The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: July, 2016

A Hundred Thousand Names: Introduction

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Pleased to meet you. We all want to get out of the heat, so it’s no surprise that you turned up eventually. Not you in particular, but everyone looking for a little less sunshine. Everyone with too many scars on their eyes. Good news, there’s a lot less light in the closet, and it’s better that way. Each corner enclosed and signed over to the imagination. But if you lived in it for as long as I did, every perch and crevice is so familiar even those astronomical darknesses (the ones you can’t see without a telescope) can’t obscure them. Their outlines are enough to suggest all the familiar swords to fall on, all those invitations to suicide you slipped between the pages of your favourite book. Keeping your page, keeping time by the little numbers on the envelopes.

In Kafka there’s a man who turns into a monstrous insect. A true disaster, mostly because his job is in sales and his family is a knot of vipers. I sympathize with him: from his point of view, everything is the same. But his family lost everything they cared about: his steady job, his social status, his pasty normality. Insult to injury: they’re left with a bothersome insect who’s like their old stooge absent all the things they could exploit. It’s like he died but left a corpse with six legs and a tendency to skitter about the ceiling casting eerie shadows. No longer able to buy or sell anything––a true monster.

Meanwhile being in the closet and coming out is less like Gregor Samsa’s rude awakening and more like the slow, crushing gestation of the cicada. You spend years, even decades invisibly tucked under the dirt, waiting and twitching with the agony of expectations. As if your birth was stretched thin and flat, an event more tectonic than biological. You realize, maybe a long way into your entombed larval stage, that you have to say something quick when you finally emerge. But what? Many people’s first instinct will be to try to push you back in the ground, to bury you and be done with it. Best to brush up on flattery. No one wants a whiner, and any whiners are probably going to be nothing but a husk of skin sooner or later. No matter what, though, you sadly realize as you prod at the last film of dirt hiding you from the hateful sunlight, no matter what, you will be a fearful thing. So if you’re going to be a monster, you might as well be a real terror.

***

I suppose this will be considered “burying the lede,” but the reality is that I’ve been going through the process of coming out. Given my affection for and interest in monsters, dusty gods, demons, and all the haunted parts of the world, I consider the company of insects an honourable place to be. Plus, I have to admit, it’s hard to be dry and scholarly when discussing matters close to the heart. If I had to tell the doctor about the piece of grandma’s vase lodged in my aorta and needed a muse, I would probably reach for Blake before Spinoza or Lenin.

Coming out as a trans person combines all the terrors of showing your art in public and submitting yourself to a full-body scan at the airport. For someone to take that (sometimes literally) fatal step in today’s capitalist world, it must have some value, or else no one would ever do it. Even when I look at my own life, the closest and most comprehensible example I have, I still ask myself why I put a giant target on my back. Ultimately, like any human act, coming out is incomprehensible if considered as an individual act separate from the whole social reality of which it is a part.

Despite my failure to sort through these issues in the short time since I’ve come out, I’ve decided to write about the process of coming out and the place of trans people––at least this trans person––in class struggle. Not class struggle in the stereotyped sense, which recognizes the male white industrial working class while forgetting the ways in which class is shaped and placed by gender, nation, age, ability, and sexuality. I mean class struggle in the sense of how the increasing majority of humanity fights for our survival against: exploitation, repression, war, entropy, the systemic murder-suicide impulses of capitalism.

A Hundred Thousand Names will be an inward-looking essay, but looking inward is another way of seeing a single, reflective shard of the complex social whole. My aim is to try to make sense of my experiences and struggles as the experiences and struggles of an individual always caught up in the experiences and struggles of trans people (and in particular trans women) as a whole. We must all work tirelessly for trans liberation not as an abstract identity group but as a political, conscious force working for the destruction of all exploitation. How? Maybe I’ll be able to begin to sort that out in these pieces.

To come out is to come out into a burning world.

I’ll catch you next Saturday.

I have a hundred thousand names. One of them is “communist.”

***

Coda.

Trans liberation is liberation of trans workers, nationally oppressed trans people, racialized trans people, trans people with disabilities, old and young trans people, trans people who come out and those who don’t. The freedom of each one is the freedom of all, and vice versa.

Changing the Site URL

At long last, I have discarded the old “Old Alexius” title altogether. A moment of reverent silence, if you please.

For those who are not aware, the original title of this blog came from the original idea that Old Alexius–-the titular tiger of my blog––was the sole writer and content provider for this site. Alas, the ruse has long been up that this site is owned and operated by a left-wing human rather than a tiger, but I have kept the tiger theme in honour of ol’ Alex. At the same time, he may return someday, which is more than I can say for the URL.

Now the site name is tigermanifesto.wordpress.com, a far more sane and informative title that I can tell people in person without them wondering what my blog could possibly be about. I’m sad to lose the old name, but it doesn’t have much to do with the state of the blog as it is now. If you want to type in the old address, it will redirect to the new one.

Salute to you, Alexius. You may have been old, but you got this young blog going at a critical time in my life, and your memory will sustain it onwards.

Chizuko Ueno: Nationalism and Gender

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Nationalism and Gender in many ways pivots around one event. The author, Chizuko Ueno, was attending a conference in Beijing on global women’s issues. When her time came to speak she argued that feminism needed to transcend national borders and forsake any investment in the state or nationalism. A Korean feminist, Kim Pu-Ja, responded passionately to the contrary:

“‘My country’s borders were invaded by soldiers from your country. You should not be so quick to say that we should forget national borders. Stating that feminism has nothing to do with nationalism is surely no different from the ethnocentric thinking of Western feminism.'”¹

Ueno’s basic political position in the book, as well as in her speech, is that when feminism is tied to the politics of the nation-state, the inevitable result is that women are misled into trying to fit themselves into “male” roles and moulds. This is because national and class politics have been historically and, she would argue, logically, determined by patriarchal values and viewpoints. An autonomous women’s movement, therefore, cannot be supportive of nationalist politics. The goal is rather to transcend the state, to operate outside of its boundaries and define feminist politics as gender solidarity regardless of nation.

Much of her argument is developed in dialogue with Japanese history, in particular women’s and gender history on the left and “liberal” positivist history on the right. On the far end of the right spectrum are the patriotic or “orthodox” textbook advocates in Japan who want to whitewash away Japan’s war history and promote a reactionary adherence to a (they hope) rearmed Japanese imperial state. Ueno dismisses these rightwing voices fairly briefly in a couple chapters, while engaging with them here and there in a dismissive fashion.

Her main dispute is with respectable academic history rather than the conservative revisionists. On the methodological level, she argues against the privileging of written documents over oral testimony, pointing out that the problems of selectivity and personal bias are applicable to written documents as well, including state or bureaucratic sources. Informing this conclusion is her position on history’s status as a field. Rather than a simple recounting of past events, she sees history as a reconstruction of these events in the present, inevitably serving present concerns and political goals. Interpretation and bias are inherent in the historical composition process. Moreover, she asserts that different groups of people can inhabit separate realities. Japanese soldiers and American citizens, for instance, have views of the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945 that she would deem them irreconcilable.

Most of the analysis in the book centres around the issue of “comfort women,” i.e. the conscription of women for sexual use by Japanese soldiers during the Asia-Pacific War (WWII in Eurocentric terms). Korean women, in particular, were used as sexual slaves by the Japanese military. Ueno describes this system of sexual servitude in a multitude of ways, but her basic description is that of the “threefold crime.” The actual enslavement of women is the first part, the suppression and silencing of victims’ accounts with shame is the second, and attempts to impose historical denial on textbooks and official accounts––in effect, discrediting those who have had the courage to come forward and name their suffering––is the third. Far from a vestige of the past, the “comfort women” issue is an open wound  that demonstrates the politicization of history and its relevance to present state policy and feminist debates.

These debates notably include questions of nationalism. For instance, Ueno recounts numerous “feminists” who capitulated or even actively embraced Japanese fascism, even lobbying the government to include women in the imperialist war machine. Ideals of motherhood were also mobilized; since women could not be deified soldiers dying for their country, they were simply displaced by one. Others involved in the women’s movement celebrated the entry of women into “home front” work in munitions plants and other state jobs. After all, despite the fact that the Japanese state refused to outright integrate women into the armed forces for the most part, women were taken out of the home and participating in the labour force. She effectively demonstrates the problems of a feminist politics in thrall to the imperialist state, and it bears more than a bit of a resemblance to the mainstream feminist movement in the USA that agitates for women’s participation in combat and the invasion of foreign countries to “save” their “primitive” women from racialized male oppression.

Beyond this, she takes into account what she calls “reflexive” feminist history that tries to reclaim women’s agency in historical events. For instance, just as prominent members of the women’s movement in Japan were incorporated into fascist politics, ordinary women in Japan bore some responsibility for supporting the war on the home front. On the other hand, she mentions how the idea that every citizen in Japan shared equal responsibility can equally be used for regressive ends, as in the case of pardoning the Japanese emperor since he had no “special role” in Japan’s aggression. Everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Additionally, she notes, attempts to proclaim women’s agency in historical accounts can distort or exaggerate the real power dynamics of the situation, acting as though women might be to some degree immune from the motivations of circumstance or common sense. For instance, Ueno questions those who are too quick to render judgment of the women who vocally supported Japanese imperialism, recognizing the force of convention and questioning whether those who are making judgments in hindsight overestimate people’s ability to escape their historical position.

I would praise the majority of this book as being both revelatory for someone like me who is not yet knowledgeable about Japanese women’s and gender history as well as astute in its discussion of historical methodology. Unfortunately, the book loses me more and more as Ueno outlines what could be called her positive programme. Her argument, in brief, is that the state exists as the only body legally able to impose its will with violence. Citizen-to-citizen violence (defined as male and public, the violence of “civil society”) is criminalized owing to the disarmament of the population under capitalism. Meanwhile, private/domestic violence––mostly against women––has similarly been above/below the reach of the law in society. This is particularly so because of the way the marital relationship is essentially one of property and usage rights, whether sexual, monetary, or otherwise.

Thus both above and below civil society violence reigns unrestricted by law. Because of her pacifist position, rejecting all violence including self-defence, she defines feminism as the ideology for the protection of the weak rather than one of aspiring for women’s power or liberation. Not only nationalism but all what she calls striving for maleness should be anathema, and she believes that class-centred politics oppress women just as much as state/national politics, while rejecting the possibility of just wars or the justice of national liberation struggles/violent class struggle.

Differences in political line are one thing, but I have some actual logic difficulties with her conclusions for feminist politics. They seem to at least border on incoherence or the non-dialectical sort of contradiction where two irreconcilable things are held to be true at the same time.

“Feminism is not an idea that advocates that women should be powerful on a par with men, an idea I call a ‘catching-up strategy,’ but should be an idea that respects the dignity of minorities just as they are. I may be no match for a man in terms of muscular strength. I may not be able to make it through life single-handedly. But why simply because of this should I be forced to obey somebody else? It is feminism that has argued for this kind of respect for the weak. That being so, my answer is that there is only one possible solution for feminism and that is to aim in the direction of criminalizing all kinds of violence [emphasis added], regardless of whether is public or private. It goes without saying, that this also includes the criminalization of war.”²

This final paragraph concludes the book and leaves me scratching my head at its implications. On the first point about “catching up,” it is admirable that Ueno has criticized the notion that physical strength is all that counts and that women can be “strong” without being physically adept. She mentions, for example, women with disabilities who cannot play the “catching up” game. At the same time her statement here, in conjunction with her broader positive arguments, leans toward the fetishization of weakness and minoritarianism, fixating on the problem of violence while curiously letting the problem of power slip out unnoticed. Respect and protection of the weak––again, an important value, and any progressive movement where stronger members did not protect those who could not protect themselves would not be worth much. And yet weakness is worth nothing on its own, and cannot be counted a virtue.

Earlier, she also refuses the idea that the distinction between friends and enemies is valuable, refusing all recourse to violence in any situation whatsoever. And yet, she states that she wants to criminalize the use of all violence. The obvious question to raise is: on whose authority and with whose power would one enforce this idea? If war were made criminal within a legal framework––Ueno earlier questioned the efficacy of state legal frameworks in determining ethics, and rightly so––who would enforce such a provision? She rejects the idea of UN peacekeeping as another cover for war, but her specific use of the term criminalize implies the existence of some kind of apparatus for separating just and unjust acts, and empowered with the ability to forcibly disarm those who do not abide by the laws. In other words, Ueno’s feminist propositions appear to imply the prolonging, even the permanence, of state machinery. It’s utter nonsense, idealistic and moralistic in the extreme, taking the apparent high ground with only token consideration for its practical implications even in an ideal situation.

Were I inclined to be charitable, I could point out that there could be translation difficulties, and that the word criminalize was simply an incorrect or misleading choice of words. And yet what word could substitute to reconcile these vagaries and logical problems? To forbid? To abolish? To defeat? To undo? All of these restatements, though they do not carry the legalistic and statist connotations of criminalize, still beg the question of power. If the weak are to remain weak on principle, refusing to liberate themselves by any and all means necessary, what is to prevent them from simply being trampled forever and ever, amen? Ueno unintentionally demonstrates the inherent weakness of the pacifist position, which is that it achieves a moral bliss at the cost of embracing a politics of theatre and self-destruction, assuming the best of one’s adversaries and positioning all political contradictions as “differences” that can be negotiated and won through reasoning rather. Despite Ueno’s critical attitude towards human rights regimes, “modernity,” and state boundaries, her programme implies a kind of superstate authority imbued with an almost supernatural sense of justice and the ability to nonviolently prevent all violence. And her only response to this is that history teaches us that any time we legitimate violence it will be abused. And so we shall have it gone at the snap of a finger!

Notes:

1. Kim Pu-Ja quoted in Chizuko Ueno, Nationalism and Gender, trans. Beverly Yamamoto (Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne 2004), 143.

2. Ibid, 178.

Sunday Book Review Schedule: July/August 2016

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Thanks to everyone who read through and chatted with me about the Don Bluth feature series. It’s time to get back to regular blog business, though, and that means putting out another book review timeline for everyone to salivate over. Every Sunday from now until the end of August, I’ll be reviewing a book as per usual. My current idea of a schedule is reproduced below, but I’m open to taking suggestions from readers about what I should read.

  • July 24: Nationalism and Gender by Chizuko Ueno
  • July 31: Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements
  • August 7: Japan’s New Imperialism by Rob Steven
  • August 14: Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan by Kosaku Yoshino
  • August 21: The Political Economy of Japanese Society edited by Junji Banno
  • August 28: Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan by GA Hoston

Obviously, my study work continues to centre around Japan and its economic and cultural history and political context. Again, if there’s a book a reader wants me to dive into I would invite suggestions in the comments. I better get to reading now, so I can get these out in a timely fashion!

Day 7 of Don Bluth: Titan A.E.

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As a historian, it’s helpful to remind yourself that decades and centuries don’t actually exist, that time measurements like that are relatively arbitrary and that material events don’t respect these tidy boundaries as much as VH1 would have you believe. And yet, as the historical materialist adage goes, the material is primary but, when an idea grips the people, it becomes a material force. For example, animation industry went through a traumatic transition at the end of the 1990s. Disney’s Renaissance formula of huge-scale Broadway-style musical blockbusters gave way to a few years of creative confusion where a raft of unusual projects came out. And while there were a few successes, the dominant theme for the 2D animation industry in the United States for the first decade of the 2000s was abject failure. So we come to Titan A.E.

Though I would describe early 2000s feature animation films from the States as an eclectic collection, there were smaller trends and currents that developed within the whirlpool of chaos. One of these was a spate of films capitalizing on the vogue for science fiction generated by The Matrix. Even the Scooby Doo movie in the year 2000 was about aliens instead of ghosts or swamp monsters. Nearly every one completely bombed. Disney, who leaned into the science fiction genre with gusto at the beginning of the 2000s, released Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Lilo and Stitch, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and the Pixar-produced Wall-E in that decade, with only Lilo and Wall-E generating much enthusiasm. Don Bluth’s contribution to this little fad for science fiction in animation was Titan A.E., which has an unusual and belaboured backstory.

Story credits on the film go to Hans Bauer, screenwriter for Anaconda, and Randall McCormick, fresh from his smashing success with Speed 2: Cruises Control. Schlock ahoy, yes? Well, the actual writing credits fall to a trio of trendy creatives who had considerable caché in the late 90s. Joss Whedon, who needs no introduction; Ben Edlund, creator of The Tick; and John August, who had just written the acclaimed Doug Liman film Go and later became a go-to scrivener for Tim Burton. Two points immediately spring to mind. First, the team has some pedigree and some complementary just-off-of-mainstream sensibilities. Not to mention a familiarity with science fiction and fantasy. However, they are also the least natural collaborators with Mormon Disneyphile Don Bluth.

Unsurprisingly, given that he changed Secret of NIMH from a more science-based to a more magic-based story, Bluth was not a fan of science fiction. Nor was his longtime partner Gary Goldman. Titan A.E. is, for of all these reasons, the most anonymous directing work Don Bluth ever did. I was frankly astonished that Bluth was attached to the film, since I had seen it as a youngster, moderately enjoyed it, and forgotten about it. I certainly never associated it with fever dreams like The Pebble and the Penguin, much less his more decorated work in the 1980s. But enough preliminaries! Let’s move into the specifics.

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1. Bluth’s Hidden Hand

Given his lack of interest in science fiction and the unusual dialogue (on which more later), one might expect that Bluth’s key tropes wouldn’t be as noticeable here. On the contrary, the science fiction setting seems to highlight their presence, and one can see why Bluth would pick this project to do after Anastasia. As in all Bluth films, protagonist Cale Tucker (Matt Damon) has inherited a Trinket of Destiny from an older relative or loved one, becoming a totem as well as a plot-crucial object in some way. In this case, it’s a ring and hand imprint capable of reactivating the Titan, a Deus Ex Machina parked in space that can help humanity recover from the destruction of Earth by energy aliens. Within the space of the narrative, however, the reconciliation of the absent father with the son who vindicates the previous generation is played as almost as important as the restoration of the human race, which is a goal too abstract to fuel a conventional heroic narrative like this.

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This trope is common enough in standard heroic chosen one narratives, but the fact that the story includes the destruction and restoration of Earth via miraculous (albeit technological) means certainly appealed to the man who put the Great Valley at the end of the road in Land Before Time and had a rooster rescue the world from deluge in Rock-a-Doodle. That apocalyptic, cosmic sense of stakes sits comfortably with Bluth’s other work, which almost always sharpens the typical “believe in yourself and follow your dreams” beats into moments with a more religious and moral significance. The presence of a rainbow baptizing the new Planet Bob (Earth 2) does nothing to dispel the Christian overtones.

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It’s also worth mentioning that Bluth has set sequences in space before, notably the opening credits of Rock-a-Doodle, which shift from the depth of a star field to a sunrise over the Earth.

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From the opening of Rock-a-Doodle. Note the different aspect ratio as well.

Titan A.E. thus tells the parallel stories of one man reclaiming his place in his family legacy just as human beings restore their rightful place within the universe. Beyond the obvious Noah references already mentioned, the story bears a strong resemblance to that of Moses and the wandering Hebrews in the desert, with humans drifting on space colonies emerging to reclaim their promised land in a new Earth, saving them from lives of drudgery.

2. Meet the Crew

Even knowing next to nothing about Firefly, I can tell that the relationships among the crew members of the Valkyrie, the ship used to find the Titan, could support many comparisons with Whedon’s space western. Each crew member has a distinct personality quirk, most of them are always ready to spout salty comebacks, and their dialogue is spiked and clever. Among Bluth’s talents, clever and biting humour has never been one of them, which means Titan A.E. feels the least sentimental and naïve of his work, mostly due to these dialogue exchanges. Whereas the peak of sharp laughter in Rock-a-Doodle is an undersized owl mistaking words for other words, characters like the first mate Preed and Drew Barrymore’s Akima (a role I didn’t realize was whitewashed until just now) exchange witty banter that meets the bar more than not. Not to mention the downright acerbic Stith (Janeane Garofalo), a kangaroo alien who wears a red shirt from Star Trek and has an itchy trigger finger.

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Preen (left) sassing Stith (right), who would like to remind you that she’s walkin’ here!

At the head of the crew, however, stands none other than Captain Joseph Korso, played by a well-cast Bill Pullman. He’s notable for being one of the few morally ambiguous characters in Bluth’s body of work. Despite his mercenary motives and traitorous actions, he’s finally won over to the side of good because of his humanity. Though the ultimate antagonists of the film are the Drej, pure energy beings who fear human potential for poorly explained reasons (one of the major narrative weaknesses of the film), Korso provides an excuse for a climactic fistfight––proving ground for the protagonist’s matured masculinity, I suppose––and gives a human face to villainy that can’t be replicated.

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And Korso is also emphatically not terrible late 90s CGI.

3. Hit Them With the Ugly Stick!

Though all the characters are animated with traditional cels, an overwhelming amount of the rest of the film is done in computer generated imagery. Design work is overall strong if generic. For one, the Drej certainly lend themselves to computer animation, and their angular and reflective designs work well with the medium’s limitations at the time of production. Ships look slightly worse, and wouldn’t look too out of place in the FMV backgrounds of Wing Commander III, but competent design keeps them from being entirely ridiculous. In fact, one of the more creative bits of art in the film is the ramshackle drifter colony, assembled from rusty parts welded together.

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Granted, it’s a drawing and not a computer model.

Late in the film, however, we see the paradisiacal New Earth and its glory is more than a little diminished by how, shall we say, limited its textures appear to be.

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A potential reason for this is that some of the sequences of the film were produced by a different animation studio since Bluth’s studio in Arizona had already been downsized by about 300 people. Notably, Blue Sky Studios handled the Earth reformation sequence in their first work for Fox, just two years before Sid the Sloth and Scrat began their long reign of terror over the silver screen.

Finale: Closure at Last

Titan A.E., despite having a trendy, awful soundtrack and a hip story subject, was an astronomical failure. Fox Animation was no more, as was traditional animation in Hollywood outside of Disney and, after a few more years, at Disney as well. It also represents the end of Don Bluth’s career in features to date. Whatever happens in the future, he can be assured of some kind of historical legacy for outdoing Disney in the 80s and producing a string of fascinating failures from thereon out. While I would argue that his films are uncritical and naïve both politically and aesthetically, I find some of his more bizarre work endearing in spite of this fact.

It’s tempting to focus on Bluth’s nostalgia and say he was a classicist who, by the 1990s, was simply a step out of time. I would argue a slightly different tack: he was a classicist who would ride trends and compromise when necessary. Most of his 1990s output hews closely to what Disney was doing at the time, and when it didn’t––Troll in Central Park––it was an aimless catastrophe. Having sat through all of his 1990s work now, I can say that he was a unique voice, but it often sounded more like an echo than a vital force in the present. An echo of himself or the good old days? Depends on the movie.

 

Day 5 and 6 of Don Bluth: Anastasia and (one sentence on)Bartok the Magnificent

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After sorting through some personal business, I’m finally ready to roll. Let’s do it!

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Barely settled into his tax break-funded Phoenix studio, Don Bluth commenced work on Anastasia. Though jettisoning the idea of using Russian revolutionaries as villains, his film latched onto the conspiracy theories surrounding Tsar Nicholas II’s daughter Anastasia, who supposedly escaped execution. Infusing the Disney Renaissance formula into dark and thorny source material was not unheard of––by the time of Anastasia’s release, Disney itself had done the same with Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules. And Don Bluth was comfortable with dark stories with strong supernatural overtones. For one reason or another, Anastasia was a financial success, perhaps the most confident and least pathetic Disney Renaissance imitator of the decade. Not to mention the only profitable product Don Bluth created between the years of 1990 and 2000.

1. The Red Elephant in the Room

I’ll make this brief. Bluth’s film, based on a script written by a troop of five writers, translates the overthrow of Czarist Russia and ascendence of the Russian Revolution into a fairy tale about the death of the true, beloved king and the self-actualization of the true heir. An early song notes that the people of post-revolutionary “St. Petersburg” (then renamed Leningrad) were sorry the tsar was dead and excited to hear that his daughter might have survived. And this is the least of the film’s desecrations, though perhaps the one that bothered me the most since it can’t be explained away by fairy tale logic.

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Rasputin’s demons could only get a small crowd to show up for the storming of the Winter Palace.

I have no qualms with turning Rasputin into a devil-worshipping corpse warlock, especially one enlivened by the talents of Hollywood eccentric-in-residence Christopher Lloyd. Few historical figures are so generally reviled. But the sickening aura of American-style royalist nostalgia is too much to handle at times. And though this phenomenon is the stock-in-trade of other animated fairy tales, the fact that the monarchs here have some relation to real history makes it that much more pathetic and wince-inducing. Add the fact that Nicholas II and his family presided over a horrifying war of attrition and a virtual prison state for workers and oppressed nations makes me slightly less sympathetic to the plight of our bright-eyed protagonist. I’m sure an animated film about Marie Antoinette would take the same position. Silly people on the barricades! Royalism is all about beautiful music boxes, strong family values, and the gold filigree of feudal privilege.

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And hugs with Angela Lansbury.

2. Don Bluth Bingo

I don’t want to spend much time on reciting all the Don Bluth tropes recycled here. Instead, I’ll act like a clever internet person and just give you my Don Bluth bingo sheet for the movie. Refer back to earlier posts for this analysis, because my feelings on mystical keepsakes, nuclear family idol worship, and  campy bad guys (meh, bad, good, respectively) have not changed.

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Darn! Lost to the guy with the Rock-a-Doodle sheet. Though “Restoration of Paradise” and “Insta-Romance” are borderline in Anastasia.

3. Supernatural Limbo

While our main plot centres around two con men trying to make a princess out of an orphan lookalike, the core of what makes Anastasia worthy of any interest is far underground. Rasputin occupies a strange in-between dimension he calls Limbo, prevented from moving into the afterlife by his pact with Satanic forces. Sworn to eliminate every member of the Romanov family, he commands a legion of demonic bats (and one cute mascot bat) but is a shambling corpse himself. Most of the delight I get from the film is derived from the grisly body distortions the animators inflict on him. His mouth slides down his beard, his ligaments and tendons can stretch infinitely, and his head has its own ideas about where it’s supposed to rest.

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Rasputin’s an effective villain without much integrity.

His curse on Anastasia is not too dissimilar to that placed on Sleeping Beauty, sleeping in the dark until her adolescence before turning on her with a vengeance. Rasputin’s plans are, as expected, often too elaborate. Simply sending his demons to drop Anastasia off a cliff instead of sending them on a runaway train adventure would doubtless be more efficient. But Rasputin’s effectiveness as a villain is not just the sum of body horror and Christopher Lloyd. It hinges on one literally nightmarish scene where Rasputin uses his black magic to trick Anastasia into sleepwalking onto the deck of a ship during a storm and nearly succeeds in coaxing her into jumping. Further, the scene is effective because Anastasia––known as the amnesiac Anya the Orphan to all except the audience at this point––is shown to subsist on dreams. On visiting the boarded-up palace, she is swept away by visions of old ballroom dances, and one of the old standbys in family animated films is the beneficial aspect of dreaming and aspiration. The scene on the boat, however, uses her repressed memories and dreams of family life against her, luring her into a trap. It generates genuine tension in a film that often lacks it, and accomplishes this with effective animation sequences.

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Maybe Alexei shouldn’t be so carefree about jumping into the water.

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On the one hand, points for evil presentation. On the other hand, she probably would have jumped if he hadn’t turned the nice pool into a hellscape.

By contrast, the climactic battle on the bridge in Paris, despite evoking the same fear of drowning in the icy deep, falls flat because it’s just a physical confrontation that has little to do with the themes or dramatic stakes. Giant winged horses and topiary mazes can surely be frightening, and we’re supposed to link Anastasia’s triumph with her decision to save Dimitri, but his own appearance comes mostly out of nowhere and his faked Disney Death undermines that realization. It’s a far cry from the flat and lifeless romantic plots that underpin, say, Thumbelina and Pebble and the Penguin, but it’s one reason why the final part of the film spent in Paris is weak compared to the first half or so.

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The one strong aspect being this sequence where Paris is painted in an Impressionist style. Reminds me of American Pop.

Finale: Into the New Millennium

Anastasia was such a strong success that Fox commissioned a direct-to-video sequel called Bartok the Magnificent, released two years later. It was directed by Don Bluth and is relatively enjoyable, but I won’t dedicate an entire post to it because it’s fairly trifling. I will say, however, that it’s superbly cast and surprised me with how entertaining it was, so I would give it a watch if you don’t find Hank Azaria’s performance as Bartok unbearable. Truth be told, I enjoy aspects of it more than Anastasia proper, which is not what I expected.

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We’ll just pretend that this transformation sequence featuring gigantic dragon breasts didn’t happen.

Now, though, we’re going to move into the stars. Bluth has shown an affinity for space imagery before, but he had no real interest in science fiction. That didn’t stop him from picking up his (at time of publication) final animated feature:  Titan A.E., the flop that would put a premature end to Fox Animation and usher us directly into the age of Blue Sky Entertainment. We’ll see how that went tomorrow.

 

Day 4 of Don Bluth: The Pebble and the Penguin

Bluth Title

Penguin films became their own mini-boom in the late 2000s, starting off with the sonorously narrated March of the Penguins and blossoming with the likes of Surf’s Up and the two Happy Feet movies. These films probably owe none of their success to the far less remunerative Don Bluth picture The Pebble and the Penguin, which manages to adapt a fascinating animal behaviour into a banal affirmation of petrified (!) human engagement rituals.

Released in 1994, Pebble not only flopped and dragged Bluth’s Irish-based production company down with it, it was such an artistic failure that Bluth, the man who put his name on A Troll in Central Park, refused to take a directing credit for it. Not that he escaped through this tactic, since his production company was named after him.

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1. Biology and Banalogy

We already saw that Bluth has a thing for penguins back in Rock-a-Doodle, which features an inexplicable moment where scalpers are selling penguin suits to species who are barred from a rock club. Here, though, we’re dealing with not just penguins in general but the specific species known as the Adélie penguin. It turns out that these penguins have a peculiar mating practice of males presenting stones to females and being evaluated on their geological fashion sense. What Bluth and writers Rachel Koretsky and Steven Whitestone do is take that basic setup and turn it into one of Bluth’s usual affirmation of the most caricatured version of traditional Western gender roles.

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See, Hubie (Martin Short) is a stuttering, nervous type who attracts scorn and derision for his awkwardness. In fact, he’s derisively called a “Nerd” more than once. For reasons of easy character identification, he also wears a silly winter hat with droopy ears, confirming him as a schlubby comedy archetype. About ten minutes into the film, he runs into his one love, Marina, and she takes an instant liking to him for the sake of plot convenience. Hubie’s main appeal to his few friends is his ability to make them laugh, whether on purpose (unlikely considering his blunt-edged sense of humour) and unintentionally, which means the film vacillates wildly between treating Hubie like a hero and like a punch line. Being a punch line is probably not as reliable a way to get true friends in the real world as it is here. Marina, however, is another of Bluth’s vacant and passive rescue objects (cf. Thumbelina, Goldie, etc.) so for magical plot reasons she instantly falls in love with him and, like in Thumbelina, the plot is just delayed gratification.

Let’s put it this way: a documentary about actual Adélie penguins would be much more fascinating. Their natural behaviours are much closer to a John Waters movie than a Disney fantasy:

 “‘The pamphlet, declined for publication with the official Scott expedition reports, commented on the frequency of sexual activity, auto-erotic behaviour, and seemingly aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females, including necrophilia, sexual coercion, sexual and physical abuse of chicks and homosexual behaviour,’ states the analysis written by Douglas Russell and colleagues William Sladen and David Ainley.”

–From Adélie penguin wikipedia entry

 

We were robbed of a Ralph Bakshi penguin movie, I tell you.

Another peculiarity of this film that fits into Don Bluth modus operandi is the way the plot delivers Hubie’s perfect stone, but we’ll get there in section 3.

2. A Penguin Called Drake

A great camp villain is what separates the unbearable Don Bluth film from the delightfully awful one. Like Rock-a-Doodle, The Pebble and the Penguin benefits from a stunningly over-the-top and gay-coded performance by a famous character actor, in this case Tim Curry giving soul to the villain named Drake.

 

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He has one weirdly under-orchestrated song, but his primary role is to be a mean bully and keep the two literal lovebirds apart from each other. Living in a gigantic, inexplicably fabricated fortress with a gaping maw almost as hilarious as his own (as seen above). Though the fairytale logic of the central romance makes it narratively disposable rather than simple and resonant, I think the snickering reductiveness of Drake combined with Curry’s performance makes him a net plus for the film. Certainly better than playing a literal manifestation of pollution in Ferngully.

3. Keepsakes

Don Bluth protagonists have a tendency to keep totems or amulets with them, objects that have some mystical significance and are connected to their families in some way. In this film, it’s the titular pebble, which descends to Hubie from on high as an answer to prayer:

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Pictured: God taking pity on a poor nerd.

It’s the same potent mixture of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and Americanized Christian theology that animates all of Bluth’s films. What’s curious is that Marina and Hubie’s true love is known and established by the film very early, but his love appears to hinge entirely on giving her the stone. The stone is treated as an artifact that not only represents their love but is their love. Hubie goes to life-threatening lengths to keep hold of it, which is understandable, but the degree to which the pebble itself is treated as vital to their relationship––when Drake is the only real obstacle keeping them apart––is troubling since it muddles the messaging around what should be a clear and straightforward romance. It is very straightforward in most ways, but the fact that the characters spends almost no screen time together is probably the reason why the pebble gets title rights while Marina doesn’t. Emphasizing the pebble transaction also highlights how the film validates the mercenary way in which romances are decided in this penguin community: Hubie has to pay his fee to get his girl.

Finale: The End of Bluth Studios

After the debacle that is The Pebble and the Penguin, Bluth’s company collapsed and he took an offer from Fox to create films for their new animation studio. It was the end of Bluth’s era as a semi-independent filmmaker, and the beginning of a new role at a major studio. Soon enough it would be clear that Pebble and the Penguin would be Bluth’s (up to now) last production that really indulges in his idiosyncrasies, for better and (mostly) for worse. It’s a sour note to end this phase of his career on, but perhaps a huge injection of money from Fox would bring some kind of redemption.Screenshot 2016-07-05 23.34.32.png

 

 

Day 3 of Don Bluth: A Troll in Central Park

Bluth Title

Contempt is never a pretty attitude to take. At times, it can erode critical judgment and lead to overly cynical conclusions. Used sparingly and judiciously, however, an acidic tone can be a powerful weapon in the critical arsenal. And I’m afraid that blithe dismissal is not an appropriate reaction to A Troll in Central Park. It requires radioactive intervention.

I yawned my way through Thumbelina, but found it difficult even stay focused for this movie. Its closest relatives are sugar-frosted curiosities like Teletubbies or Oogieloves. All of these properties are driven by a basic core logic: put shiny colourful things in front of children and you will win the hearts of parents and their spawn alike. Virtually nothing happens in A Troll in Central Park for its entire middle four sixths, the filmmakers being distracted by other worthy pursuits like dithering, time wasting, and pandering. Therefore, I am especially glad that I don’t do blow-by-blow commentary on these movies, since trying to do so with Troll makes it ooze an enervating sap that does to critics what the opioid poppies did to Dorothy.

Sadly, it’s also basically beneath critique in the conventional movie review sense. You could head deeper and analyze its connection to Bluth’s pet theme of pastoral vs. city life, its dull valorization of the nuclear family, and its catastrophic characterizations. And I will briefly go into all of those problems. But let it be known that I find Troll in Central Park not just Don Bluth’s worst film but probably the worst major animated feature of the 1990s, or at least the most narratively impoverished and unwatchable.

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1. A Glitch in the Timeline

It’s important to note that Troll in Central Park was put into production before Thumbelina because it helps explain why this film is far less imitative of the Disney Renaissance formula. It stars a small boy in oversized clothing who grows and matures through harrowing encounters with the supernatural and discovers his innate courage. It’s  also an original script taking place in the modern world despite some fairy tale trappings.

That modern setting is fairly important to the plot of the film because our lead child character, Gus, is a character archetype more suited to the 1990s than some mythical past. That archetype being the frequently-used “child with high-powered yuppie parents who doesn’t get enough love and whose family issues are healed through supernatural derring-do.” character. Cf. the Santa Clause Tim Allen comedies for another prominent and more successful example, though that story focuses more on the father than the child. Jonathan Pryce, who plays Gus’ father Alan with a reverse Dick van Dyke American accent, is basically absent from the movie. So Gus is a spoiled 90s kid with a terrible attitude who has to be taught a moral lesson by Stanley the troll and Uncle Don about…something something family and courage.

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2. The Power of Dreams

Though I (accurately) describes the middle of this film as a wasteland of lollygagging and cutesy songs that accomplish nothing, they do tie into the central theme of this film, and so are not categorically useless.

Stanley’s contribution to Gus’ character development is in teaching him that as long as you believe hard enough your dreams can come true. Yes, how novel. It’s another instance of Don Bluth taking “when you wish upon a star” more seriously than he perhaps should, though in films like All Dogs and Rock-a-Doodle the spiritual elements are a bit more explicit and substantive than the banality Bluth settles for here. Perhaps the only scene in the film that works fairly well is when Gus confronts Stanley for being a passive coward and not being willing to fight for as well as believe in his dreams. Gus is more of the aggressive American type, taking more of the “God helps those who help themselveS” line on the matter, while Stanley is content to hide and carve out his own little haven.

Stanley’s not willing to take the necessary risks to save Gus’ sister Rosey (tad bit on the nose), so the fall of the villains and the renewal of Central Park and all of New York into a new Eden can only happen once Gus takes charge of the situation. The scene works because it takes the genuine character conflict between Stanley and Gus and brings those contradictions to a head, which brings out at least a little drama.Our climax is a thumb wrestling contest, though, so it still manages to conclude in an underwhelming way.

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Gus knows how to handle troll queens: thumb to thumb.

Moreover, the “power of dreams” pablum might be subject to some debate later in the film but for the preponderance of the running time Stanley is just presumed to be right that “all you gotta do is believe.” And though Dom Deluise does an OK job with his vocals, the character is actively annoying––toddlers might disagree here––and so the audience is primed to reject whatever he says so that we naturally agree with Gus when he calls out Stanley’s cowardice. Every fascinating thread this movie could have set up is squandered in favour of pandering. Bluth was legendary in the 80s for proving that children will go through almost anything during a film as long as the ending is happy enough. With all the shadows and intrigue leached out, Bluth’s saccharine appropriation of Disney’s moralizing dogma is undigestible.

Finale: Paradise Found

At the end of the film the entire city of New York is covered in a blanket of greenery radiating from Central Park. It’s the same ending to Sam and Max Hit the Road but treated as a reclamation of paradise rather than a global human catastrophe. It’s like Area X from The Southern Reach Trilogy finally encroached on Manhattan.

Edenic paradises are as Bluthian as busty chickens and evil frogs. Many of his films share an eschatological vision of this restoration of the world to a garden. Contrast the blasted landscapes of The Land Before Time with the heavenly Great Valley. Or the literal heaven of All Dogs, the Vale of the Fairies in Thumbelina, etc. etc. Personal redemption is never enough for Bluth; the world has to go with it, no matter how inconvenient it might be for people’s commutes.Screenshot 2016-07-02 21.16.36.png

I consider this final scene at the very least worth considering seriously because of how uncompromising (or maybe just unthinking) its view of the world is. Nevertheless, A Troll in Central Park is the nadir of Don Bluth’s career, financially and critically since Warner Bros. buried the film with a limited, barely-promoted release. It’s been totally and rightly forgotten, a wispy flight of sentiment that inspires righteous contempt in many, many animation fans.

Note: One Day Delay on Troll in Central Park Post

Because I participated in a trans pride event today, I decided to put off writing my piece on Troll in Central Park/Stanley’s Garden until tomorrow so I can unwind. Best of luck to everyone this evening.

 

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