder makes her believe that the old man's magic is real. As Chomet explains:
“There was a moment in The Triplets of Belleville where the triplets are watching television in bed. I thought it would be funny to have the cartoon characters view a live-action clip close in feeling to its Tour de France cycling story. Filmmaker Jacques Tati's  wonderful Jour de fĂȘte/Holiday sprang to mind because it featured him as a postman on a bicycle. So Didier Brunner (the producer) contacted the Tati estate, run by his sole surviving daughter Sophie Tatischeff, for permission to use an extract. Her authorization was based on pictures and a set of design developments for The Triplets of Belleville. She clearly liked what she saw because she mentioned an unfilmed script by her father and hinted that my animation style might suit it. 
The story was all about the irrevocable passing of time and I understood completely why he had never made it. It was far too close to himself, it dealt in things he knew all too well, and he preferred to hide behind the mask of his seminal character, Monsieur Hulot. You could tell from the start it was not just another Hulot misadventure, all the heart-on-sleeve observations made that crystal clear. Had he made the movie -- and I'm certain he had every camera angle already worked out -- it would have taken his career in a totally different direction. He is actually on record saying The Illusionist was far too serious a subject for his persona and he chose to make the classic Play Time instead.
Because the character of The Illusionist is definitely not another Monsieur Hulot, Sophie Tatischeff didn't want to see any of that character's familiar trademarks dramatized by another actor. Therefore, animation seemed to be the ideal medium to solve all those problems by providing the opportunity to create an animated version of Tati playing The Illusionist character from scratch. Sadly, Sophie died four months after our first contact. But the estate agreed with her decision to entrust me with the family jewels."

The Illusionist is, to all intents and purposes, the exact artistic opposite of Disney's Tangled. There are no wild chase scenes, no daring CGI work, and the score is decidedly low key. What it has, instead, is the sheer magic and fragile, low-key charm of old-fashioned animation. As Chomet explains:
“1960s vintage Disney is my absolute favourite animation period. The Aristocats and especially 101 Dalmatians sum up the energy and artistic roughness you just don't get from CGI 3D computerized animation. My insistence on hand-drawn 2D graphics comes from the fact the technique gives a more ethereal charm to the art, ensuring the story is always a pleasure to behold, even during moments of inaction. The strength of 2D in my opinion is it vibrates and it's not perfect, just like reality in fact. Imperfections are important when you are dealing with a story about human characters. It adds to the realism, makes it even more potent. And 2D is created by humans. CGI is good for robots and toys, less for humans. I want to see the work of an artist on the screen, not a machine whose visuals are too neat, shiny, and clean. I prefer me and my pencil -- not me with a laptop! Something indefinable is lost designing with a computer. When I draw, aesthetically pleasing things come to life with a magical quality and visual power.”

Alice watches the dancers backstage

Whereas Tati had set the story in Paris and Prague,  Chomet decided to use Edinburgh instead of Prague for much of the action. That allowed him a distinct set of architectural landmarks as well as a closer tie-in to the changes happening in Great Britain's aging music halls.

Like The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist has a unique kind of charm that is at once gentle, teasing, poignant, hilariously funny, and yet filled with a bittersweet sense of nostalgia. A wonderful clip of Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle magically finds its way into the film near the end. Here's the trailer:

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