main: July 2005 Archives
According to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation's website, the Walt Disney Company has announced the closing of its last "hand-drawn animation studio": DisneyToon Studio in Sydney, Australia. All animated features will now be "computer animated." The clear implication, deliberate or not, is that the human hand (and mind and imagination) is getting squeezed out of an increasingly automated industry.
Not so. Computers can't draw. Nor can they design characters. And if I'm not mistaken, neither can they map out the broad gestures and movements that carry animated action. These tasks have always been done by artists, and (until computers get as creative as people) they always will be.
For a fascinating glimpse into the process, rent the DVD of The Incredibles and watch the interviews and production features that accompany the film. Or try Prince of Egypt, the Dreamworks version of Exodus that, despite major liberties (the correct word is really idiocies) regarding the substance, is technically one of the most brilliant animated features ever made, combining hand-drawn and computer techniques.
Computers are not the enemy. What they can do, very efficiently, is the laborious work of "in-betweening": that is, filling in all the small incremental movements between Nemo hearing a scary noise and Nemo turning around to swim the other way. This work has been outsourced to other countries for years; and it is true, the better in-betweeners sometimes rise to the top and become master animators and character designers. So in that respect the closing of DisneyToon is a loss.
But in-betweening is not the only way, or even the best way, to learn how to draw. Training the eye and hand is basically the same process it always was, so my best advice to the aspiring animator is take a good drawing class!
Of course, this is all coming from a frustrated animator who confesses to hoping that a billioniare will give her the budget to hire the best classical draftsmen and women and make glorious grownup animated features of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, followed by the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
P.S. After posting this entry, I caught up with the article in the Chicago Sun Times about the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, currently in the headlines as the designer of the Fordham Spire. After watching Calatrava sketch a tree then a figure, Sun Times architecture critic Kevin Nance is so impressed he exclaims, "What a Disney animator he would have been!" Guess I'm not alone in my grownup animation fantasy...
Recently I compared Hotel Rwanda (excellent) with Sometimes in April (excellent in a different way: the lead actor cannot compete with the brilliant Don Cheadle, but the film itself feels more authentic). Anyway, Rwanda is at least a visible blip on the media screen these days, which is ironic, given what Nicholas Kristof writes in today's New York Times about the unspeakable neglect of Darfur by the so-called network news. Maybe ten years from now, a dramatic film about the genocide in Darfur will win a prize at Sundance, and we can all enjoy feeling bad about what we didn't do today.
I loved The Motorcycle Diaries. Warm, funny, emotionally powerful, it takes the viewer on a visually stunning journey northward along the mountainous spine of South America with two young Argentinians, dreamy Ernesto and earthy Alberto, who rattle along like a mid-20th-century Don Quijote and Sancho Panza on an oil-spitting Rocinante, until they discover their destiny, which is to trade their bourgeois future for a life devoted to the poor.
I also loved the soulful performances of the two stars, Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna, and of all the other actors and non-actors who grace the screen. In the best sense, this is not Hollywood.
But it is also not true. Maybe Ernesto "Che" Guevara was brave, kind, and loving when young. But he didn't stay that way. In a 1967 address to his fellow communists, he highlighted the importance of "hatred as an element of the struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine."
To place this remark into the context of Guevara's actual career, see this article by Peruvian historian Alvaro Vargas Llosa in the current New Republic. After reading that essay, you may want to retire your Che T-shirt and pick up your Cervantes.
The best thing about Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey's uneven biopic about Bobby Darin, is its sympathy for the awkward position Darin occupied, in the 1950s and 60s, between pop music and rock'n'roll. Born Walden Robert Cassotto in 1936, Darin was only one year younger than Elvis. But he was not a Southerner; he was an Italian-American from the Bronx, and his dominant musical influences were not the great black and white stars of rhythm & blues, country & western, and gospel, but the great Italian pop singers, from Tony Bennett to Sinatra.
Pop was the residue of the big band era, a music focused on the fine-grained, microphone-magnified vocalism disparaged as "crooning" by ignorant critics. It could be that, but when practiced by singers as subtle and brilliant as Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, or Sarah Vaughan, it approaches the sublime. (See related entry under Soundtrax.)
All the more pity today's young 'uns don't know any better than to call this whole body of work "lounge music." Blame their parents: for the 60s generation, pop was the ancien régime against which their beloved rock'n'roll was the revolution.
So Darin turned to pop in 1959 and never let go (I will pass in respectful silence over his early 70s foray into "folk"). For all its faults (and there are many), Beyond the Sea is worth seeing for the sheer effort Spacey makes to replicate that bygone sound and attitude - an effort all the more poignant because Darin himself was replicating it. Bless him, he was an anachronism all his life.
It's been fun speculating about the box office slump - almost as much fun as watching the record industry collapse under its own weight. But I'm going to have to find another subject to write about, because Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle has summed up the entire situation.
With particular delight I recommend Mr. LaSalle's "Reason 6: Going to the Movies on a Saturday Night Has Become a Fairly Hideous, Repulsive Experience":
Art houses and repertory houses are exempt from this observation. Those theaters preserve the moviegoing experience as a fun, rewarding collective activity. But to spend Saturday night going to see a major release at a multiplex can be more stressful than going to work the first Monday after vacation.
It costs $10 for a ticket and almost another 10 for something at the concession stand, and you have to wait in line to buy both. To get a decent seat, you have to get there 20 minutes before the show starts, and once it starts, you have to sit through seven or eight trailers, then advertisements for TV shows and then commercials.
By now, 50 minutes have gone by and you haven't seen anything. Finally, the movie comes on, and it's lousy. It ends, and you get banged around to the exit and then have the fun of fighting with your fellow patrons to get out of the parking lot. And half of them are so jacked up by caffeine and screen violence that they think they're Vin Diesel.
I thank Dr. Taso G. Lagos for the following correction of an important detail in my July 4 posting, "The East is Green":
You indicated that since 1948 it has been illegal for movie studios to produce, distribute AND also own the theaters in which the films are shown. This practice is called "vertical integration." While it was illegal after 1948, since 1985, under the Reagan Administration, those prohibitions [the Paramount Consent Decrees] have been relaxed and now most major movie houses in America are owned by the major studios (the only exception is Disney, which at this writing, does not own any interest in movie theaters). So in Time Warner opening up theaters in China, this is hardly unusual. It has been going on here for 20 years, although silently ... By "silently" I mean that it was not widely publicized that this change took place in the mid-1980s. So far as I know, only the Wall Street Journal reported about it, and it was not a big deal.
Maybe the world is past wondering what goes on in the minds of suicide bombers. But what about a suicide bomber who is deeply conflicted about her mission and could go either way? In the aftermath of the London attacks, I recommend a quiet but powerful little film called "The Terrorist."
Written and directed by Santosh Sivan, this 1999 film relates the story of Malli (Ayesha Dharker), a young Indian woman who, wishing to revenge the death of her brother, volunteers to assassinate a political figure by serving as an official greeter who while offering him flowers will detonate a bomb hidden under her clothing.
The camera follows Malli through every step of preparing, then waiting, for the explosion that will rip apart her body and that of her victim. I put it that way because Malli's body, in all its vitality, youth, and sensuous delight, is very much the star of this film.
Malli doesn't talk much; she listens. She listens to her handlers: ideologues who, while not religious (the film is based on the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi), clearly see the life of ordinary people as vastly inferior to the death of glorious martyrs. But Malli also listens to birds, breezes, bubbling brooks, and her own heartbeat - not to mention the voices of other human beings who do not share the fanaticism du jour. And in the end...
Amazingly, a better film than "Hotel Rwanda"aired on HBO this March and is now available on DVD. Don't be fooled by the wistful title; this drama set during and after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is about as uncompromising as a film can be, and still be watchable.
Mercifully, "Sometimes in April" does not show much more graphic violence than "Hotel Rwanda" does. But by focusing on the lives of a half-dozen people for whom refuge in the Hotel Milles Collines was not an option, it brings us closer to the full horror of those terrible 100 days, when hate-maddened Hutus slaughtered almost a million of their Tutsi and Hutu countrymen.
What I find most impressive is the skill with which writer-director Raoul Peck weaves a handful of personal stories into the fabric of a national catastrophe. This is hard to do well, as most would-be historical storytellers soon discover.
But after a slow start, we become totally absorbed in the fates of Augustin (Idris Elba), a Hutu soldier who refuses to join the killing; his wife Jeanne (Carole Karemera), a Tutsi who tries to escape with her children; Augustin's brother Honoré (Oris Erhuero), a radio host who as the story opens is being tried by a 2004 war crimes tribunal for having broadcast hate propaganda; and finally, Martine (Pamela Novete), the headmistress of a Catholic school attended by Augustin's and Jeanne's daughter.
These are urban middle-class people and therefore easy for Westerners to identify with. But unlike "Hotel Rwanda," which further cultivates the Western viewer by including sympathetic American and European characters, "Sometimes in April" draws us toward the rural poor, including some older people (not actors) whose brief appearances evoke both the searing emotion and the exhausted indifference felt by anyone who survives events like those of April 1994.
A personal note: both films cut away to Washington, DC, where the Clinton administration was stepping on its own tongue trying not to use the G-word, because to call what was happening "genocide" would have obliged the world to take action. It's easy to denounce well fed officials for doing nothing, but I was living in Washington at that time, and that same month was the publication date of a book I had been working on for a long time. So I spent those 100 days flogging my book. This is never a pretty sight, but it is even less so in the sobering hindsight provided by this film.
Ever since 1948, when the Justice Department won its lawsuit, U.S. v. Paramount, against the major movie studios, it has been illegal for a company to produce and distribute movies while also owning the theaters in which they are shown.
If you read carefully the article in today's New York Times about the high hopes of Hollywood in China, you will notice that the rule laid down by that 1948 case does not apply there. For example, Time Warner is investing not only in production and distribution but also in "more than 70 cinemas around the country in preparation for a potential theater-going boom."
Americans like to think that our movies are just so wonderful, the world can't get enough of them. On the whole, we reject the left's now stale-sounding accusations of "US cultural imperialism." But despite the genuine popularity of our films worldwide, there has always been an element of coercion involved, as well as a distinctly double standard regarding business ethics.
This is an old story. During World War I, the fledgling studios made domestic propaganda films for the Committee on Public Information, and after the war, Washington repaid the studios by pressuring war-weakened European governments to allow the import of US films. Without this help, countries like France (then the leading supplier of films in the world) would have been more successful in keeping the US out of European markets.
This process got racheted up after World War II, when despite much rhetoric about free markets, Washington exerted extremely heavy pressure toward the same goal, while in the process allowing the studios to engage in monopolistic practices overseas that were outlawed at home. In a nutshell, they were allowed to form a cartel, the Motion Picture Export Association, that conspired against foreign theater owners by acting as a single distributor, booking films in “blocks,” threatening to cut off supply if theater owners showed non-US films, and allocating foreign profits based on domestic box-office receipts.
The studios were also given a huge advantage over foreign competitors by the Informational Media Guaranty Program (1948), which reimbursed them in dollars for all films sold to countries with soft or inconvertible currencies. And finally, the Marshall Plan for Europe contained provisions linking financial aid to the willingness of foreign governments to reduce or eliminate import quotas on American films.
A few years later, TV followed same pattern. In 1960 the Television Program Export Association enlisted the aid of the State Department in overcoming foreign resistance to “Batman,” “Mod Squad,” and “The Fugitive.” Especially after the movie studios began producing TV shows, they made the same case for the small screen that they had made for the large - that exporting entertainment was not just good business but also good PR. As Harrison Salisbury once said, “American pictures are the best and most forceful medium for selling the United States.”
This may still be good business, but is it good PR? That is a question very much on my mind these days...