Sunday, March 31, 2019

Predictably, I disliked the new 'Dumbo'

Michael Keaton as the incarnation of all that is evil -- Walt Disney? 
Did you ever play pile-on as a kid? It’s pretty simple; you tackle whoever has the ball and everybody else piles on top of you until the carrier is crushed at the bottom, out of breath.

It’s what’s happening right now critically with Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which if it had been better, or made more money, would be referred to as Disney’s Dumbo. It’s pile-on time for Burton. This is unfortunate, as it’s not his fault.

Dir: Tim Burton
Scr: Ehren Kruger
Phot: Ben Davis
Release date: March 11, 2019
112 min.

First of all, I’m going to see whatever Burton makes. I’m one of those people. There are a couple of dozen directors out there whose work I’m going to watch. Even if it blows. Why? Because they are interesting, and I like to see what they are thinking about and how their work is evolving, for better or worse.

This means I sat through Alice in Wonderland (2010), which read like an epileptic fit I once had inside Meow Wolf. This means I sat through the new Dumbo. Because by God, I am going to give Tim Burton the benefit of the doubt.

And really, does any director have a chance with Dumbo? Disney’s new Brilliant Plan consists of reshooting everything successful — as live-action when the original was animated, and I’m sure vice versa when we run out of intellectual property — back and forth, across eternity. Given the importance of the character, it was, natch, necessary to update all the racism and underage drinking out of it, meanwhile making it fall within the parameters of today’s set of mainstream sensibilities — racially and ability-sensitive, anti-corporate, inclusive.

Given that, it’s a pleasant way to pass the time, especially if you never saw the original. In fact, if you never saw the original, you would wonder what all the fuss was about. In that context, it’s a diverting fantasy. Compared to the original, though, it’s a train wreck (or fire — things tend to burn down in this film). How come?

Oddly, the original Dumbo was prompted by a merchandising tie-in. In 1941, a new toy called a Roll-a-Book, much like a panorama or an early Viewmaster, needed a sample story for the device to use. The device failed, but Disney bought the story rights.

The original Dumbo was not produced under optimal circumstances. In the wake of the box-office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo was made in a stripped-down, cost-effective fashion unlike Disney’s previous, more craftsman-like efforts. In addition, a five-week animators’ strike during production affected the work, and permanently changed the atmosphere at the studio.

The original was one of those traumatizing Disney experiences I suffered as a child, along with PinocchioMary PoppinsBambiSnow White, Old Yeller . . . With Dumbo, you have to jettison a lot. In the original, Dumbo drinks water spiked with champagne, leading to the bizarre and inventive “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence (which freaked me out as a kid and inspired in 5-year-old me an epic anesthetic-triggered sequence of nightmares during my tonsillectomy), which leads directly into the insanely problematic “When I See An Elephant Fly” sequence.

Dumbo and his friend Timothy the mouse are befriended by a group of crows, who are characterized as African American men. Yeah. Just to make sure we get it, their leader is named Jim Crow. He is voiced by Cliff Edwards, a white man (best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket) using a stereotyped “Negro” voice. The rest of the voices are performed by black performers (James Baskett, Hall Johnson, Nick Stewart).

So, we have to get rid of all that. Unfortunately, the screenwriter goes to the old Disney standby — the dead parent! It can’t really be a Disney film unless someone is dead or dying, can it? There’s one beautiful moment when Holt the trick rider and single parent (Colin Farrell) talks to his precocious oldest child Milly (Nico Parker) in the lamplight of their circus tent, which behind them bears the illustration of Holt and his wife and partner, Milly’s dead mother. Which the film promptly comes back to again and again until you’re like OK I GET IT.

But it doesn’t help. The screenplay fails because it is timid, it tiptoes around the story, it doesn’t want us to get too upset, it is afraid of messing it up. Which causes it to mess it up. Dumbo wants to be edgy and impactful, but it doesn’t have the balls.

Basically, the new version is about being yourself and all that shit. That Colin Farrell has to walk around with a sawdust-filled fake arm is pretty representative of the whole problem. He’s a traumatized WWI veteran! Can he still be a valuable member of society? Sure! Cast away thy superfluous simulacrum of an appendage! The character is saddled with symbolic action that no one would ever really engage in.

It’s difficult to tell what, if anything, is real here. The entire production was studio-shot; there are no outdoor sequences at all. It is vacuum-sealed. Is it fair to call it live-action? It is really a digital work, with human bits pasted in here and there. This is now out mainstream cinema, all superheroes and fantasies. Late-empire dreaming.

What other problems were there . . . .oh, yes, why is Eva Green in this movie? She’s a great actress when you give here something to do. She’s given nothing here. Is she good? Bad? Indifferent? Does she have a backstory? Is her character anything but a means to an end? Nnnnnnope.

And Michael Keaton. Well. He gets to do that thing that every classic Disney villain does — he gets to yell, “GET THOSE KIDS!” (Later he gets to yell, “GET THAT ELEPHANT!”, which is just icing on the cake.) With Keaton, you get something killer or you don’t. In this case, he does not get the opportunity to create a distinctive character. When his theme park burns down, I find myself worrying about the villain’s insurance policy. This is not what the audience should be thinking about when this is happening. In fact, the whole idea that this new story is some kind of subversive allegory about the evil corporation stamping the life of out of the American Dream doesn’t fly either.

On the plus side, Danny DeVito does fine, he’s indestructible. (There’s a brief attempt at pathos, when it’s revealed he’s not a set of twins, as advertised. Why? What was that?) Burton also takes very good care of his supporting players. He finds great faces, including in this outing Sharon Rooney as Miss Atlantis, DeObia Oparei as Rongo the Strongo the strongman (and one-man band, and accountant), and Frank Bourke the organ grinder. It’s a pleasure to see Roshan Seth as the snake charmer (loved him since Juggernaut) — though he is called on repeatedly to portray stereotypical Indian characters, he is charming and memorable.

And the heavy-lifting award goes to Phil Zimmerman, who must undertake the thankless chore of playing the psychotic, sneering, sadistic Disney villain, named Rufus Sorghum to underline his bumpkin-nature. Here he must play the animal trainer who torments the animals (WHY do they always hire sadistic psychos to take care of the animals? What are the hiring procedures implemented by the circus? Can they not make applicants take the Myers-Briggs test?) and of course must suffer a satisfying grisly and embarrassing punishment-death as a result. Right on, Phil!

Oh, and Dumbo flies. That was cool.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Adieu, Agnes Varda (1928-2019): A Tribute

It serves no purpose for those who say they were long into Agnes Varda before she was popular save to massage their pretentious little egos.

That being said, I was WAY into Agnes Varda before all y’all.

She was 90 years old, so her passing is like that of any extremely old relative — sad but not unexpected.

Why is she such a big deal? The fact that she won general acceptance without trashing her integrity made her unique. She remained herself, despite the tendency of media to neutralize her outrageous independence as cute and winsome. For many she was just a tiny little troll lady who made quirky, inoffensive films. But her work was not cute. She was by far the most subversive of directors.

First of all, she was just a good filmmaker. She could make great narrative films (‘Cleo from 5 to 7,’ ‘One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,’ ‘Vagabond’) and great documentaries (‘Black Panthers,’ ‘Uncle Yanco’).

She is lauded as the Mother and Grandmother of New Wave cinema. She was cited as a leading Second Wave feminist, a thinker and a writer on gender and society. It’s a topic she treats directly, and that permeates her work as a filmmaker. How could it not?

However, she went far, far beyond that in her films that are called documentaries but aren’t (‘The Gleaners and I,’ ‘Daguerrotypes,’ ‘The Beaches of Agnes’). This is the work she did that was really life-changing for me as a viewer and as a writer.

She would focus on a subject and, basically, look into it with her camera. (This got easier for her as filming gear got smaller and lighter, less obtrusive.) At times you felt she was spying on reality. She could capture a world, a scene, a vibe. She could insert observations, confessions, admissions of a lack of understanding. She could use film like an instrument with many components, constructing meaning and argument with the ease of a magician.

That approach reads like a blueprint for self-indulgent disaster, and in the hands of many it is. Varda’s gift was her intelligence and honesty. She would never take the easy way out. She would let her own ambiguities into the film, so that we could see and factor in her viewpoint, even her bias. Her subjective honesty is revolutionary for me. It allows the author to investigate, to feel, to think, to get all that in front of people, to get them to see freshly. Varda shows you how to do it. If you follow her lead, you find how stony and narrow this path is.

She had heart. Not sentimentality, but heart in the true sense of inciting and sharing her passionate, compassionate truths. She could listen with her camera, the hardest thing of all. The impulse of anyone who wields a camera is to say what they have to say. Varda lets the camera follow, sits quietly in the corner, breathes. The humans in Varda films are substantial, thorny, complicated, real.

Her films are classics because to can return to them and finds new things, always. By giving us fresh visions of humanity, she endorsed the human experience. You walk out of a Varda film and for a minute your persistence of vision gives you the world as she saw it, delightful and moving.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The NFR Project #70: The Attack of the Jewish Mother in 'Humoresque' (1920)

Dir: Frank Borzage
Scr: Frances Marion, William LeBaron (uncred.)
Phot: Gilbert Warrenton
Premiere: May 30, 1920
71 min.

Schmaltz. It’s a Yiddish word that literally means chicken fat; my wife can remember her grandmother keeping a jar of it handy in the fridge, for frying or simply for spreading on bread. It’s an acquired taste, strong and cloying, but an integral part of home life for most Jewish-American families (especially for those for whom butter was dear, or for those who observed the law of kashrut, which forbids the mixing of dairy and meat). Perhaps this is how the word grew out of its original usage and came to mean any entertainment larded with excess sentimentality. Humoresque is pure schmaltz.

One of the oldest jokes to still kick around from vaudeville days is, “Doc, will I be able to play the violin after this operation?” “Certainly.” “That’s great! I didn’t know how before!” The gag stems directly from the enormous, nation-wide success of Humoresque. (The Marx Brothers’ first film, now lost, was a 1921 parody titled Humor Risk.) The story of the travails of an impoverished musical prodigy is a tribute to the spirit of the immigrants who fought their way out of squalor; it’s also a monument to the monstrousness of mother love.

The screenplay was adapted by Fannie Hurst from her own story. In those days, magazines were plentiful, their pages crammed with freelance contributions, and there were many well-known and popular female authors whose work was adapted to the screen, including Hurst, Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Edna Ferber (Showboat), and Mary Roberts Rinehart (The Bat).

Humoresque is set and shot in New York City’s Lower East Side, still a teeming tenement in the 1920s. Papa Kantor works in a shop on the ground floor, blithely forging antiques. Upstairs, his large brood is crowded into a cold-water flat outside of which the elevated train tracks run, so close you could touch it.

Despite these circumstances, the home atmosphere is warm and cozy — in Yiddish, hamish. While Mama Kantor rules the roost, little Abraham plays down in the street, when he’s not dodging anti-Semite kids who beat him up and chalk a dollar sign on his back. In love with Abe is little Gina, who’s so poor her only pet is a dead kitten she pulled out of the garbage. (I’m not kidding!)

While to Abie’s father a cash register is “beautiful moosic” (the film manages to affirm many more Jewish stereotypes than it dispels), Abe falls in love at first sight with a violin. He begs for one. His mother’s dream suddenly comes true. Mama Kantor is the classic Jewish mother — short, stout, emotional, smothering. “My baby – a musician!” she exclaims.

It’s important to remember that in this period, excellence in the arts was a pathway out of poverty for scorned minorities. Talent sometimes overrode prejudice, and many star-struck parents pushed their children relentlessly to make something of themselves. Mama Kantor, the real head of the house, overrides Papa’s reluctance and gets Abe his violin. “Sublimest (sic) of all is the faith of a mother,” reads a title card.

Of course, Abe grows up to be a brilliant concert violinist, performing literally for the crowned heads of Europe. (As he plays, Mama Kantor buttonholes the servants, opening her locket to display a baby picture of Abe, naked on a bearskin rug. Oy.) Abe returns home for a triumphant benefit concert for the neighborhood. (The prolific and gifted silent-era film composer Hugo Riesenfeld wrote a score for the film; it would be great to find it and hear it in sync with the movie.) He opens with the Kol Nidre, the ancient and heart-tugging melody that opens the High Holy Days. His signature piece is Humoresque, presumably the well-known Dvorak piece of 1894.The crowd goes wild — he gets 15 encores.

A big-time booker shows up with a contract, but Abe can’t sign it. “I just signed a contract with Uncle Sam,” he says proudly. He’s off to WWI. Needless to say, Mama is not pleased. “Cut out my heart – but leave me my wonder boy!” she cries. He responds, “You wouldn’t want me to hide behind my violin?” This is where the love of a mother turns really scary. She can’t let go of him. She’s kissing him on the lips. She makes him sit on her lap! In his uniform! This is the kind of stuff that Philip Roth would break down for us decades later.

He leaves his mother holding his violin, a painfully obvious Freudian moment. Abe comes home from the war with a shoulder wound and a psychological block. He’s afraid to try and play again. An operation fixes the physical problem, but not the mental. It takes his faithful girlfriend Gina (remember her? She hangs on at the edges of the film, ceding center stage largely to Mama) to break him out of his fear, and, frankly, his mother’s domination.

Frank Borzage’s direction is unremarkable technically. There were two kind of studio directors at the time — artists who used the camera in a bravura way, and those who simply stuck to telling the story as unobtrusively as possible. Borzage is not a visual innovator, but he was great at getting in close and conveying relationship and emotion. This would serve him well later in a string of hits featuring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (Seventh Heaven, 1927; Street Angel, 1928; Lucky Star, 1929). Borzage would pick up Oscars for his direction of Seventh Heaven and 1931’s Bad Girl.

In a more aware age, it’s easy to assign pathologies to the characters, but at the time this was a heart-warming, heart-wringing success that ran at New York’s Criterion Theatre for an amazing 12 weeks. It dates terribly today, but Humoresque spoke clearly to the audience of the in what was called Mammaloschen – the mother tongue.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Maurice Tourneur’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’