Thursday, October 6, 2011

Following Your Dream

The recent death of Steve Jobs -- and the loss it presents to civilization at large -- is being observed around the world. There are many things for which Jobs will be remembered -- Apple's computer and electronic products, its unique corporate culture, its phenomenal customer service, and its sophisticated advertising.

All of these rest on an aesthetic foundation that never fails to amaze. From combining form and function to the streamlined elegance of Apple's product line, the intuitiveness of its interface, and the success of its branding, Jobs raised the artistic standards for software and electronic devices to previously unimaginable levels.

Not only did Steve Jobs build one of the most successful global brands in history (a brand whose loyal followers put the cult back in culture), he helped people around the world think in new ways, tap into their creativity, and use their newly-acquired technology to build a better world. On the morning Jobs died, the San Francisco Chronicle had just published a story (entitled SMART Muni App Designed Over A Weekend) about a group of programmers who accomplished something San Francisco's city planners had expected would take several years and millions of dollars to achieve. According to James Temple's article:
"The group hit on the idea for the tool during a hackathon sponsored by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts as part of the San Francisco nonprofit's Summer of Smart initiative. The goal of the marathon brainstorming and programming sessions was to demonstrate how local government could harness the surplus of creative, technical minds in our own backyard, and how citizens could take the initiative to solve real city problems.

The team hacked together the basic parameters of the SMART Muni app in a 48-hour stretch in late July, fueled by pizza and beer. They coupled a GPS data feed showing the location of Muni buses with a user interface that could allow MTA managers to more easily spot and fix problems. It will also allow riders to glimpse delays they want to avoid, or communicate issues throughout the system. The group has continued to tweak the software and plans to submit the product to Apple's App Store for approval in the next few weeks.

'In the past, you could vote, pay taxes or complain, and then you quickly run out of things you can do in a participatory democracy,' said Peter Hirshberg, chairman of the Gray Area Foundation. 'This shows there are more ways of engaging.'"

Some artists live in a world of their own, struggling to carve out a niche for themselves and their artistic vision. Others may prefer to grab their artistic muse by the horns and try to wrestle it to the ground. Constantly creating new challenges for themselves, new puzzles to be solved, and new adventures to share with others, their fertile imaginations, artistic discipline, and ability to keep producing have had a brilliant, if occasionally subversive, impact on our culture.

Two new films that will be shown during the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival focus on the peculiar artistry of a wildly popular animator and the wild success of the man who built a uniquely American cult of superheroes.

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Back in the 1950s, the only comic books I was allowed to starred characters like Little Lulu, Donald Duck, Archie Andrews and Veronica Lodge. Although I loved to purchase paperback collections of Peanuts cartoons, characters like Jughead and Dennis the Menace were considered a bit on the wild side.

Only when I began to read the D.C. Comics about Superman, Batman, and Robin (which ran Jack LaLanne's bodybuilding ads on the inside back cover) did I start to warm to the erotic-exotic images of superheroes with bulging biceps and rippling thighs. Like many a young gay man, I was inspired by their sculpted pectorals, skin-hugging tights, supernatural strength, and sense of moral integrity.

I was hardly alone.  It took five decades before male action heroes got the gayest send-up ever, thanks to SNL's Saturday TV Funhouse, in an episode of The Ambiguously Gay Duo that starred Jimmy Fallon, Jon Hamm, and Ed Helms.

Comic book lovers and action hero fans will love a new documentary entitled With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.  This film tells the story of the legendary writer whose fertile mind had such an impact on the culture of superheroes. What sets Stan Lee apart from many others is that he was always happy to give credit to his co-creators, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

With the help of their illustrations, Stan Lee introduced the world to such unforgettable characters as Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, The Silver Surfer, Dr. Doom, and Iron Man. He also came up with the concept of superhero teams such as the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Many of Lee's characters lived in the real world, rather than some fake location like Metropolis or Gotham City. They had human weaknesses and insecurities to which their adolescent fans could relate and often dealt with scenarios involving discrimination against people who were "different."

Watching Stan Lee talk about his past is a fascinating experience. Even as he nears his 90th birthday, he maintains a youthful exuberance about comic books, action heroes, and some of his most personal achievements.
Stan Lee with The Hulk and Spider-Man

It's interesting to watch major Hollywood names (Kirstin Dunst, Toby Maguire, Nicholas Cage, Sean Astin, Roger Corman, Lou Ferrigno, James Franco, Seth Rogen) talk about Stan Lee with the same kind of easygoing affection, professional admiration, and childlike awe they might have for Santa Claus. Indeed, Lee is a very merry soul who gets a tremendous kick out of any chance to create new characters and adventures for his fans.

Stan Lee speaking at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con International

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The first time I saw one of Bill Plympton's animated shorts was at one of the Spike & Mike Festivals of Animation. It wasn't long before Plympton's hallucinogenic adventures in storytelling were delighting audiences at the Sick and Twisted Festivals of Animation.

Since that time, Plympton's art has never failed to amaze. Alexia Anastasio's delightful new documentary, Adventures in Plymptoons, is a wild ride through the mind of the man hailed as "one of the fastest animators alive." Rest assured that Plympton's understanding of human anatomy is not reflected in any medical textbook.

If Anastasio's film succeeds in entertaining its audience, a great deal of its success is due to Plympton's fiendish irreverence, as evidenced in the following trailer:

As demonstrated in the following clip from Santa -- The Fascist Years, Plympton's shorts can be dangerously anti-authoritarianism.

And yet his artwork has been commissioned by major corporations such as United Airlines, Geico Direct, Microsoft, Taco Bell, and Soloflex.  The following ad he created for NutraSweet sacrifices none of his impishness:

If Plympton's hilarious 2004 animated feature, Hair High, was an eye opener, it was nothing compared to the breathtaking and severely twisted work he delivered in 2008's Idiots and Angels.

Adventures in Plymptoons includes testimonials from a wide range of people who have worked with Plympton ("Weird Al" Yankovic, Zak Orth, Martha Plimpton) as well as friends and colleagues such as Ed Begley, Jr., Mathew Modine, Terry Gilliam, and Ralph Bakshi. It's as wild a ride as any of Plympton's crazy shorts.  Consider the following trailer as an appetizer:

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