Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Abraham and Isaac by Jan Lievens (c. 1637)

Yesterday we looked at how Caravaggio depicted the dramatic moment in Genesis 22 when Abraham is about to murder Isaac at God’s command, and how he is stopped in his bloody work by an angel.  Today, we travel north to see how artist Jan Lievens envisioned the immediate aftermath of the story.

As Genesis 22 reads: And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

Jan Lievens (1607 – 1674) was a celebrated North-Netherlandish painter and etcher. He is often compared to his friend and colleague Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), and both artists were the pupils of Dutch painter and teacher Pieter Lastman.  (Lievens and Rembrandt would share a studio for some five years, and some scholars had trouble attributing work between the two artists.)  Lievens was a child prodigy, and he left his humble origins when he was 10 years old (his father was a tapestry worker) to train with Joris Verschoten.  Lievens was only 12 years old when he began his career as an artist (!) and, like Mozart, was celebrated for both his talent and his preciosity.

One of Lievens’ paintings found its way into the hands of James I, who invited Lievens (who was then 31) to become a painter to the English court.  After that, Lievens knocked about the European art world, working in Antwrep, acting as court painter in The Hague and Berlin, and later returning to Amsterdam in 1655.  He met with great success throughout his life, but in 1672, after the Rapjaar (the “disaster year” that found the country ravaged by war and internal strife), Lievens was nearly destitute.  Despite once having a considerable fortune, his family found that there was no inheritance to be had.

This picture, painted around the time Lievens was 30 years old, shows Abraham holding Isaac immediately after sacrificing the ram.  Lievens was living in Antwerp when he painted this canvas, and it is possible that the years he spent in London with Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641) influenced his coloration and brushwork. 

Where Caravaggio perhaps saw nothing but zealotry and madness in the situation of Abraham and Isaac, Lievens enigmatically captures something of the (necessarily) conflicting emotions of Issac.

The bloody carcass of the ram lies in the foreground, along with the knife almost used to end Isaac’s life.  The sacrificial pyre is lit and, in contrast to Caravaggio, there are no houses or sign of people in the distance, only a sky heavy with dramatic heavenly portent.  Where Caravaggio provides Abraham with the bland and placid visage of a zealot “just following orders,” Lievens portrays a web of complex emotions on the old prophet’s face.  As Abraham looks up – one cannot help but ask is Abraham thinking, thank you Lord for saving my son or is he thinking are you sure you don’t want me to do this?  Look at the arm that embraces Isaac – one cannot be terribly sure if that is the clutch of affection, or the vice-like grip of someone reluctant to let his victim go.  The right hand, too, wraps around the boy’s shoulder – in that hold, Isaac is not going anywhere.  (And it’s all fairly moot, as is implied by Abraham’s empty scabbard and spent knife – in this affair, at least, Abraham has been rendered impotent.)

Much more interesting, to my mind, if the face of Isaac.  Though looking heavenward in roughly the same direction as Abraham, is his the face of a child looking up into God’s majesty, or of a terrified boy in the clutch of a madman?  The ambiguity of Isaac’s face is hiding in plain sight:  where one might easily see a boy staring up at God, another might just as easily see a child looking for whatever it is his father is gazing at and missing it.

And that is leads to another question that is certainly implied here but never addressed in the Old Testament: how could Isaac ever again trust Abraham?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Caravaggio's Abraham and Isaac (1603)

It is surely one of the strangest passages in the Bible.  God tells Abraham, one of the most devoted of servants, to sacrifice his own child, Isaac, as a test of his devotion.  As it says in Genesis 22:

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?
And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son

Where to begin?  First off, Abraham does not attempt to sacrifice his son in a blind panic upon hearing the voice of God; instead, with premeditation and malice aforethought, he lures the boy to a secluded spot.  Divesting himself of his henchmen, he willfully takes his own unsuspecting son away from witnesses before murdering him with a knife and burning his body.  (He even makes the poor blighter carry the wood to be used for his funeral pyre!)  Fewer acts of religious mania found in the Bible are more unsettling than this, not the least because the interpretation is that Abraham is somehow virtuous in his fidelity to the letter of God’s law.  The rosy patina that covers this incident is the result of thousands of years of religious compliance and our hesitancy to view the Bible critically.  Surely had Abraham lived in 2012, as opposed to some undetermined time before Christ, he would be scooted off to some well-padded giggle room where he could not hurt himself nor his children. 

And what would our thoughts of Abraham (and God, for that matter) be if he was successful in his murderous intent?  And how would we credit this story is God asked a mother to murder her daughter?

We have in the past looked at the work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 18 July 1610), the original “bad boy” of Italian Renaissance art.  Despite a wayward career -- regularly punctuated by bad behavior, crime and any and all manner of vice -- Caravaggio was capable of illustrating the human condition with a deep, if somber, sensitivity.  It is not just his dramatic and cinematic use of light that is arresting, but the emotion – and the often high cost of emotion – etched on the faces of his subjects that so mark his remarkable talent.

This 1603 depiction of the story of Abraham and Isaac was most likely commissioned by Cardinal Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII.  His home, the Palazzo Barberini, today houses Italy's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art).  This magnificent museum will be featured in a later Jade Sphinx post.

Caravaggio responded to the story of Abraham and Isaac with his customary empathy and élan.   It is possible that the story moved Caravaggio more than we know, as there is a later 1605 painting that is possibly in his hand that depicts the same moment.  Caravaggio’s father died when the boy was six years old, and such premature leavings are often seen by children as acts of abandonment or punishment.

This painting is fully as fascinating as the Biblical myth which inspires it.  Note Abraham’s face – there is neither remorse nor pity in his countenance, simply determination.  As the angel excitedly countermands God’s order, Abraham simply looks like one awaiting further direction or confirmation.  He could be the poster-boy of a millennia of emotionally absent fathers.

The figuration placement is also remarkable.  Isaac, nude, is literally bent before his father, who brandishes an exceedingly phallic knife.  The intimation of violation, whether conscious or not, is striking and terrifying.  More interesting still, Isaac is not dissimilar in his features from scores of other Caravaggio self-portraits.

The angel is remarkable, as well.  His face is contorted in alarm – certainly not the expected visage of a heavenly visitor – and his wings are nearly outside the frame of the image.  In coloration, he is much like Abraham – warmly colored and human.  In terms of coloration and interaction, if nothing else, the zealot Abraham is more connected with the angel than Abraham and his own son.

Which brings us to Isaac – Caravaggio’s masterstroke of the picture.  The figure – his features, his coloration – is oddly reminiscent of Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the sick Bacchus.  Why is Isaac so pale, compared to Abraham and the angel (and the lamb, for that matter!).  The look of stark terror is impressive, but there also seems to be more than a touch of shame, and sense that the boy has been degraded as well as assaulted.  It is interesting to wonder how much – and why – Caravaggio may have identified with young Isaac.

The background is also suggestive – the houses in the distance tell the viewer that this is not only an occurrence remote from human proximity, but human intervention as well.  For a moment, Isaac is truly alone and most certainly damned.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It

William Shatner – idol of millions (billions?) of science fiction fans and would-be pitchmen – comes to Broadway in a one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It.  To witness this spectacle among the true-believers is not quite the same as attending a straight play; rather, it has all the flavor of an old fashioned tent meeting.  Whatever one might say about the show, Shatner has more dedicated, demonstrative, supportive and clinically obese fans than any Broadway actor I have ever seen.

Before going into Shatner’s performance, we should make clear that this is not a “one man show” in the accepted sense.  Do not expect Vincent Price as Oscar Wilde or Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson; this is a personal appearance, where Shatner tells anecdotes detailing how famous he is and how much fun he has had at the expense of a doting public.  Celebrity confessional seems to be a new focus on Broadway – Carrie Fisher, another science fiction icon, made hay (and money) with a recent “one-woman show” where she detailed her problems of addiction and told some moldy Hollywood anecdotes.  However, I do find it specious to bill a fan event a “one-man show,” particularly when the actor involved does little other than natter about the past.

Even within that framework, though, Shatner’s World is slim pickings indeed.  In a mix of anecdotes and film clips, Shatner takes pot shots at past co-stars, talks about the glories of live television, and tells interesting stories about people as diverse of Christopher Plummer and Lon Chaney, Jr.  Some of these stories are interesting and amusing, but Shatner also tells too, too many borscht belt jokes that were stale when Eddie Cantor did them.  As an actor there is nothing that can be said of William Shatner that hasn’t been said of George Hamilton or Robert Wagner – men who are largely famous for having become famous. 

Shatner’s prowess as an actor is something we are expected to take on faith.  In detailing a triumphal turn as Shakespeare’s Henry V (when he understudied a sick Christopher Plummer), Shatner ends the story with showing us his press clip.  An actor, rather than a celebrity, would’ve provided a snippet of Henry (a part rich in monologs) for our delectation, but that’s never the point in Shatner’s World.  The point is he did it, by jingo, and now on to the next triumph…

One must, however, applaud Shatner for his robust energy and extreme vigor.  A man of 80, he prances up-and-down the stage for an hour and 40 minutes, sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering, and even dancing here and there.  He plays largely against an office chair, which doubles as everything from a car to a bed to a horse, and takes much-needed pauses during film clips.  As an act of endurance, it is a formidable feat for both the actor and the audience.

Shatner also tells a great many personal stories, including the death his third wife, and how using his prized horse as a stud ruined that animal, and his guilt at having to put it down.  Surprisingly, the horse story goes on for some 10 minutes, and his wife is largely mentioned in passing.  Even as a confessional, the show also lacks depth-of-feeling.

And if one were to sum-up Shatner -- the show and the man -- that would be the key complaint.  Many are engaged by Shatner’s innate hamminess and the fact that he happily embraces the joke that he has become.   But it is this lack of depth-of-feeling, this sense of a barren interior, that differentiates a fan icon from an actor of any real sensitivity or warmth.  Shatner has become the exemplar of our ego-centric age: we seem enamored of people who disproportionally love themselves.  I had the sense that the audience ovation was also self-reflective – by cheering Shatner, we applaud the neediest part of ourselves.  Shatner comes off as a strange mix of ego-maniacal manchild and wide-eyed innocent: that might be enough to fill the outer reaches of space during Prime Time, but not nearly enough to inhabit the even greater vastness that is the theater.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Alexander the Not-So-Great

Few figures have straddled the region between fact and fantasy as securely as Alexander the Great.  This simple Macedonian lad created an army that conquered most of the known world, leaving behind a legacy that is equal parts truth and myth.  Alexander was a cornerstone figure of the classical Greek period, an era that has had an incredible impact on our contemporary world.

But who was Alexander?  And can we measure him by contemporary standards?  These are questions asked by the late Norman F. Cantor (1929-2004) in his book Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth.  This was Professor Cantor’s last book (Dee Ranieri is also credited on the title page), and it is not a biography in the commonly-accepted sense of the word.  Rather, Alexander reads more like a series of informal talks with a man deeply committed to researching and understanding the ancient world.

Cantor provides a great deal of color to the world of ancient Greek city-states and the kind of life lived there.  He also offers keen insight into Alexander’s family, including his cold and calculating father, and his mother, who was the center of a cult of snake worshippers.  (Needless to say, the distant past is often quite colorful.)

Cantor wisely positions Alexander as a figure of a pagan, pre-Christian world.  As such, it is nearly impossible for us to know him through the prism of our contemporary lives – the people of his era were physically like us, but otherwise may as well have been from Mars.  How can we fully understand a man who, because of omens and other talismans, could believe that he was the son of Zeus?  How can we judge a man who was as much an adventurer/explorer as conqueror when today most of the remotest parts of the world are open to anyone with a credit card?

Cantor walks us through Alexander’s long-term love affair with fellow-soldier Hephaestion and his devotion to the Persian eunuch Bogoas, and maps his brilliant military victories in Afghanistan (even then a graveyard for soldiers), Pakistan, and India.  He tells us of his alcoholism, his heroism, his education under Aristotle and his ability to inspire men.  Because of the conversational tone of the book, one gathers a more familiar, accessible idea of Alexander than might otherwise have been available through a more conventional biography.

However, the real treat of the book comes at the end – where Cantor asks “How ‘Great’ Was Alexander?” – a chapter that puts his personal triumphs and demons, his military coups and administrative failures, into some sort of perspective.  Cantor writes, Alexander emphasized the attributes of courage and strength.  Under the laws of war he leveled cities and sold their inhabitants into slavery.  He was merciless, even to those he cared for.  He risked the dismay of his Companions, and when, in a drunken stupor, he killed one of his best friends, his act ultimately led to an assassination attempt against him … The Athenian tragedians warned against arrogance, and Plato and Aristotle sought the refinements of reason.  But these qualifications to the spirit of paganism did not seem to affect Alexander, although Aristotle had been his tutor in his early years.  He sought glory on the battlefield, stole the Persian emperor’s treasury, and disported himself like a Homeric hero, all without conscience.  In his lifetime he caused the deaths of half a million of his enemies’ soldiers, and accepted without equanimity the loss of at least 25,000 of his own battle-hardened soldiers.

The grief, misery and death that Alexander left in his wake are a little hard to reconcile with our vision of a warrior-hero.  Like many books that cover figures as diverse of Charlemagne, Richard the Lionhearted and Napoleon Bonaparte, we ourselves feel sullied after reading about Alexander when we remember that most of the “great” men of history were professional murderers blood simple on dreams of conquest or religious “liberation.”  Kudos to all historians, novelists and artists who ask the key question of all of our Great Men – what was the cost?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: The Woman Pays

Contemporary novelists foolishly sneer at coincidence, thinking it an outmoded convention of melodrama.  However anyone who has reached his dotage, like your correspondent, knows that coincidence is the very essence of life.  A great deal of who and what we are hangs on the merest chance, much of it coincidentally.

So it was a coincidence that I was rereading Thomas Hardy’s masterful Tess of the D’Urbervilles during the recent brouhaha of the Komen Fund for the Cure deciding to cut funding to Planned Parenthood – we at the Jade Sphinx largely see the world through the prism of art, and the bisection of our reading and current events was too delicious not to comment upon.

For those of you who have not read Tess in some time, here’s a brief recap: Tess Durbeyfield is a simple (very simple!) farm girl of the English countryside.  By chance her father – a ne'er do well who is something of the village joke – learns that he is descended from the venerable D’Urbervilles, a once powerful family of knights and landowners.  Like many fools before him, Durbeyfield takes on airs because of his now moldy ancestry, and takes to calling himself Sir John.

When the family learns of prosperous D’Urbervilles in a neighboring town, they send their beautiful daughter, Tess, to meet the family, claim kinship, and hopefully inspire them to part with some of their wealth.  Tess meets Alec D’Urberville, a swashbuckling rakehell who promptly seduces the simple girl.  (And to add insult to injury, Alec and his mother are not even really D’Urbervilles – but, rather, arrivistes who have taken the venerated name for themselves!)

Tess returns home and soon finds she is pregnant.  She gives birth to the child, whom she names Sorrow.  The baby soon dies – without the benefit of a church baptism as the now self-styled Sir John does not want to bring shame upon his new-found family name.  Tess buries the baby herself and vows to leave home and start life anew.

Which she does – working at a dairy farm.  There she meets Angel Clare, son of a parson, who decides not to go into the family business of religion because of his own crisis of faith.  Angel falls in love with Tess, who constantly rebuffs his advances.  Poor Tess, soiled by the evil Alec, no longer believes herself worthy of a good man’s love.  However, finally falling in love with Angel herself, she writes him a long letter detailing the tragedy of her past.  She slips the letter under his door.  When he later proposes marriage, she believes that he does not care about what happened in her past.

Of course, the letter slid under the door also went under the carpet, and Angel never read it.  On their wedding night Tess tells Angel what happened to her and … he decides to leave her while he considers what he should do next.  He leaves the country for Brazil, thinking that he has left Tess well-provided for.  What he doesn’t know is that Tess gives the money he gave her to her improvident family, and she essentially works as an indentured servant on a dairy farm that functions more as a slave factory than anything else.  While there, she once again meets Alec, who has had a religious conversion (!).  But, upon seeing Tess once again, he throws over his new religious convictions, consumed by passion for her.  (Not surprisingly – then or now -- Alec blames Tess for his own lack of self control.)

Angel at last returns, more than a year later.  Tess, believing that Angel has thrown her over for good, had no choice but to take up once again with Alec D’Urberville, who offered to help her family in exchange for sharing his bed.  When the three collide in a small, English countryside town, the novel comes to its heartbreaking, dismal conclusion...

Outlined in its barest plot, Tess of the D’Urbervilles sounds like the most ludicrous melodrama.  But melodrama is reality without art, and Tess is a novel of remarkable humanity, acuity and forgiveness.  Even more telling, the three main characters are written so true to life that there are as real and believable today as they were in 1891.

Angel is, of course, a prig of the worst kind.  A man for whom morality means that abstract mysticism always trumps simple human nature (let alone simple human forgiveness) is all too common today.  Reading of his atrocious behavior, as I did during the Komen Fund story, I was appalled at the number of Angel Clares running around our contemporary world.  To read commentaries by single men – many unmarried and all sexually active – railing against contraception funding seemed both a hypocrisy and mental disconnect closely akin to schizophrenia.  It seems that those voices that most damn women used and tossed aside like poor Tess are those of men; men who somehow fail to connect their own sexual pleasure with the fates of their female partners.  It’s no mistake that Hardy in his genius titled one of the chapters The Woman Pays.

Alec, of course, is more than a cardboard villain.  On one hand he is more admirable than the milquetoast Angel, but he also condemns Tess for making him feel sexual attraction during his religious conversion.  He also offers to care for her family and give her a life of sorts – a sort of twisted generosity that is still more than Angel offers her.

Finally, of course, we come to Tess.  Tess is a wonderful creation – it is not simply that she is long-suffering and sinned against, but Tess is the most admirable character in the novel.  She has a deeply-rooted sense of honor, behaves in a manner that puts all others before her self, and is deeply spiritual, if not religious.  However, the fact of her out-of-wedlock child and earlier sexual experiences mark her as eternally other – never to be ‘decent’ or ‘respectable.’  Sadly, some things never change.  One wonders if the hypocrites who advocate the de-funding of contraception or sex education have ever read Hardy (or anything, for that matter)…

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is one of the great novelists of the language. Like Charles Dickens he was an intensely political writer – his fiction reflected the world around him and sought to effect social change.  However, Dickens was also a master of characterization – he wrote novels influenced by politics, while Hardy largely wrote polemics supported by fictional characters.  His work is also afflicted with a deep and pervasive gloom – this is the man who, after all, had the children in Jude the Obscure (1895) hang themselves so they wouldn’t be a burden on their parents.

Despite Hardy’s weaknesses as a novelist, his power as a storyteller and critic of our culture is undeniable.  To read Tess is to dive deep into a tragedy of a sort that is still all-too-common today, and to deal with a double-standard and hypocrisy that has not changed.  If you want to understand the prejudices of today, it is sometimes best to examine those of the past.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Brad Bird’s Iron Giant

Just as some gifts keep on giving, some wars are still fought long after the cease fire.  A dramatic case in point is the Cold War, where the more fanatical fringes of our Right Wing continue to harp on the Red Menace and lionize sad pathological cases like Senator Joe McCarthy.  At times, it seems as if bunches of our population are happily marching towards Bedlam.

But it was fascinating to your correspondent to find the debate still raging in an animated cartoon marketed to children.  The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird (born 1957), was released in 1999 to universal applause and empty theaters.  I believe that Warner Brothers only looked at the text of the story – boy is befriended by giant robot – and slept through the subtext.  It was one of the most adult movies of the decade, and an indication that Bird, if given half the chance, would have a brilliant career before him.  (And he did – later directing such marvelous animated films as Incredibles [2004] and Ratatouille [2007]).

The storyline of The Iron Giant is deceptively simple.  In Rockwell, Maine, 1957, young Hogarth Hughes discovers a gigantic, metal-eating robot in the woods outside of his home.  Of course he keeps it a secret, telling only his beatnik friend (Harry Connick, Jr.).  However, a rapacious agent of the US government has tracked down the robot, wanting to take it to Washington to better serve the Pentagon.

I cannot help but wonder how Warner Brothers missed such a bet with The Iron Giant.  The film opens with shots of Sputnik circling the globe, and also imaginatively recreates 1950s Superman comics, science fiction movies, duck-and-cover drills and Red Scare paranoia.  In an age where most 20 year-olds are a little vague on the identity of Clint Eastwood, perhaps a film that so slavishly recreates, and then comments upon, 1950s tropes should be marketed to older adults.

There is a long and honorable tradition of adults savoring cartoons.  The surrealist Popeye, Betty Boop and Felix the Cat cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s were considered adult fare (and often “intellectual” to boot).  It’s only after television completely homogenized cartoons, and played them in the daily mid-afternoon “kiddie ghetto,” that cartoons themselves were viewed as strictly kiddie concerns.  Bird, with his films for Pixar, and films such as Up (2009), have all worked to return animated films to their original, adult base.

The Iron Giant is wonderfully animated, beautifully played and crammed with both wit and meaning.  As an entertainment product, it was miles ahead of anything that Disney was doing at that time, and avoided Disney’s trap of smarmy, self-congratulatory narcissism.  The focus was on plot, exposition and character – a rarity in live action films of the decade, let alone animated features.

The Iron Giant is based upon the children’s book of the same name by English poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998); the screenplay by Ted McCanlies (born 1953) jettisoned all but the barest outline to craft an original story.  Hughes, however, praised the final script, thinking it in many ways an improvement on his original novel.

In many ways The Iron Giant was a victim of its own excellence – when people wanted a disposable cartoon about funny giant robots, they got instead a mediation on the Cold War, the American gun culture, free will, conservatism vs liberalism and how we educate our children based on the toys and myths common in the playground.  It could never play in Peoria….

If you think you are too adult for animated films, then by all means rent The Iron Giant.  It is a particularly successful example of the heights to which this particularly American art form can soar.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails

Few cats have ever loomed so large in the public mind as Felix the Cat.  During the silent film era, Felix was the only animated superstar, his status rivaling that of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  Iris Barry (founder of the film department of the Museum of Modern Art) wrote that Felix was unique in that he was both “popular” and “distinctly high brow.”  In fact, Aldous Huxley wrote an article on Felix – cementing the sleek, black feline’s bona fides as a media superstar and pet of the intelligentsia.

The mania for Felix was huge, his cultural currency once greater than that of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse.  Felix adorned toys, cups, clothing, and even was the subject of a jazz number by the King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman (1923’s Felix Kept on Walking).  Felix was the totem Charles Lindbergh carried while crossing the Atlantic and he was the first balloon to float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1927. 

Felix was created for the movies, and his origins are clouded in debate and uncertainty.  The name on the cartoons was that of Australian cartoonist and entrepreneur Pat Sullivan (1887-1933).  However Sullivan’s lead animator, Otto Mesmer (1892-1983), was most likely the creator of Felix.  Once the film series was successfully launched, Mesmer was also the man behind the extremely popular comic strip, which began in 1923. 

Felix’s meteoric fame burned brightly and quickly.  By the early 1930s Felix lost critical ground to other cartoon characters whose creators embraced sound earlier.  Sullivan would die in 1933 and, following three interesting, colorful cartoons from the Van Beuren Studios in 1936, Felix faded from view.

But proving the cats have at least nine lives, Felix returned again in a series of cartoons designed by Joe Oriolo (one of Mesmer’s former assistants).  These cartoons are the ones most fondly remembered by Baby Boomers, where Felix carries a ubiquitous Bag of Tricks and spends most of his time outsmarting a villain called the Master Cylinder.  These cheaply made and poorly animated shorts were a marked come-down from the surrealist fantasias of the silent era, but kids seemed to like them.  Oriolo’s son, Don, was involved in The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat which aired from 1995 to 1997 and tried to return the character to his more mischievous roots.

So, it was with great delight that I recently received my copy of the newly published Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails, edited and designed by Craig Yoe with an introduction by Don Oriolo.  This is a lavishly put together book, superbly bound with heavy, non-reflecting paper, allowing for minimal glare on the images.  This is how Americana should be reproduced.  In addition, along with the comics themselves we have a feast of Felix imagery in the opening pages – if you have even a small interest in The Cat, this book is for you.

The comics collected in this volume range from 1945 to 1954, and reflect the sense of Post-War relief and prosperity many remember from the era.  While I think the earlier, black-and-white daily newspaper comic strips are more interesting and bizarre, these comic book pages still retain an oddly domesticated weirdness.  Felix lives in an ordinary suburban home (complete with armchair!), and works at various jobs.  However – his adventures still have the quality of fun mixed with extreme strangeness.  There is tons of slapstick humor, but also a sense that Felix realizes that he is unfettered by the constraints of physical reality (at one point, Felix lands his spaceship on the bottom point of a crescent moon).  Of the tales included Felix in Candy Land -- where everything and everyone is made of some type of sweet -- is perhaps the most outré and most satisfying.  A great book for your kids … or for yourself!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Oscar Pick: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

It is quite possible that 2011-2122 will be remembered as banner years for author, illustrator and animator William Joyce.  First, Joyce made a triumphant return to illustrated books with The Man in the Moon and followed that with his first young adult prose novel, Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King.  In addition, he released his first animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, created by his own company, Moonbot.

What does 2012 promise?  Morris Lessmore is nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, and later this year DreamWorks animation will release Rise of the Guardians, a feature-length animated adaptation of his Guardians of Childhood mythos.  On top of that, the second book in the Guardians series, this time featuring a monocle-wearing rabbit, will be out in time for Easter.

It is perhaps fitting that just as Joyce returned to books the first animated short from his studio should focus on the redemptive powers of storytelling.  Though Joyce has been involved in several large-studio productions (including Robots and an adaptation of his own book, Meet the Robinsons), there has yet to be a screen adaptation that completely captured his unique vision.  Morris Lessmore is the first animated work that completely looks like a William Joyce creation, complete with bright pastel colors and shiny Americana.  Working under his own Moonbot banner, Joyce, and co-director Brandon Oldenburg, were able to create a haunting vignette without an interfering studio inserting by-rote funk music and fart jokes.  (Morris Lessmore is also an iPad app, turning the short into an interactive ebook of sorts.)

Where to begin with Morris Lessmore?  Our main character is a beautifully animated homage to silent movie clown Buster Keaton.  Morris is a masterpiece of recreation; Joyce and Oldenburg completely nail Keaton’s persona.  Some of the physical jokes hark back directly to Keaton’s films, but, more importantly, they have captured Keaton’s magical facial expressions and dance-like movements as well.  Captured, too, is Keaton’s underlying melancholy: though Chaplin often strove for pathos, he himself was seldom a tragic figure.  Not so Keaton, whose face was chiseled in stone but his eyes were those of a wounded angel.  There is an incredible amount of tenderness in the animated Morris, and it is his face that echoes once the short is over.

The plot is surreal and allegorical: Morris, reading, is pulled by a hurricane into a magical realm.  There, he becomes guardian over an elaborate mansion of books, caring for them, healing them when ruined, and sharing them with people as if he were a celestial librarian.  Many years later, his life over, he spirits away towards heaven, young once again, buffeted by a bevy of airborne books.

With so simple an outline, Joyce and Oldenburg manage to cram into 13 minutes some of the most wistful, affecting and moving animation I’ve seen in years.  Morris is befriended by a book version of Humpty Dumpty, and in a witty animation in-joke, Humpty moves when the pages of his book turn, much like early efforts at animation.  The score is simplicity itself – mostly Pop Goes the Weasel hauntingly played on a piano heavy with vibrato.

In addition, we are treated to notations in Morris’ own notebook, penned in a simple hand.  One page reads: My further investigations have turned many of my long held opinions into mush.  The many and varied points of view I have encountered do not confuse, but enrich.  I laugh.  I cry.  I seldom understand things, but it…

On another page, Morris writes, I go round and round the mulberry bush.  Why does the weasel go “pop?”  Does it matter?  If life is enjoyed, does it have to make sense?

Like all allegories, what most people will find in The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is what they bring to it.  However, I cannot escape the sense of both irrepressible joy and gentle sadness found in the film.  One of the recurrent themes threading through Joyce’s current work is the sense of stewardship, and it’s no mistake that Morris is a Guardian as much as the other fairy tale and folklore figures he is using in his Guardians of Childhood series.  Nor can it be completely accidental that Morris’ key confident is Humpty Dumpty, who was once broken and is now rebuilt.  For this correspondent, it’s impossible to watch Morris Lessmore without a sense of melancholy and loss.  It is a unique note to find in an animated short, and the film is all the more interesting, and, yes, profound, because of it.

Whether The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore wins the Academy Award or not is mostly irrelevant.  The achievement of Joyce and Oldenburg will survive either a loss or a win.  Interested readers can see the film here:  It’s 13 minutes you may never forget.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Do We Care?

Once again, we parade our stupidity by celebrating people for playing a game, infusing sport with a significance that it could never support under any sane scrutiny whatsoever.

The crowds outside cheering the winning of a football game dwarfs the crowd of patriots who rallied for Occupy Wall Street, and is certainly larger than anything I've ever seen to support social justice, equality, healthcare or strong democratic principals.  Is it any wonder our countrymen have become the natural prey of various mountebanks, shysters, religious fanatics and kooks?  A sad and sorry sight, indeed.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Law and Jake Wade

We conclude our week of looking at movies that have fallen through the cracks with The Law and Jake Wade (1958), a champion Western from director John Sturges (Gunfight at the OK Corral).
A quick side note before heading West – initially I had promised to write about Nijinsky, a sumptuous biopic from 1980 directed by Herb Ross and starring Alan Bates, but in pulling out my (very) worn VHS copy, I find that the quality has deteriorated so that I would not really be able to provide a fair reassessment of the film.  The good news is this – a quick look online indicates that Nijinsky will finally make its way to DVD and Blu-Ray at the end of this month.  Movie lovers and balletomanes stand at the ready, a more formal reassessment is at hand.
And so, instead, on the trail with The Law and Jake Wade – proving once again that we are nothing if not eclectic.  Jake Wade is certainly no masterpiece, but it is a remarkable example of the technical mastery and competence that were once the  watchwords of American movie making.  It could stand as a textbook course on construction, timing, casting and production.
The film starts running (literally) in its opening minutes.  Robert Taylor steps into the local jail and frees prisoner Richard Widmark.  Once outside of town, Widmark wonders where some long-missing stolen money is; Taylor announces that his days as a bad man are over and that the money is buried away – out of reach for them both.  Taylor got Widmark out of jail to repay his debt to him, but it ends there.
Taylor returns to his town alone and it’s then that we learn he has actually become a lawman.  He visits his fiancée (Patricia Owens) and, later that night, Widmark tracks down our hero with the aide of some slimy associates, including Henry Silva and DeForst Kelley (yes, Dr. McCoy from Star Trek). 
Widmark and the gang kidnap Owens, and use her to force Taylor to go with them once more into the desert and find the stolen money: an easy task, if you can avoid being massacred by a war party of rampaging Comanches…
Where to begin?  Robert Taylor (1911-1969) started his career in the 1930s, famous for his extraordinary beauty and perfect profile.  Time, however, was not particularly kind to Taylor, and a scant 20 years later he is a leathery, craggy leading man.  This works perfectly here, as his badman-turned-lawman is easily someone who has seen too much and is haunted by the memories.  His stoic delivery and honest line readings make for a believable performance, and it is clear why he was a dependable star for so many years.  Sadly, this is close to the twilight of his career, despite his relative youth.  He will transition to television, hosting Death Valley Days until his death from lung cancer.
Patricia Owens (1925-2000), always a second tier leading lady, shines in a thankless part.  Where so many Western heroines simper (or nag) with varying degrees of believability, one readily believes that Owens is heroic in her own right and more than a match for a group of old west hardcases.
The gang, most particularly DeForest Kelley (1920-1999), are the quintessential sidewinders of western lore.  Kelley made a minor career of playing old west weaklings, back-stabbers, sneaks and cheap gunman before being corralled into outer space.  His best performances remain his villains.
The real standout, however, is Richard Widmark (1914-2008), as the clearly psychotic ringleader.  Widmark’s oeuvre is an interesting one: he initially shot into stardom playing a psychopathic gangster in Kiss of Death.  From then on until his final film roles in the 1990s, Widmark was one of the few major stars to comfortably shift between heroes and villains.  Though his heroic performances were always credible, it is perhaps as badmen and nutcases that he excelled.  Here, Widmark is completely without control – shooting without provocation, taking wild and desperate chances, and seemingly untouched by life or death, including his own.  He is a dangerous man indeed.
The film was shot on location in the snowcapped Sierras, also utilizing an authentic ghost town.  John Sturges (1910-1992) directed a host of classic westerns, including The Last Train From Gun Hill (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and the overrated Hour of the Gun (1967).
The Law and Jake Wade is a masterpiece of concision – the opening scene details Taylor breaking Widmark out of prison, and from then on, the plot unwinds like a well-made watch.  In its 86 minute running time there is not a wasted moment, a superfluous gesture or an unnecessary plot point.  Anyone wanting to know how to plot effectively could learn from this film.
It also has a layer of complexity that is there beneath the surface, but certainly not ambiguous.  Widmark has a special animus for Owens and is hurt by Taylor, clearly this passion transcends the want of stolen money and is the result of sexual jealousy.  In the 1950s ‘adult westerns’ usually meant ‘gay subtext,’ and like Warlock and Gunfight at the OK Corral, Jake Wade follows suit.
The Law and Jake Wade is a type of film that we no longer have the knack of making.  It’s smart without pretention, action-packed without being frenetic, honest without being ironic.  It’s an artifact from an era that made movies for adults (in the truest sense of the words), and considered us intelligent enough to enjoy levels of ambiguity and complexity.
For some odd reason, The Law and Jake Wade has fallen off the radar.  This is amazing to me because it is such a taut, compelling and satisfying film – easily accessible on DVD.  It also has one of Widmark’s finest performances, and perhaps Taylors best latter one.  It is highly recommended to anyone who likes westerns or simply deft movie-making.
In many ways the 1950s was the Golden Age of movie westerns.  Readers interested in this era are urged to visit the blog 50 Westerns From the 50s, by film historian and writer Toby Roan.  You can find it here:  Toby is writing a book on westerns from that era and his blog is always fun and insightful.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Hearts of the West

It’s always a pleasure to learn one is wrong for the right reasons.  Until writing this column, I had been under the impression that Hearts of the West, a truly wonderful western comedy from 1975, was unavailable on DVD.  Now, I learn that it has been out there since summer of 2011.  Having hoarded a poor-quality VHS for over a decade, I have already purchased a remastered DVD copy online and, if God is good, it’s winging its way to me now.  Find it, buy it, love it.

Hearts of the West is the story of Louis Tater (Jeff Bridges), a farm-boy who dreams of becoming a western novelist like his hero, Zane Gray (1872-1939).  Tater is the ultimate dreamer – everything that crosses his consciousness becomes fodder for another ‘yarn.’  His dream of the West is also a refuge from his family, which is largely made up of louts who laugh at him.

It seems, though, that the louts will have the last laugh when Tater leaves home to visit the campus of his mail-order writing school, the Titan Correspondence School.  Instead, he finds a series of post office boxes in the middle of the trackless waste.  And to add insult to injury, Tater is attacked by the two swindlers running the school (Richard B. Shull and Anthony James).  Tater makes his escape in their car; little knowing that he has also accidently ridden off with their stolen money.

Tater is lost in the desert when he is rescued by cowboy actor Hoard Pike (a glorious Andy Griffith), in the middle of nowhere with a film crew from Tumbleweed Productions.  Next thing you know, Tater is being groomed for B-movie stardom by nutty director Bert Kessler (a hilarious Alan Arkin) and romanced by the script girl Charlie Trout (Blythe Danner, never more beautiful).

Of course, the villains from the Titan Correspondence School have been following Tater … and a showdown is inevitable.

Hearts of the West, written by Robert Thompson and directed by Howard Zieff (1927-2009), vanished without a trace upon its initial release.  It was briefly a television staple (where your correspondent saw it as a boy), but even then it quickly vanished from sight.  That this is the case strikes me as remarkable because Hearts of the West is one of the sweetest, most affecting and warm-hearted movies to emerge from that turbulent decade.

Jeff Bridges (born 1949) delivers a wonderfully fresh performance as the naive (and not terribly bright) Tater.  That an actor so good looking and athletic would throw himself into such a nebbishy role speaks volumes about his self-confidence.  Bridges never winks at the audience – “guys, I’m not really this dense” – and because of that commitment, his Tater is a fully-developed and realized comic creation.  It’s a great pity that Bridges (unlike is father, Lloyd Bridges) did not come into his maturity during an age that made movie westerns of any significant value:  he might very well have been one of the great figures of the genre.  His performance is all the more touching when seen contrasted to his recent turn as the aging Rooster Cogburn in the remake of True Grit.

Griffith (born 1926), who made a career out of folksy, is perfectly cast as Pike. This wonderful actor seemed to run out of steam in the early 1970s and that’s a shame because even his most genial performances contain shades of gray.  Though not as dynamic as his role in A Face in the Crowd (1957), Hearts of the West may be Griffith’s finest screen turn.

Hearts of the West is ultimately a coming of age story, and Tater learns from the many disappointments he encounters on the trail.  Heroes are not always what they seem, dreams vanish and fade away, and even love given and received sometimes has a price.

Most movies about Hollywood eventually become acidic, but Zieff balances the tart with sweet.  Hearts is a Valentine to an earlier era of screen western, and the game Hollywood Blvd. cowpokes who made them.  But more important than that is writer Thompson’s evocation of Western longing.  Many people have felt the pull of the West – remember that cowboy artist Charlie Russell first learned of the West in dime novels about Buffalo Bill before lighting out to see that vanishing world for himself.  The West has always been about loss and longing, and in a gentle, comic way, Hearts of the West addresses both.  Tater, like many before and since, goes looking for the West and, instead, finds himself.  We fill the wide and sprawling spaces of the West with our deepest selves, and sometimes the experience is bitter and sometimes it’s sweet.  Hearts of the West is both.  A masterpiece.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Summer Hours

We continue our week-long look at under-appreciated films with Oliver Assayas’ brilliant 2008 film Summer Hours.  If this column ever encourages you to do anything, let it be this: do not rent Summer Hours.  Track down the Criterion Collection DVD and buy it, watch it multiple times, and treasure it.

Summer Hours works on so many levels and has such multiform meaning that it will repay repeated viewings.  Though on one level a family drama, I would be hard pressed to find a more effective film in exploring the personal connection between art and human beings.  It is also a profoundly moving meditation on what is probably the passing of a centuries-long Western tradition which is losing ground to globalism, multi-culturalism and rapacious technology.

The film opens with a birthday party – the 75th birthday of Helene at her rambling country manor.  She has three children – one daughter in New York, a son in China and another son in nearby Paris.  Helene was the niece of a world-famous artist, and her home (a work of art itself) is filled with priceless antiques and masterworks of art.  Helene tries to engage her children in the necessity to make plans for her eventual death – what happens to this beautiful home and the art collection once she is gone?

Only Frederic (a deeply touching Charles Berling) is willing to have the discussion, despite how uncomfortable it makes him.  He takes her inventory of the treasures in the house (including her celebrated uncle’s desk) – and, in less than a year, Helene is dead.

Frederic assumes his sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoch) and brother Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) would want to keep the house, but their lives are too far away for such a gesture to be practical.  And so, they start the long and heart-breaking task of selling Helene’s house and finding the right homes for her art and antiques.

What follows is a folly of art galleries, museum acquisitions, and international communications between the siblings.  The film ends – as it must – with Frederic’s child staying one last weekend in the house with friends.  The friends are a cross-section of contemporary Europe: multi-racial, poly-lingual and hooked into portable technology.  The surroundings mean little to them, but, as the rock music blares, a new generation creates new memories and the world moves on.

Summer Hours is a film of grace notes, each more delicate and wrenching than the other.  In one sequence, Frederic and his wife visit the museum which now displays Helene’s desk – removed from the house and without his aunt and family associations, it is merely a cold piece of wood.  He cannot connect his family memories to the accompanying museum text explaining why the desk is important.

Perhaps the most affecting (and fascinating) scene involves Eloise, the family’s cook and general house-help.  Told she could take anything she wants from the house, she selects the vase that Helene always used for fresh flowers.

But here is the wonderful paradox that Assayas plays with throughout the film – Eloise didn’t want to take advantage of the offer, so she took a simple vase that Helene used all the time: it was filled with memories of her.  However, unbeknownst to Eloise, the vase is an extremely valuable antique and art piece.  Where, Assayas asks, does the value lie?  In an accomplished work of art, or in the personal memories of the vase itself?

Though critically hailed as something close to a masterpiece and the winner of several prestigious awards, Summer Hours played in a few scattered ‘art houses’ in the US before sinking without a trace.  I could line up the usual culprits – it’s in French with subtitles, the characters are allowed to be intelligent, and the film assumes that viewers are engaged enough to think about what’s happening.  These things would seem to be killers at the American box office, which queued up instead for the dreary, interminable and ridiculous Batman Dark Knight film.

Or, to give US audiences the benefit of a doubt, perhaps the problem with the film was its sad, wistful message of loss.  Assayas delivers a melancholy look at what is probably the passing of the dominance of the Western world as we who are currently adults know it, and that kind of elegy does not sit well with a culture that always thinks it’s moving forward, whether it is standing still or not.