Thursday, August 31, 2006

CHINESE CINEMA—Qian li zou dan qi / Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles

Recently, I watched Snow Falling On Cedars (1999) and took note in particular of the courtroom scene where Kazuo Miyamoto—the young Japanese-American on trial for the alleged murder of fisherman Carl Heine, Jr.—is interrogated by the prosecuting attorney. Set during the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the prosecutor seizes upon Miyamoto's taciturnicity and characterizes it as an unemotional and coldblooded lack of remorse, playing upon prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment in his attempt to persuade the jury that Miyamoto's inscrutability is part and parcel of what is not to be trusted in the Japanese people. The defense attorney, of course, rightfully objects to this racial profiling.

I kept thinking of this courtroom scene while watching Zhang Yimou's Qian li zou dan qi / Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles (2005), in the sense that what is characterized as the inscrutability of the Japanese countenance is, in truth, a culturally nuanced mask worn by individuals as an expression of honor, and dignified reserve. These culturally-conditioned personas and the masking of feeling courses predominant through Yimou's quiet, powerful feature, shuffled like a whisper between shouts or—as Twitch critic Peter Martin states it—a "painting on a smaller canvas than his previous two pictures" (or, judging from the trailer, his upcoming Curse of the Golden Flower).

As the press notes synopsize: "For the first time in many years, Gou-ichi Takata (Ken Takakura) takes the bullet train to Tokyo from the quiet fisherman's village where he lives on the northwest coast of Japan. His daughter-in-law, Rie (Shinobu Terajima) telephones to tell him that his son, Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai) is seriously ill, and asking for his father.

"But when he arrives in the city, Takata finds that Rie was not entirely truthful: Ken-ichi has been hospitalized, but after years of painful estrangement, he still refuses to see Takata. Crushed, the old man quietly slips out of the hospital, but not before Rie gives him a videotape to watch. Rie hopes what Takata sees on the tape will help him get to know his son again.

"Takata plays the tape and learns that Ken-ichi is studying a form of Chinese folk drama that dates back more than a thousand years. Ken-ichi had traveled all the way to Yunnan Province in Southern China to see the famous actor Li Jiamin perform, but the actor was ill and unable to sing. Li promised to sing the legendary song 'Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles' from the literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms for Ken-ichi if he returns to Yunnan the following year.

"Hoping to bridge the gap between himself and his son, Takata decides to find Li Jiamin and videotape his performance for the dying Ken-ichi. As the old man begins an odyssey into the heart of China, he encounters a number of strangers who color his journey—from well-meaning translators who guide him through China's idiosyncrasies, to prison wardens anxious to promote Chinese culture abroad, to a young runaway with a complicated father-son relationship of his own. What Takata discovers on his journey is kindness … and a sense of family he thought he had lost long ago."

Almost immediately as I watched Takata on the phone with his daughter-in-law Rie, I wanted to rail against his inability to express his emotions. I felt he was selfish for giving nothing by way of sympathy or comfort to Rie, whose husband was dying in the hospital. I couldn't understand at first why she would even bother trying to mend the rift between her husband and his estranged father. But as the movie progressed I began to feel the weight of Takata's suppressed emotionality, its immense and intense depths, and its dire consequences not only for himself but for those he loves. It wasn't as if he didn't know how he couldn't express his feelings, and his self-knowledge only added to his heart's overburdened cargo. The film is punctuated by admissions he concedes to himself in reflective voiceover.

Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles is illuminated—as with so many of our lives—by regret and clear hindsight. The masks are multiplicit as Takata travels through the Yunnan Province, searching first for the famous actor Li Jiamin and then Li Jiamin's son Yang Yang. Takata's journey to videotape Li Jiamin's performance for his dying son unapologetically replicates the story of Guan Yu, the protagonist of the ancient Chinese tale from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The mighty general Guan Yu became a symbol of loyalty when he refused titles and riches to ride thousands of miles in order to help a friend.

Takata's inability to express his feelings is not the only mask. There is also nature in its full panoramic beauty filmed to serene perfection by Zhao Xiaoding. There is the nearly comic impenetrability of foreign languages, the mistranslations of intent, and the miscommunications that realign the efforts towards communication, let alone the dropped calls of cellulars in remote no-zones. One of the film's most endearing balances of humor is when Takata is taken to the tiled rooftops of the Stone Village in order to find a signal to make a phoned plea for translation. By witnessing Li Jiamin's unabashed tears for his own son and the Stone Village's generosity when they receive Takata as a visitor (in a truly memorable banquet scene), Takata is forced to acknowledge the limits of his own laconicity and his own abbreviated gestures of reciprocity.

Thus, the culturally-nuanced countenance of the human face and heart, language, and the seeming indifference of grand, beautiful nature all serve as masks that conceal and reveal in equal measure. There is, of course, the obvious masks of Chinese opera performance as well. The beauty of Zhang Yimou's film lies precisely in that purposeful tension of masks between what is concealed and what is revealed or, to paraphrase mythologist Joseph Campbell, these are masks transparent to principles of transcendence. When the mask weeps, the world of appearances is torn asunder.

Ken Takakura personifies and holds that tension brilliantly. Zhang Yimou has wasted no words attesting that the film was tailor-made for his childhood idol Takakura and that it has been his dream to work with this seasoned Japanese actor who has often been dubbed Japan's answer to Clint Eastwood on account of his silent charisma. Providing Takahura with a lean script and surrounding Takahura with his customary use of non-actors, Yimou achieves a striking and direct truthfulness in the film's performances. Teetering on the edge of melodrama, the film manages to maintain its balance and to achieve an effect of deep understated heartfulness. This is a balancing act that Yimou has come to master in his "smaller paintings."

It's necessary to note as well the perfect casting of nine-year-old Yang Zhenbo as Yang Yang, chosen from nearly 70,000 children! This distillation of casting has introduced a mischievous child whose distrustful stubborn-smudged face you love immediately and whose plight you embrace as tightly as Takata does Yang Yang during the film's denouement when, finally, nothing is hidden, the themes are readily apparent, and the heart's true countenance is exposed.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP—The Evening Class Interview With Michel Gondry

The Science of Sleep has all the trademarks of a personal dream that you might share with a good friend if you trust them well enough, especially its whimsically-constructed dream sequences where clouds literally are puffs of cotton, water consists of cellophane in stop-action flow, stuffed horses gallop over the fields of courtship, and time travel occurs in increments of seconds, providing the opportunity to correct grievous errors or to at least capitalize on the wit of the staircase. But as lovingly as the dream sequences are created by a talented child with scissors, construction paper, glue and glitter during an afternoon hour committed to artwork, the film is not necessarily a tribute to the dream life, as much as an examination of what happens when a dreamer cannot distinguish between his dreams and his so-called real life, between the fantastic and the banal, between the infantile and the mature, and between what he dreams to have for himself and what is not really his to have. It is about misalignments between parallel worlds that should probably best course alongside each other without leaning into each other, like neighbors you know but shouldn't fall in love with.

The Science of Sleep is not, perhaps, as polished as Michel Gondry's previous collaboration with Charlie Kaufman—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—it doesn't quite have that film's mainstream sheen; but, that's not to say it's any less accomplished; it's just more idiosyncratic, bearing Gondry's signature preoccupations without any artistic compromise (or is the right word restraint?). You'll either mount his button-eyed horse and trot enthusiastically through his imagination or tire of his stylized simulations, or maybe even a little of both. For me the dreams of Gondry's character Stephane—played to near perfect pitch by Gael Garcia Bernal—feel like dreams but don't necessarily look like dreams. Still, they're approximate, and his effort towards approaching the viscerality of dreaming is noteworthy.

More than the film itself, I wanted to talk to Michel Gondry about dreams.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Michel, it's a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with one of the world's most successful dreammeisters. Congratulations on The Science of Sleep.

Michel Gondry: Thank you.

MG: The Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung was fond of saying that it was important to proceed from the dream outward. It's my understanding that, in effect, that's what you've done with The Science of Sleep. You filmed the dream sequences first and then built the rest of the film around them. Could you talk about how you engineered that process? It's an unusual way to make a movie.

Gondry: It's not exactly like that, but, I basically didn't want to use a dream as a tool to help the story, which is the way they are used in most movies; they're just a way to show that the character is having those feelings and they are never true. What I wanted to achieve was to show the dreams I had and show them in the context of the event during which they had occurred and put them in parallel to see what was going on and understand them maybe after the film. Not trying to analyze them before I would use them in the film. So being neutral about them and then see what was going on between the real life and the dream life; taking a good part of my own experience.

MG: Can we talk some about your animation process? You eschew CGI in favor of stop-motion effects?

Gondry: With regard to the animation, it's true that most of the dreams have been shot before the live action. It's a process that's hard to explain to a producer because, you know, you do principal photography and you get your green light a few days before you start to shoot really. We had to put our money on the table to do these animation sequences that we [shot] ten months before because we didn't even have the actors signed. It was the only way for me to have them ready on stage when we did those sequences because I didn't want to use blue screen. I wanted the actor to participate [with] this landscape, see them and enjoy them in some way. It was like I was showing them my toys. They would help them in the tone they have. The blue screen's so cold, or the green screen, whatever, it's so cold because the actor doesn't have time to connect with what's happening around them and they even end up to not even connect with each other.

MG: Well, there's certainly a human touch to the animation; a child-like touch. Some critics have said that the dream sequences are repetitions of images from your well-known music videos, but, I tend to think of them more as amplifications of those images, or—as Jung used to say—a circumambulation around the image, a continued fascination or familiarization with something that is of particular importance to you as an artist. Can you talk about how you chose the dreams you wanted to show in the film because I'm sure you have a wealth of dream imagery and had to choose some images over others?

Gondry: The one[s] who basically would make sense with the story. So, since I didn't want to manipulate them too much, I had to pick the one[s] who make the story go forward. To me it was important to not transform them, to be honest and objective about them, to keep what makes them real dream[s]. So I picked one[s] … for instance, I have this feeling for this person who could be represented by Stephanie. I had dreamed about her so I used those dreams because it makes sense. Sometimes I have lots of dreams of cataclysm, of the moon exploding and the end of the world, and I used that at some episode where Stephane wants to take control of his dream. I tried to use what I had in my memories to construct the story.

MG: You've gone on record as criticizing the symbolic approach towards dream interpretation, especially Sigmund Freud's theories where specific equations are drawn between an image and its meaning, and have insisted upon a scientific treatment of dreams. I'm not clear on how you're using that term "scientific", however, and wondered if you could tell me what it is that makes your creative approach scientific?

Gondry: I'm not saying my approach is scientific, I'm saying I like the scientific approach better than the psychological approach. The main difference is the scientific approach is requestioned every time the technology evolve[s], all the time discovery is being made, the community has to adapt. As for the Freud [theories], they are more like a dogma. They have been created by Sigmund Freud and that's it basically. It's not because somebody [found] a machine to look [at] what's going on in the brain. I think it's wrong. It's like the evolution theory vs. the creationist on what's written in the Bible. People have to adapt. You cannot ignore that the Earth is 5000 years old, except if you're in Texas. It's common sense in a way because it's been proven by many many different direction[s]. I think with psychoanalysis and dream interpretation, the functional bases have been proven wrong by scientists who are working with neurobiology.

MG: What I enjoy about your dreamwork translated into your filmwork is how you have categorized and effectively manifested a visual range of dream experience. For example, many people fly in dreams, but they fly variously and your translation of flying as swimming—which is often how I fly in my dreams—really intrigued me. The artist M.C. Escher has likewise connected birds to fish through his imagery. Could you speak about how you created that sequence with Gael Garcia Bernal where he's flying over Paris?

Gondry: It's an idea I had for a long time. I mean you always try to figure out how you can make somebody fly: you have back projection, you have blue screen, then you have wire that you remove. Nobody ever tried to have somebody swimming into clear water on a projected image behind for the simple reason it's a nightmare to unite. But I thought it was very close [to] the feeling of dreaming and this human touch quality you were talking about before that you cannot replace. It's funny because it was very hard to organize the ways to put him on the blue screen. I thought it would be like a science fiction movie if it was successful. Or if it was cheap it would look like a comedy, like a joke. Using the real water—I remember when I first started watching the dailies and being really worried about the bubbles—and I thought, no, it's great, it's a dream, even better with the bubbles. All those side effects you get by doing in camera effects are important to making simple ideas more visceral and more connected to what you really experience in the dream.

MG: You also have a keen sense of scale (for example the giant hands which you used in your Foo Fighters Everlong video and in Science of Sleep). What's that about?

Gondry: I had this experience of feeling my hands were gigantic when I was a kid. I had this recurring nightmare where I would wake up and for a half hour I was convinced my hands were nearly ten feet long. My parents had a really hard time to convince me I was fine. Lately, I [found] out what it is. It's funny because I have been seeing therapists and these kind of people to try to find an answer because it was quite clear—maybe with the extent of trouble that I carry with me, affecting my life—but I couldn't get any answer.

Lately, I went to a museum and they showed this little guy—a man in a picture with giant hands—actually he was a representation of a homunculus who is this character; it's a [representation] of nerve ending in this context. They give him a shape to be understandable. It doesn't have a shape in your brain, it's just grey matter anyway, but basically they find that all the connection that connect to the hand, all the connection that connect to the arm, all the connection that connect to the nerve endings that connect to the nose and face, they find out there are much more nerve endings to the hand and to the toes and to the arm, for instance. Even the brain doesn't have sensors. If you open your skull and touch your brain, you won't feel anything. So that's why there are these big hands in this homunculus character.

My feeling was due to this way that I have of waking up gradually, which is uncommon. Some part of my brain—even though I'm awake—I'm still functioning as a dream. I think it's like the start point of the story of Stephane's issue, is that I can wake up and really believe and be convinced that the dream I experienced is a real memory and I really did that in real life. I think when I was younger I would wake up [and] would have a hard time to squeeze back my image perception in my real body.

MG: That's fascinating, if I'm understanding you correctly. Likewise, you have a masterful sense of repetition and replication as in the rhythmically mesmerizing Daft Punk Around the World or the brilliant Kylie Minogue video Come Into My World where she keeps looping around and increasing in number. Have you, by any chance, seen Ilya Khrjanovsky's film 4?

Gondry: No. 4, like the number 4?

MG: Yes, exactly.

Gondry: It's about repetition?

MG: More about replication. You should check it out; I think you might find it interesting. Sidetracking briefly to your music videos, how does that work? Do the musicians come to you, you hear the music, you come up with a concept and propose it to them? Or do they have an idea already in mind that you work with?

Gondry: I'm open and I'm used to collaborating. I'm coming from being a musician, of doing my videos for my own band, with my band who were coming from the same art school as me. I happened to buy a camera and being quite good at it; but, I didn't see myself as a director. So when I meet an artist, a singer, I am okay to listen to what they have to say. To me it's very important that they believe that they can do their own video themselves. I remember when I was younger and I was watching the first video[s] of Michael Jackson, whoever directed them, I always assumed they were directed by Michael Jackson, which is naïve. But it's good in a way because I didn't want the artist being stuck into a world who belongs to somebody else. So I developed this way of harmonizing my idea with the idea of the singer and make sure they feel comfortable in this world I was creating and I was always creating this world based on their song, on their personality. That was very important.

MG: That's marvelous how that works. Returning to dream imagery, another dream image of yours that I loved was in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where the house is being consumed by the sea. I've had that dream too. Can you speak about how you brought that image to fruition?

Gondry: Charlie Kaufman had written in a very poetic way the memory decaying and I was trying to find a way to preserve that visually. I couldn't just use what he had written because some would be purely CGI and complicated. They read very good but I had to find my visual way to interpet them and keep the same level. So this idea of the background decaying was a thing we agreed with Charlie on the house being eaten by time in fast motion and then being drawn into the ocean was part of that. We took a real house, we put some sand in it, and then we put some walls that matched the same house into the ocean and waited [for] the tide to rise. We shot it there. By mixing those two with editing, we captured this feeling. It's the feeling when you're on the sand and the tide is going down and you feel the sand leaving below your body attracted by the water.

MG: Well, it worked. Clearly, lucid dreaming is of predominant interest for you: being aware of the dream experience as you are experiencing it. Or as the Tibetans would say, bringing a spark of light into the dark recesses of the human psyche. Are you familiar at all with the dream work of Carlos Castañeda and the shamanic practice of approaching dreams not as the psychic reworking of the day's refuse but the experiential chance to use dreams as gateways into alternative dimensions and universes?

Gondry: It seems I grew up with a lot of New Age belief and current implication. I [have] become very drawn to science and [I've] become a little—not scared—but a little differences with what people want to believe. I know of this person but it's the type of reading my mind would have over and over when I was a kid so now I am not drawn to that; I am more interested to try to read science magazines. I think they are more magical to me. It's the same way I find astronomy more magical than astrology.

MG: Understood. You've initiated a website where keywords in participants' posted dreams link into specific images from The Science of Sleep; what motivated that project, how's that working and what are you gaining from it or hoping that others will gain from it?

Gondry: It's just a way that people can share their dream. It's working well. I had some more ambition in the beginning. Technically, the time was too short to put them together where I see how I'm going to do this website. The idea was like it would be a real community of dreamers. We wanted to create a network … like a brain, if you will, with all the dreams of this community and they would be connected by theme. You would have this map with all these dreams that you could travel through. I recalled some of my dreams and I put them on the website but I got discouraged because I had too little control over this website. I lost interest in investing energy in it. I would like to do something more about community.

MG: Finally, I've been spending so much time discussing dreams with you that I've hardly touched upon the film itself. Are you pleased with The Science of Sleep? Did it achieve what you set out to do? How do you hope to further these dream themes in future film work?

Gondry: I don't think I would do too many other film[s] about dreams. I need to work with reality a little bit. But I'm pleased that people connected emotionally with the character, which was the most important thing no matter what you do and what subject you're talking about. I have to thank everybody around me who make me do this film and my actor who believes this character. They took some of my pain away, which is great.

MG: Well, Michel, thank you very much. You are a true purveyor of visions and I hope the film does well among the public. Thank you for the time; I appreciate it.

08/30/06 UPDATE: Via Dave Hudson at the Greencine Daily, Eugene Hernandez offers up a clip of indieWIRE's SoHo Apple Store Q&A with Michel Gondry, recapped by The Reeler, and YouTube.

ANIMATION—John Canemaker Presents the Animated Films of Winsor McCay

To celebrate the centenary of Little Nemo, the boy dreamer whose fantastic adventures in Slumberland are chronicled in Winsor McCay's dazzling early-twentieth-century comic strip series, John Canemaker delivered a special presentation at Pacific Film Archives based on his critically acclaimed, newly expanded biography Winsor McCay: His Life and Art. The lecture was illustrated with stunning images from the book, as well as 35mm archival prints (courtesy of La Cinémathèque québécoise) of four of McCay's greatest films: Little Nemo (1911, 3 mins), the first adaptation of a comic strip to a film format; the indelibly disturbing How a Mosquito Operates (1912, 6 mins); Gertie the Dinosaur (1914, 18 mins), the charming and infinitely influential animation McCay designed as part of a Vaudeville act; and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918, 12 mins), a somber animated counterpart to McCay's editorial cartoons. All four films were accompanied on piano by Judith Rosenberg.

This was a magnificent evening of cinematic education and bewonderment (a word I've had to invent to describe my feelings). I could literally feel my eyelids widening in amazement, trying to soak in as much as possible of what I was being shown and being taught about Winsor McCay by animation historian John Canemaker. Cinematic experiences such as these are far and few between. I've transcribed Canemaker's introduction and some of his commentary during the projection of the McCay animations to provide my readers a sample of this unique and memorable evening.

* * *

Once upon a time, a little over 100 years ago, on Sunday, October 15, 1905 to be exact, a pleasant surprise awaited readers of The New York Herald newspaper. Among their favorite color comic strips was a new offering from the prolific Winsor McCay. On the last page, a full newspaper page, this is what they saw [Canemaker projected the first installment in the Little Nemo series]. Little Nemo in Slumberland was unlike any comic strip before or since. For its creator the cartoonist Winsor McCay had represented a major creative leap far grander in scope, imagination, color, design and motion experimentation than any previous comic strip that he or his peers had ever attempted. For readers, Little Nemo in Slumberland became an exhilarating weekly fantasy adventure, a cartoon epic, a sustained drama both visually beautiful with a compelling cast of developing personalities, chief among them the boy dreamer Nemo. By the way, the model for Nemo—a juvenile everyman whose name is Latin for "no one"—was someone very important to Winsor McCay: his nine-year-old son Robert. [Canemaker projected a photograph of McCay with his son Robert in their Brooklyn house, up on the second floor where McCay created his wonderful comic strips].

Each week, McCay would slowly reveal Slumberland bit by bit as it gradually became clearer to him. This dream-like unraveling of the story was how Lewis Carroll discovered Wonderland and how L. Frank Baum led us to magical Oz: two classical works of fantasy of which Little Nemo is the creative equal. Week after week, readers were enthralled by an extraordinary array of ravishing imagery that stays in the mind like remembered dreams. McCay's virtuoso draftsmanship is irresistible when butterflies seek shelter from the rain under an umbrella tree, or the open mouth of a giant dragon becomes the traveling coach, or a walking talking icicle escorts us up the cold staircase of Jack Frost's palace, or a walking bed—who likes to get out once in a while—goes for a jaunt down the streets and across the roofs of 1908 New York City.

Within a year of its debut, Little Nemo was translated into seven foreign languages and Victor Herbert composed music for a lavish operetta adaptation of the script that opened in the fall of 1908 on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theater, the current home of Disney's The Lion King. Speaking of merchandising, the popularity of the strip led to numerous consumer products such as articles of clothing, sheet music, playing cards and other games.

Little Nemo in Slumberland, a child's version of the mythic theme of the quest set in a dreamworld, is quite simply the most beautiful and innovative comic strip ever drawn. It is ultimate eye candy. McCay's style combined a sensuous art nouveau line with subtle yet daring coloring. Architectural perspectives are stunningly rendered and sequential changes of characters and settings within the borders of the strip's flexible panels showcase the artist's natural gift for animation.

In his talent for vividly capturing motion in drawings, McCay may have been gifted similarly to Leonardo daVinci. Sir Kenneth Clark once described the extraordinary quickness of Leonardo's eye: "There is no doubt that the nerves of his eye and his brain were really supernormal and, in consequence, he was able to draw and describe the movements of a bird, which were not seen again until the invention of the slow motion camera." The same could be said of Winsor McCay.

Inevitably, McCay turned his artistic focus toward film animation and, once again, his work represents a quantum leap in the direction of that nascent art form. McCay distinguished his animation from his contemporaries by the sophistication of his drawing style, the application of narrative continuity, the fluid movement of characters, and his attempts to inject personality traits into those characters. He introduced a film version of Little Nemo into his vaudeville act. Yes, McCay was also a stage performer. He was a vaudeville headliner since he first "trod the boards" in 1906 and in his act he drew quick, "lightning sketches", as they were called, on a blackboard to a musical accompaniment and, yes, he did play the Palace.

McCay's first attempt at animation [was] based on his Little Nemo comic strip. Alone, he drew the nearly 4000 sequential drawings and the film played in movie theaters starting April 8, 1911. McCay also used it in his vaudeville act including a live action prologue at New York's Columbia Theater, which was located at 62nd Street and Broadway (it's no longer there). Audiences at the time were amazed by the lifelike animation. A contemporary reviewer said: "One is almost ready to believe that he has been transported to Dreamland along with Nemo and is sharing his remarkable adventures and it is an admirable piece of work that should be popular everywhere."

Four years after McCay's death in 1934, Claude Bragdon wrote: "I shall never forget McCay's first animated picture. In pure line on a white background a plant grows up and a young man plucks it and hands it to the girl beside him. That's all there was to it but it excited me greatly and no wonder; I had witnessed the birth of a new art."

Little Nemo

"As you are about to see," Canemaker prepared us, "there was a great deal more to this brief film." He commented on Little Nemo over Judith Rosenberg's inspired piano accompaniment.

Little Nemo begins with a live action prologue where Winsor McCay, identified by Canemaker as seated on the right, initiates a bet among his friends that he can make his drawings come to life. Said friends include John Bunny, the large man next to him who was one of the earliest screen comedians. McCay is then shown at his drafting board and the audience is provided a rare glimpse of how he drew his work. "He had the extraordinary ability to work with very little construction lines underneath," Canemaker advised. "He was actually able to start at the top of the drawing and work down and have it completed by the time he got to the bottom. When he made posters and billboards in the Midwest, he did the same thing. He would stand on a box—he was a rather diminutive man—and crowds would gather to watch this amazing thing happen in which figures would be drawn from the top of the image straight down to the bottom. Damon Runyon wrote about seeing McCay in the Midwest do this."

The main characters from the Little Nemo strip are introduced as McCay's hand on the screen draws them. On the left is the Imp, in the middle is Nemo himself in his full Slumberland regalia, and on the right is the bad boy, his nemesis, Flip.

"McCay wanted to make sure that you knew that he had drawn these characters, that he actually created them. This photographing of the hand of the artist is one the oldest visual motifs in animation. You've often seen it in many cartoons, including Chuck Jones' Duck Amok in which Daffy Duck is driven crazy by Bugs Bunny drawing him. Here he is making a big deal about bringing these drawings to life. [His friends] think he's crazy. Again he has to convince them—and you—that he is the god-like creator of these characters." Watching McCay draw his characters also emphasized that they were not yet moving so that when they "come to life" with very fluid movement—which Disney emulated some 20 years later—the effect is quite stunning.

Though the film states the animations were completed a month after the bet, Canemaker cautions that is, of course, not accurate. It took much longer because McCay was a very busy man. "He was doing his vaudeville act, he was creating these elaborate comic strips—not just Little Nemo but Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend and several other strips, including advertisements. So it took him much longer than one month to do this. Now, again, to emphasize how difficult this task is going to be, he staged this scene where barrels of ink and tons of paper have got to be pushed into his studio."

Canemaker describes McCay as "a very natty dresser" who was "always dressed up in a vest and custom made shirts with cuffs. He always wore his hat when he worked and smoked his little cigars; cheroots he called them."

McCay is then shown surrounded by tall stacks of original art from the film. On his desk we're shown a device, which reveals "how he pencil tested his work before there were pencil tests, which animators use to see if the animation is working smoothly. It's based on the old things from the nickelodeons where you go into see a photograph moving, or cartoons. This is not his house. This is a set. It was filmed at the Vitagraph Studios on Avenue M in Brooklyn. The Vitagraph Studios still exist. In fact, The Bill Cosby Show was shot there for many years recently."

The film then provides a close-up look at the original drawings. "They were made originally on very delicate rice paper and they were attached by glue in six places on cardboards that had registration crosses in the corners so that McCay could register them so they wouldn't shift all over the place. He would make crosses on the rice paper as well. The rice paper allowed him to see through several sheets of paper at the same time. At that time there were no peg holes or peg bars that they could attach the drawings to over a light table. That came a couple of years after this."

This demonstration in the film "was characteristic of McCay in real life. He didn't mind telling everyone how he created animation. He loved the art form very much. He wanted to get the information across to people so when people would ask him questions or come back[stage] after his vaudeville act, he would tell them how it was done." Further, the film shows how the film drawings were held and how McCay hand-painted each frame.

Canemaker alerted our attention to "the wonderful, fantastic perspective animation of the dragon as he moves out of frame. Amazing. McCay always contrasted the fantastic with the mundane." The film ends and Canemaker comments, "Yay, Mr. McCay!" He then returned to his presentation.

Winsor McCay's Biography

Let me tell you a little bit about Winsor McCay. Winsor McCay was born in 1867 in Canada and raised in Michigan. He was basically a self-taught artist who learned his craft through experiences on the open road and the exigencies of commercial deadlines. In Chicago, in 1889 at age 22, he was employed by a printing company that made circus posters. Two years later he moved to Cincinnati to work as a poster painter for the local dime museum, which was a popular combination of freak show, vaudeville and curio museum. In Cincinnati in 1891, he met and married Maude DuFour and the couple had two children: Robert and Mariam.

By 1898, McCay was an illustrator on the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune newspaper and he was a contributor of gag cartoons to national humor magazines such as Life. In 1900, he joined the Cincinnati Enquirer where three years later he created his first proto-comic page, Tales of the Jungle Imps, which ran from January to November, 1903. By November of 1903, however, he and his family were living in New York City. McCay had been hired by the New York Herald newspaper. [Canemaker then showed us a photo of bustling Herald Square, which was known as the Tenderloin at that time around 34th Street. He advised that Herald Square was named for the small, elegant Italianate Herald Building right in the photograph's center, designed by McKim, Mead and White.]

Fame quickly followed McCay due to the popularity of his numerous comic strips, including Little Sammy Sneeze, a boy whose violent nasal explosions wreak havoc resulting in punishment by rejection in the last panel, even though the subtitle said he never knew when it was coming. There's a wonderful one in which he destroys his own panel. Another strip starred Hungry Henrietta, a little girl with a voracious appetite, who adults ply with food instead of the love she really needs and wants. [Canemaker then showed us an example of "a disastrous meeting between Sammy Sneeze and Hungry Henrietta" wherein Henrietta, due to Sammy's not knowing when a sneeze is coming, ends up with food all over her face.]

Another strip—one of the greatest and most sophisticated and wittiest comic strips ever for adults is The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. Each week a man or a woman experiences an intense and often horrific nightmare usually in a mundane setting. In the final panel the disturbing dream is blamed not on drugs or alcohol but on innocent Welsh rarebit, which is a concoction of melted cheese cooked in cream and ale and served on toast. Yuck. These are wonderful nightmarish trips. [Canemaker then showed us an example of the strip "seen from the point of view of the deceased. Here's the dead person looking up at what people are saying, and they're saying terrible things. The wife is saying, 'Why did you leave me without a cent?' The priest is saying, 'He's no good. He was never any good.' A terrible nightmare."]

Then in 1905 came McCay's masterpiece Little Nemo in Slumberland. But, for the artist himself, he said it was his work in animated films that would always remain "the part of my life for which I am proudest." We will now screen both the second and the third of McCay's animated films—How A Mosquito Operates from 1912, which was based on a Rarebit-themed comic strip, this one, from 1912, and one of the most famous of the silent-era animated films ever made, Gertie the Dinosaur from 1914, which was also preceded by this comic strip version. Both films demonstrate McCay's growing interest in telling stories creating characters with distinctive personalities. McCay's tiny mosquito and gigantic dinosaur reveal personality traits that reveal their thought processes, and thinking cartoon characters, in turn, produce actions that affect audiences' emotions.

[Canemaker showed us some of the original drawings from Gertie the Dinosaur.] Again, seeing these up close you can see that there is a delicate rice paper on which the characters are drawn and then that is placed over cardboard with printed x's that the animator McCay would trace over and that would hold the drawing in place for him. The backgrounds were done by a young man who lived in the neighborhood named John Fitzsimmons, he was 18 years old, and I had the privilege of meeting him and doing a documentary film about him. But he had the nervewracking job to retrace that background that you see there on every drawing, on all the hundreds of drawings that McCay did, McCay did the character; Fitzsimmons did the background.

Like Walt Disney years later, McCay wanted to convince you that his cartoons were real and he did so through precise representational draftsmanship, smooth naturalistic motion and believable timings and effects. His visual sophistication [was] 20 years ahead of Walt Disney. Gertie the Dinosaur, in fact, was the film that inspired numerous artists who later joined the Disney Studios.

Gertie the Dinosaur

The date is wrong. It's 1914 when this film was made and exhibited. Again, there's a prologue. Again, it's McCay betting his friends—including George McManus, the creator of Maggie and Jiggs—that he can make an animated film on a prehistoric animal come to life. [Canemaker replicated what McCay would do in his vaudeville act and requested assistance from his audience to achieve McCay's earlier interactivity. Apparently, McCay would come out on stage and crack a whip and the projectionist would project Gertie on the screen and then McCay would make her behave.]

[In the scene where Gertie picks up a rock and flings it at Jumbo the mastodon, Canemaker commented, "I want to point out to you that in great animation the feeling of weight to that rock, having to drop it once and pick it up again adds a great believability. For animators to put weight into their characters is really quite extraordinary." Canemaker explained that McCay timed himself breathing in and out in order to get this sequence right where the dinosaur is breathing in and out. In the scene where Gertie drinks up the water in the lake, Canemaker once again drew our attention to how the ground gives way beneath her, another indication of believable weight. Canemaker then explained that McCay by this time would have walked offstage right, returning onscreen as the cartoon version of himself where he takes a ride on the back of Gertie.]

The Sinking of the Lusitania

The Sinking of the Lusitania, the evening's final offering, was McCay's fourth film of the ten films that he made. "This one took him nearly three years to make with the help of two assistants, one was John Fitzsimmons and the other was a man named Aptford "Apt" Adams, who was a buddy of his from Cincinnnati. It is McCay's first production using cels—celluloid acetate—a money and timesaving technique in which the characters were inked and painted on transparent celluloid and placed over opaque painted backgrounds. Released in 1918, The Sinking of the Lusitania is a monumental work in the history of animation. While it did not revolutionize comic cartoons of its time, it is a milestone that demonstrates the possibilities that the medium offers to creative animation filmmakers. The film's dark, somber mood, the superb draftsmanship, the timing of the animation, the dramatic directorial choices for camera angles and editing: all these qualities would reappear years later in Disney's mature work in his feature-length cartoons and in WWII propaganda shorts. The ship Lusitania itself, sailing serenely in the beginning, and then attacked and reeling from a fatal wound, and finally in an achingly slow death throe, suggests an amazing sentience and an emotionalism without overt or crude anthropomorphism.

"The incident was the 9/11 of its time. There's an eerie correspondence between the World Trade Center attack and the sinking of this ship and its unexpectedness on a placid day, and the imagery of falling bodies, smoke and fire and the helplessness of the victims. The Sinking of the Lusitania was widely admired but McCay's magnificent achievement could inspire only awe from his peers. It was way ahead of its time in 1918 in content and technique and far beyond the sensibilities and capabilities of contemporary animators churning out simple gags in films starring clowns, kids, dogs and cats."

[The Sinking of the Lusitania starts out with McCay conversing with a Mr. Beech who was a reporter for the Hearst papers. "There were no photographs taken of the disaster but Mr. Beech was the first reporter in Europe to get the details from the survivors. So he was telling McCay what he needed to know." Canemaker likewise draws notice to "a certain framing device around the image that's moving. Again, they still didn't have peg holes and peg bars so Fitzsimmons suggested that they cut out a book, cut out the center of a book cover and put it over the cels to hold them down, which is why you see this frame throughout." The Sinking of the Lusitania was a sad, beautiful piece. Its animation resembled lithographs. I was impressed with how Edith Rosenberg, who had never seen the film before, was able to play her piano straight to the dark heart of the piece.

* * *

So that was Canemaker's presentation on Winsor McCay. I hope my transcription has helped you take part in an event you may not have had the fortune to attend.

Thom at Film of the Year has provided a link to a creative French bio-fiction of Winsor McCay, which includes beautiful samplings of Little Nemo and a French rendition of Petite Sammy Éternue, which animates his sneeze via Flash Micromedia!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

ANIMATION—The Evening Class Interview With John Canemaker

"Noted animator and filmmaker John Canemaker interviewed his elderly father, John Cannizzaro, shortly before his death in 1995 in an attempt to better understand their turbulent relationship, which was plagued by unresolved conflicts and had often erupted in violence. The result of their final encounter, The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation received the 2005 Academy Award® in the category of Short Film (animated) earlier this year."

In the Bay Area to present two programs at the Pacific Film Archives ("Marching To A Different Toon" and "Winsor McCay: His Life and Art"),
John Canemaker agreed to meet me the day before his presentation. We were ushered into the old, quiet, Pacific Film Archive auditorium to have our talk. Since all I have seen of Canemaker's work is his Academy Award-winning short, I wasn't sure if I would be meeting someone bitter and angry. Instead, I found a kind, quiet man who exemplified Joni Mitchell's advice: "Heart and humor and humility will lighten up your heavy load."

Michael Guillén: John, I'm going to follow the lead you suggested to Rhett Wickham when he interviewed you several years back.

John Canemaker: You know Rhett?

MG: I don't know Rhett but I was reading his interview with you and you were joking, "Interview old people. They're like lobsters. Go for the head, that's where all the sweet stuff is?!"

Canemaker: [Laughs.] I can't claim that saying because that was from Janet Flanner. I believe that's her saying.

MG: Well, I really liked it. Not that you're old, but, if it's okay with you, I'm eager to pick your brains about animation because you are the "ambassador of animation"; that's how you've been billed. I know that you teach and I imagine that, as an educator, you must have some introductory working definition of "animation" for those approaching the field. Can you provide one?

Canemaker: That's rather problematic now. I've been saying we need a new definition of animation. The traditional one was drawings or objects that were moved frame by frame. I suppose—with the new technology and all—everything seems to be merging and melding together. However, I think if you wanted to be doctrinaire about it, the ultimate test of what animation might be would be life that is created rather than just photographed. That might cut out a lot of different things. It's amazing that so many so-called "live action" films wouldn't exist without animators—Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, King Kong, Lord of the Rings—aren't all of those allegedly live action? But you couldn't do what they do without digital film and digital animators to bring it to life. I don't have a definitive definition but it would be safe to say animation is movement that is created rather than just photographed.

MG: I tend to think of it as alchemy.

Canemaker: Yes!

MG: It's like you're putting life—well, things have life in and of themselves—but you're putting an animate life into something that you wouldn't think would be moving.

Canemaker: I always think that's the basic magic of animation: to see the naturally inert come to life. Even if it's alive. It just rivets. It shouldn't happen and we are just riveted by it. It's a form of magic, as you say, as alchemy.

MG: I recently saw Jan Ŝvankmajer's new film Lunacy, have you seen it?

Canemaker: Not yet, no.

MG: There's a scene where a shirt basically betrays the young protagonist. It gets up off the floor and opens the door to some people that he doesn't want in the room. I was so amazed watching that.

Canemaker: [Chuckles.] I love that.

MG: I haven't had a chance to see your complete body of work though I'm really looking forward to that tomorrow—

Canemaker: You won't see all of it tomorrow.

MG: —But a few more pieces than what I've seen. Can you say if there's a personal stamp to your work or an identifiable signature so that tomorrow—when I'm sitting there in your audience—will we be able to detect a continuity throughout your films?

Canemaker: My graphic signature is there throughout. Most of my films are rather like collage in a way. The style within it is identifiable as my own but it jumps around in technique or approach. Oftentimes when I start a film, or most times, I love the beginning part, the conceptual part, so I just let whatever happens happen in terms of grabbing, say, watercolors and trying something there for that particular part of the film. It's a very intuitive process. Or I might do gouache or I might say, photographs might work here, sort of just letting it flow at the beginning. I end up liking the concept stuff so much that I put it into the film. So you see in Bottom's Dream one scene will become another, one scene will be different from the other in terms of the graphic approach but I still think there's in totality something about me in that.

MG: That variety—as in The Moon and the Son—the variety of graphic images is compelling.

Canemaker: Yes, that's it. That's probably the ultimate, yeah.

MG: It expresses the breadth of your imagination.

Canemaker: It keeps you on your toes.

MG: Yes, exactly.

Canemaker: I like the look of process in animation, I must say. I love pencil tests. I love the Hubleys'
Moon Bird where you see not only the surround of the black oil paint that they did around the characters but also within the characters you see the pencil lines of the animator's nervousness, the creative process happening within the character itself. That's something that's totally unique to the form of animation and I love to see that. I love George Dunning's work. Do you know The Tempest?

MG: No, I don't.

Canemaker: He [attempted] to do The Tempest just before he died. He directed The Yellow Submarine. But he did these short films, one of them called Damon the Mower, and it's flip books. You see these drawings just coming to life, the mower mows things down and then things grow and reproduce and then the mower comes in and does it again. It's all in these little cards. You're seeing the process of animation and yet you're drawn into it.

Not to get too far afield but tomorrow you're going to see
Winsor McCay's work. He—like Disney—believed that you had to pull the wool over your eyes to convince you of the reality of what you are seeing. However, I tend to—I mean I love what they do, Disney, Winsor McCay, I'm a great admirer—but I believe that Émile Cohl and Tex Avery and George Dunning draw you in just as well with things that say, "I am a cartoon. Believe in me."

MG: What that's reminding me of is claymation. One of the things I love about the original King Kong or some of Ray Harryhausen's work are the fingerprints on these models that create a fluctuating texture to the pelt that is absent from a lot of CGI.

Canemaker: The human touch. Did you know that in the new Dreamworks film
Flushed Away—it looks like a Nick Park film and it is made by his company—but it's all CGI and they put thumbprints in CGI on the characters?

MG: Interesting! To try to get that old effect back?

Canemaker: Yes. I said, "Why go to all that trouble? Why not just do it in 3D?" The answer from someone who knew was that, yes, it would actually be cheaper to do it in the old way by hand but they would not be able to get the effects that they want with water and these incredible camera angles and things that you can do, really, only in CGI. That was the compromise.

MG: There's this false dichotomy that's been set up between hand-drawn animation and CGI animation, at least that's the way I perceive it. It seems like that's the way it's being presented to the public, that they're oppository somehow, whereas I tend to see them more as on a continuum or a spectrum, with all sorts of possibilities of blending between the two.

Canemaker: I agree with you. I think and would hope that the future—and the present—would take advantage of the wonderful smorgasboard of possibilities that are there in terms of technique. Why not mix, for example, Nick Park's characters and add your CGI effects to it? If you need to pull back from the characters, they can become CGI for that moment and you can obviously convince people that those CGI characters are made of clay if you need to. I think it's not taking advantage of all the possibilities of mixing and merging the techniques which I hope will be done more in the future.

MG: I think that creates a specific kind of magic. In your NPR interview you were bemoaning the loss of the abstract quality of hand-drawn animation that gets lost with CGI when it strives to become too real.

Canemaker: I think it's almost futile to try to be real with it. You should go with the qualities that it's strongest with, expressionistic qualities, its impressionistic qualities. I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal which got a lot of attention [chuckles] about Disney getting rid of its last hand-drawn studios. This was before the takeover by John Lassiter of the animation area.

MG: Was this the studio in Florida?

Canemaker: They closed the one in Florida but then they also closed the last one in Australia. They were doing beautiful work but they decided to close them down. So I wrote this piece and I said it was like throwing the baby out with the bath water. How could this studio which had perfected the art of hand-drawn animation in its own way not find a way? Where was the imagination in terms of how can we use this with CGI or continue with it in a new and different way? Well, now with John joining the studio, they are bringing it back. They are going to do, as you may know, another 2-D feature. They're starting to work on one.

MG: Another thing I was wondering about this false dichotomy was whether there wasn't some kind of corporate decisive mentality behind it?

Canemaker: It's a business decision.

MG: Not a creative one?

Canemaker: No, no. It's marketing and business and, gosh, CGI is really popular and we've got to get on the bandwagon and, gosh, are we going to support two different kinds of techniques, they're both expensive, this one seems to be the future, let's go with it. And then of course they push it for all it's worth. It's interesting. As costs come down—and they are—for software and hardware, you're going to see more independents, independent artists and filmmakers coming up with films that may not be for a mass market and don't have to be because they don't have the financial obligations to stockholders or to make a certain profit, 20% more each year, something like that. You're going to see much more variety in animation fare than has been offered in the past.

MG: Moon and Son is case in point, really. Who was your audience when you were thinking of that?

Canemaker: [Laughs.] Me!!

MG: Yeah. So you didn't assume that it was going to achieve the popularity that it achieved?

Canemaker: Absolutely not. People say how long did it take to make that film and I say 63 years. [Laughs.] But actually I apparently was thinking of it for a long time because friends have told me, "You were talking about that 10 years ago or 20 years ago you said you wanted to do something on your father." It's probably true. It's been of course in the back of my head all these years. I guess I got to a point where I'd done 30 years of films about other people and you'll see some of them tomorrow. This friend of mine was an actress and I did a film called Confessions Of A Star Dreamer and she just rambled on. It was like a Hubley real person soundtrack and then I took that and bounced around and commented on it with my animation.

A friend of mine was a stand-up comic. We're not showing that one tomorrow but he, again, talked about why he wanted to make people laugh. He would tell me and so I would animate to that. I've done films about children with cancer. I've done public service spots for AIDS. I've done films on child abuse. I'm going to show some of that tomorrow. That's the challenge. How do you find a way to do that in animation that is different from live action so that you're not emulating that technique. And you find ways to do it.

MG: Moon and Son prepared me in the way that it handled these difficult subjects regarding psychological trauma, psychological phobia. There's a film that's come out of Australia, Sarah Watts' Look Both Ways, have you seen it?

Canemaker: Animation?

MG: It's live action but her fears of disaster are rendered in animation and they're brutal.

Canemaker: Ooooooh, I'd love to see that.

MG: Which brings me to the point that in the United States, especially, we think of animation as Saturday cartoons for children, but, that's not really the international understanding of animation.

Canemaker: No, no. If you go to any of the international festivals,
Ottowa for example is a great one, and I've just come back from Brazil, I was in Croatia for the Zagreb Animation Festival and you see amazingly adult themes for these films, most of them short films. However, the point was that soon individuals or small studios will be able to create their own visions, their own nightmares and put them up on the screen, their own adult themes, and it will not be cost-prohibitive. It's already happening. Waking Life was done by a small studio in Austin, Texas.

MG: Do you consider rotoscoping animation or it is it just processed live action?

Canemaker: By that definition that I attempted to give, it probably isn't, it's rotoscoping, which is taking something; however, I think if you stretch the definition a little bit and allowed for the rendering of it, there is a drawn rendering, and some of the scenes did go more into an animation thing. What I felt Waking Life needed was an animation director rather than a live action director because there were moments when a face became a cloud. I thought, "Oh, that's great. That's nice. Metamorphasis and all that sort of thing." But most of it stayed very closely to the live action twitches and movements and all that sort of thing.

MG: What I like about rotoscoping or where I feel it goes into animation is it has a kind of alterity to it, an altered consciousness to it, which is what I feel should be one of the aims of animation, that it take you out of the world you know into an altered perception.

Canemaker: Yes. You can have the author's signature on it even though it is rotoscope. For example,
Robert Breer's animations. Or, again, George Dunning in Yellow SubmarineLucy in the Sky With Diamonds was all rotoscoped from old Fred Astaire movies.

MG: That was rotoscope?!

Canemaker: Some of it was, yeah. When he's dancing, it's Cyd Charisse. If you look at it closely. And then the paint smears and it's a drawing. There is a creative aspect or can be. Of course even Snow White, she was rotoscoped from Marge Champion's movements, but they had to alter her. She had to have a larger head. [Chuckles.] I don't know if you know this story [laughs], but, they put a football helmet on little Marge Champion for a few shots and it was terrible. So then they had to actually draw her differently; they had to elongate the bodice and enlarge the head. So they used the basis of the movement and they found out that the proper way to use rotoscoping is to use it creatively and to exaggerate it.

MG: That's so interesting! I remember when I first saw Waking Life, I thought about Snow White and the early Disney vehicles where the characters' movements were lifelike; but, I never made the connection that it literally was rotoscoping. Certainly as a child when I first saw Snow White I didn't know anything about rotoscoping and I just assumed everything had been painstakingly drawn by hand.

Canemaker: It just doesn't look good if it's strictly tracing over the live action. If you take a look at the other Lord of the Rings, it was heavily rotoscoped, and you could see the difference if you compare that to what was done in Snow White. There is that extra something.

MG: What I'm hearing, then, is that you do agree that rotoscoping is at least an animating tool.

Canemaker: Oh absolutely and more if it's in the hands of an artist like Robert Breer or someone like that.

MG: Was The Moon and the Son your first Oscar win? I read a mention somewhere that you had won another but I couldn't determine when or for what.

Canemaker: I did animation in a television special called
You Don't Have To Die, which was about a child's battle with cancer. The child—Jason Gaes—had written a book. We used the book as a basis. I redesigned the characters and everything but he would be there in live action talking about his treatment. It was for a film made for children. HBO produced it; they got the Oscar. It was mostly a documentary or … what do you call it when you restage something that happened that was real?

MG: A dramatization.

Canemaker: That's right, yeah. Parts of his book would open, that would be the animation, and then we'd go into it. But, again, it was a wonderful challenge for me. I had to show what chemotherapy felt like rather than what it looked like and animation can do that. You can personify emotions. You can become thought. I think I'm showing it tomorrow, but, it's child-like drawings, there's a vile, green liquid, it goes through a tube down into this cartoon child's arm and he's narrating it with his child voice from live action, we've cut to the animation and he says, "They put this liquid in your arm and it may hurt a little bit like a pin prick." Then you see the liquid go down and I fill him up like he's an empty milk bottle and the green liquid goes up and up and up and when it gets to the top of his head and then he says, "It made my hair fall out" [Canemaker makes a popping noise], the hair pops and floats down. Then I have him try to put it back on his head and he becomes upset and then he runs off in the distance. That was about 20 seconds. It got a reaction. It's a way that you wouldn't do in live action.

MG: That phrase you use about personifying emotion is a sterling point that definitely comes across in The Moon and the Son. There were emotions shown there that were, first of all, difficult to experience but, secondly, impressively articulated. I'm thinking particularly of the scene where your mother is defending you and your brother against your father's anger. Through these simple shapes and movements, so much was emotionally rendered there that I was really quite amazed.

Canemaker: Thank you. I'm rather pleased about that particular sequence.

MG: At the press Q&A after the Oscars—

Canemaker: [Laughs.] Two questions. [Laughs.] They didn't know what the hell to ask us, we're cartoonists!

MG: Sarah Baisley of Animation World Network focused on the fact that you had created something of a genre mash-up and wondered if, along with the former year's win—Ryan, another documentary-animation blend—if a trend was developing. I know that "mash-up" is a popular term these days….

Canemaker: Is it?

MG: Yeah, and I think of The Moon and the Son as something of a genre mash-up. You're blending the short documentary format with animation. I suspect audiences have become more cognizant of genre forms and are now genuinely interested in how film makers either pay homage to those forms, or break those forms, or how they combine those forms, and how these short documentary-animation combinations are being used to tackle difficult themes.

Canemaker: I never thought of that. We had a feeling that we were treading onto documentary ground but, again, I cite my heroes,
the Hubleys, as breaking through in that way as well.

MG: You make me want to go back and take another look at the Hubley animations. I saw them mainly in my late 20s-early 30s. I opened the first video store in the San Joaquin valley and stocked it full of animation, primarily because I wanted to see animation, and a lot had come out on video of the Hubleys—The Cosmic Eye and all these different ones—and I remember watching them and being very challenged because they were dealing with social issues, racism….

Canemaker: Overpopulation, pollution….

MG: …all these issues, and then also animating well-known art. I admired their incorporation of artwork from other ethnic cultures. Even when I was doing my collegiate training in Mayan iconography and epigraphy I was aware of the potential of this art style being animated. Patricia Amlin, I know, endeavored just that. She did a version of the Mayan epic The Popol Vuh by animating the line drawings of Classic codex-style Maya ceramics. And I've long considered the anthropomorphized depiction of animals in Maya art to be comparable to those in Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons.

Canemaker: How marvelous. I was once asked to explore
the Bayeux tapestries in animation and that would have been terrific.

MG: In terms of projects, you won your Oscar and you expressed your hopes that it would open doors for people to be more independently expressive in animation. Has winning the Oscar opened any new doors for you? You have an accomplished career already. Has winning the Oscar done anything new for you?

Canemaker: It's happened so recently—it was just March that it happened—and it's been like a juggernaut in terms of just keeping up with appearing places and doing interviews like this. It's going to slow down. I'll be on sabbatical next Fall for one year. There are projects that I hope—because of this—will attract money easier. There are things in the wind but it's mostly things that were self-generating. My producing partner Peggy Stern has a film on dyslexia that she wants very much to do with animation and so that may be our next large project. There's also a film we may be doing in the Spring on young scientists. So there are interesting things that are out there but I also have a couple of personal things I want to do. This was my third visit to Rio recently, and I just love it so much, I thought why don't I do a freeform thing like Bottom's Dream or Bridgehampton—which you'll see tomorrow—on Rio? And then there's a short story or two that I'm interested in, darker themes.

MG: I had a strong, personal reaction to The Moon and the Son. I had my own issues with the absence of my father, who left us when I was 3, so that my adulthood and my creativity has been recompense for that absence. Your film made me realize I was lucky, in a way, because I didn't have to deal with such a direct assault on my psyche. But either way—direct or indirect—what I've been noticing and observing in what I've been reading about your films and educational endeavors is a spirit of mentorship that has developed in your own creativity. It's given me pause to consider where the concept of mentorship comes from. In Homer's Odyssey, Mentor is the older man who counsels Telemechus over the years his father Odysseus is absent from home. In a situation where the father is absent a spirit of mentorship moves in.

Canemaker: What a wonderful observation. Thank you. That's very moving to me. Very touching. I never really thought of that. I have wondered why I'm so drawn to teaching, why I'm so drawn to research, writing about the past and trying to bring knowledge and history to people. That's a very good point. The thing too is that I absented myself really. I would say I was with my father maybe 11 years total. He was away for a year or so in the Army after I was born and then he went to jail for five years and I left home when I was 18.

MG: I know that for myself what I sought in looking for my father was something similar to your own track in the sense that—what I really took note of when I researched you—was your respect for your elders, for all the people that have mentored you, and who you have sought mentorship from: this is the creative recompense and an appropriate response to a father's absence.

Canemaker: I've always loved older people even when I was a kid. I used to love to hang out with older people rather than kids my own age who made fun of me. I had a difficult time with school when I was younger. That's a very interesting point. Did you find your father?

MG: My father passed away before I was able to find him. Just about the time when I was entering my late teens where I could have had the independence to seek him out, he passed away. His death left me with a strange—I always call it the "white shadow" after Raymond Carver—which is the presence of absence. Father was there in my mind, he was constantly there, even though he was physically gone. As time has gone along, I'm 52 years old now, I've become who I imagined I wanted my father to be. I find these processes interesting.

Canemaker: Yes.

MG: You have done ten books now?

Canemaker: Allegedly, nine, ten. [Laughs wearily.]

MG: You have done so many interviews with other animators, the "greats", over the years so I imagine you have a healthy respect for the interview process. If you were to interview yourself, what is the one thing you would want to know about John Canemaker?

Canemaker: [Long pause.] Why do you do what you do? I try to get at that with the other people I've interviewed. Why are you who you are? When I was a kid I would go to the library in Elmira, New York, and look up newspaper clippings on famous people and their biographies. I was always fascinated at the moment in that biography when they became who they were. How did it happen? It's like alchemy in a way. They struggled, they did this, they did that, and boom, they became that person and then it was gravy from then on, supposedly. [Laughs.]

MG: I like what you say about biographies. To me true biographies are spiritual documents of growth and becoming.

Canemaker: Yes, absolutely. You're a wonderful poet! You really are, you know that? I've never had an interview like this.

MG: Thank you. I'm glad because I was delighted when you agreed to be interviewed. Creativity is so various and I'm being fed by that of late. This last year has been sheer grace where I've been allowed to meet these bright minds and great souls. It fascinates me.

Canemaker: Life is a fascinating process if you let it happen. When I left home at 18, I didn't think I could go to college. No one in my family ever did. There was no encouragement. We had no money. I thought I was too stupid. I came to New York to be an actor and fool the public. I did it for 10 years. I made 30-some t.v. commercials and made a lot of money and did off-Broadway and summer stock and was drafted in the army for two years, came back, did more commercials. At the age of 28 someone said, "You've never been to college." So I put myself through at the age of 28 and that's when everything changed. That's when I could relax a little bit and say, "History. My goodness, that's interesting. And philosophy." I started to write. It was like a dam opening up. Education is a wonderful thing.

MG: You've obviously always had the germ to be an animator but when did it actually happen?

Canemaker: I did it when I was a kid. I did it back in Elmira when I would watch the Disneyland t.v. show and learn how to do it from that, and Walter Lantz and his show, the Woody Woodpecker show, it would show you how to do it. I made flip books and I made a little film about the history of animation, believe it or not. What the hell did I know? But I did it based on the television I'd seen and it was about 10 minutes long, 16mm. I didn't know what to do with my talent. Nobody knew what to do with it. So I didn't go to college and didn't think I had the smarts. I wrote a letter to Disney and they said, "Well, if you're ever out here, if you go to a college or something…." I don't know. It all happened anyway.

MG: The Moon and the Son has engendered critical dissonance. On one hand you achieved an Academy Award—a resounding endorsement for your work—while on the other hand some critics feel it is far too personal and an uncomfortably therapeutic rant poised as animation. Do you feel any need to defend yourself against your detractors?

Canemaker: No. I mean, it's a personal work that, as we said, I didn't think would go any further than where they usually go, which is showing to the Museum of Modern Art, becoming part of their collection. No, I think everyone has a right to their opinion. I really don't think it needs defending. It reflects more on the people who are writing about it or as much about me.

MG: People often ask me, "Are you a film critic?" And I say, "No, no, no, no. I have no interest in criticizing film. I want to celebrate film. I want to celebrate creativity. If I don't like a movie, I probably won't write about it. If I don't like a director, I'm not going to talk to them.

Canemaker: That's what I feel about writing too. I've never written something where I've damned something. I don't know how people can do that. It does something to your own soul, I think. I try to find something—as you say—to celebrate. I've never written about anybody that I've been out to "get" them. I always write about the truth about them, which is so interesting. When I did the book about the nine old men at Disney—I don't know if you've seen it—but these are people that are revered as gods. But I also found the human element in them too and gave them a dimension that, otherwise, would not have been there.

11/30/06 UPDATE: Ward Jenkins has conducted a fantastic two-part interview with Canemaker thoroughly detailing the events leading up to his Oscar win.

Part one.
Part two.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

JAPANESE CINEMA—Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain) / 雨月物語

I first saw Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of the Pale and Silvery Moon After the Rain) on Turner Classics one fateful idle afternoon earlier this year. San Francisco was socked in with fog and I was feeling under the weather. Invariably, I find myself drawn to vintage black and white films under such circumstances; they comfort me. With my honeyed Throat Coat cooling in front of me, I found myself disbelieving that so much beauty could pour out of my television set into my living room like the swirling mist on Lake Biwa, a beauty as fecund yet ethereal as the shadows of Lady Wakasa's Kutsuki mansion, ensorcelling me. I vowed to myself I would someday appreciate Ugetsu appropriately on a large screen. With the Pacific Film Archives' participation in the traveling "Unfolding Mizoguchi: Seven Classics" retrospective (currently in progress), and Shelley Diekman's gracious hospitality, my dream came true last Friday night.

Watching Ugetsu projected larger than life was even more satisfying than I anticipated. I was struck by how there is not one superfluous moment in this film even as it is dense with detail. The script is exact and the editing perfect. It is, unquestionably, one of the most complete cinematic experiences I've ever had and it is certainly right up there—as it is for many others—in my top ten. It makes sense that so much has been written about this film—and such great commentary at that!—that it's nearly daunting to add even a sigh to the chorus of praise. I commiserated with Shelley—and she concurred—that it is much more difficult to write about a masterpiece than something less than perfect. Ugetsu has proven that fact. The thesaurus simply does not have sufficient superlatives. Once again, image proves itself superior to description. Still, it's the nature of our vocation to try.

As Judy Bloch synopsizes for PFA's program notes: "In sixteenth–century Japan [the Senguko Era], with the pandemonium of civil wars a looming presence in their lives, the potter Genjuro [Mori Masayuki] and [Miyagi] his wife [Tanaka Kinuyo] long to be "rich and safe," respectively. But artistic vanity draws Genjuro into the paradisiacal realm of [Lady Wakasa] a phantom enchantress [Machiko Kyô]. In a parallel tale, Genjuro's brother-in-law Tobei [Ozawa Eitarô], out for military glory, achieves a general's rank for his fraudulent exploits—another acrid apparition. In Ugetsu, the all-too-real and the supernatural move steadily toward each other; a boat ride on foggy waters foreshadows the horizontal unity Mizoguchi will give his two worlds. For, just as his images overflow with life—characters forever running off toward more life outside the frame—so this reality flows into the phantom universe as well. Mizoguchi builds an eerie netherworld entirely out of what he is given in this one: shadows and lighting, decor and texture, and the graceful chicanery of human desire."

Written by Matsutarô Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda, based on two of nine stories by Ueda Akinari (1768) and sumptuously photographed by Kazuo Miyagawa, Sarudama's Scott David Foutz has suggested that—for all those interested in the recent J-horror craze—Ugetsu is required viewing, being possibly the first in the genre and "perhaps the first film to fully depict a Japanese perspective of the supernatural and its meaning." Foutz opines that the film retains a unique freshness even after 50 years because, unlike current fare like Ringu and Ju-On, its elements were not sequelized unto banality. He further notes the effective balance between Ugetsu's contemplative depths and its engaging, steady action sequences. Slant's Eric Henderson distinguishes Ugetsu from other horror fare because it neither startles nor shocks, but purposely and systematically foreshadows "every revelation through internal, formal echoes."

Criterion's dvd release of Ugetsu came in first place for the "DVD of the Year Award 2005" at Masters of Cinema and it's easy to understand why, though I've not had the opportunity to sample its many extras, other than for Phillip Lopate's exceptional essay "From the Other Shore", provided at the Criterion website.

Lopate outlines how Mizoguchi "perfected his signature 'flowing scroll,' 'one shot–one scene' style of long-duration takes" with Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) where "by keeping the camera well back, avoiding close-ups, and linking the characters to their environment, [Mizoguchi] generated hypnotic tension and psychological density." He describes Ugetsu as a "gender tragedy" where "men pursue their aggressive dreams, bringing havoc on themselves and their wives."

The first scene that mesmerized me was, of course, the "celebrated" Lake Biwa sequence where—reiterating Judy Bloch's apt description—"the all-too-real and the supernatural move steadily toward each other; a boat ride on foggy waters foreshadows the horizontal unity Mizoguchi will give his two worlds." Lopate concurs, stating, "the movie's supreme balancing act [is] to be able to move seamlessly between the realistic and the otherworldly" and describing the scene as "surely one of the most lyrical anywhere in cinema." Acquarello—who has written eloquently on several of Mizoguchi's films at his encyclopedic site Strictly Film School [which was just named one of the top five film journals by The Times UK]—understands the "coexistence between the physical and supernatural realm" in Ugetsu as "a reflection of the duality of the human soul."

The Lake Biwa sequence is likewise narratively pivotal because—as Jared Rapfogel has written for Stop Smiling—shortly thereafter, "the four protagonists quickly splinter off, thanks partly to fate, partly to their own misjudgments, allowing Mizoguchi to create a rich and complicated structure, the separate stories paralleling and commenting on each other."

Like those gorgeous painted Japanese scrolls that situate and diminuate humans against indifferent beautiful landscapes (and where the descriptive term "flowing scroll" derives), Mizoguchi achieves this effect through detailed background activity that did not register in the TCM broadcast but which dramatically drew into focus on the big screen, most notably in the scene where Miyagi is victimized by "the bestial behavior of the hungry, marauding soldiers"; a scene "shot from above, with a detached inevitability that makes the savagery more matter-of-fact, the soldiers pathetically staggering about in the background" while Miyagi, wounded, dies in the foreground. My colleague Frako Loden—who has singlehandedly taught me so much of what I know about Asian cinema, and who attended the PFA screening—was as thrilled as I was at this visual layering between foreground and background and its contextual landscape "surrounding human need."

Frako also made it clear to me that Ugetsu was one of the first wave of Japanese films to truly influence the international cinema scene (including Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell (1953), and Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953)). By winning the Silver Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, Ugetsu followed the European success of Rashomon (which likewise featured the remarkable Machiko Kyô) and confirmed the status of Japanese cinema in world film culture.

Speaking of Machiko Kyô, Lopate astutely notes how Lady Wakasa's seduction of Genjuro involves not so much her own alluring Noh-masked eyebrow-smudged beauty, but her flattery of his craftsmanship. She snares him through his artistic vanity, raising him "from artisan to artist" and, thereby, placing them "on a more equal social footing." How else could a lowly peasant gain the confidence to accept the love of such an elegant lady? How else could we, as an audience, believe the "breathtakingly audacious" segue from their steaming bath together to their paradisiacal lakeside picnic, made all the more poignant for being illusory, transient, and subject to betrayal? Yet, "[w]hile all appearances are transitory and unstable in [Ganjuro's] world, there is also a powerfully anchoring stillness at [Ugetsu's] core, a spiritual strength no less than a virtuoso artistic focus." Roger Ebert recalls Pauline Kael's own reminisce of gasping when she heard Genjuro proclaim, "I never dreamed such pleasures existed!"

Cinemarati's M.S. Smith quotes Susan Sontag as stating that the Japanese film tradition that includes Mizoguchi is "an incomparable model of beauty, moral seriousness, and emotional expressiveness in narrative art" and he articulates that "[i]n many ways, the experience of Ugetsu is one of visual and cultural immersion", which links into Mark Cousins' cover story for Prospect wherein he qualifies that the power of Ugetsu is not just in its amazing imagery but in the film's distinctive Buddhist and Taoist underpinnings which present a "different sense of what a person is, and what space and action are", thereby making them new to western eyes.

Catherine Russell's Cineaste review of the Criterion release of Ugetsu is equally noteworthy for its examination of the literary and historical underpinnings of the film and goes into lengthy detail of the dvd's extras. Her essay highlights some tasty gossip about Mizoguchi as well.

Phillip Lopate disagrees with Scott David Foutz that Ugetsu is—in essence—a cautionary tale. "Are we to take it, then, that the moral of the film is: better stay at home, cultivate your garden, nose to the grindstone?" Lopate enquires. "No. Mizoguchi's viewpoint is not cautionary but realistic: this is the way human beings are, never satisfied; everything changes, life is suffering, one cannot avoid one's fate." In his Senses of Cinema essay on Ugetsu Dan Harper relies on Donald Richie's definition of mono no aware: "that awareness of the transience of all earthly things, the knowledge that it is, perhaps fortunately, impossible to do anything about it: that celebration of resignation in the face of things as they are." This resigned acceptance of the way things are rather than an insistence on change and resistance to the status quo Harper identifies as one of the central themes of Japanese film.

Harper likewise describes what I found magical about the spectral representations in Ugetsu, especially in the scene where Genjuro rejects Lady Wakasa. She reaches to touch him and then recoils in sad horror because of the protective markings on his skin. She steps away from him, her corporeality swallowed by a shifting of light into shadow. These are not "your typical movie ghosts—created through double exposure or other special effects" but evocations of light and shadow realized by Mizoguchi and his cinematographer, the "irreplaceable" Kazuo Miyagawa. The Mizoguchi-Miyagawa team create the same magic at the film's transcendent ending.

Gary Morris's Bright Lights Film Journal profile of Mizoguchi culls out the biographical details that have influenced the helmer's oeuvre and he describes the film's ending: "Mizoguchi's ability to wring intense emotions from the smallest gestures is evident throughout Ugetsu, but particularly when the boy . . . goes to [his mother's] grave and puts a bowl of rice on it, the action punctuated by a simple bow, after which the camera cranes up and away. This scene works because of Mizoguchi's refusal to sentimentalize it, or any of the tragic events that preceded it."

"Unfolding Mizoguchi: Seven Classics" continues at the Pacific Film Archives Friday evening, August 25, with screenings of Street of Shame and Sansho the Bailiff at 7:00 and 8:50, respectively, continues Sunday, August 27, with a 5:30 screening of The Life of Oharu, and concludes Wednesday evening, August 30, with a 7:30 screening of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums. As mesmerized as Genjuro by the apparition of Lady Wakasa, I'll have to return to treat myself again and again to Mizoguchi's cinematic mastery. You should too.

Cross-posted to Twitch, where Logboy has likewise posted on the dvd releases of the Mizoguchi material as well as providing some additional linkage to Mizoguchi write-ups out on the web.