Saturday, January 23, 2010


Just a friendly reminder: our DVD editions of The Man Who Loved and Son of a Seahorse are going out of print at the end of this month. Newer, bells-and-whistles-ier versions (commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes, supplemental shorts) will be released later this year-- we're looking at late Spring and early Summer at the moment. But if you want to get your hot little hands on them now, for the low price of $15 each, NOW IS THE TIME TO DO IT.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Olivia Forever!!: Third Shoot.

Had our third shoot last night-- the first since way back in November. There was some delay in getting the equipment we needed, and by the time we got it, the holidays were upon us.

Here is where we'd usually put a few screen-shots from the shoot, grabbed during the late night video capturing session that usually follows a day of shooting. Today, we would be editing said footage, and thinking of the humorous anecdotes we would share with you in this space.

But, due to some technical issues-- amusing enough, issues that arise out of a recent (and generous) hardware upgrade that is going to result in the new and improved DVD releases of our prior efforts-- we can't actually connect camera to computer, which is the most pivotal step in this whole digital filmmaking thing. We have no way of knowing, in fact, if the footage looks or sounds as good as it did the night before, and we likely won't until at least next month when our upgrade gets an upgrade to restore that previous functionality.

If our last film, Son of a Seahorse, was remarkable for how smoothly it all went-- written, shot, and edited with sure-footed speed-- Olivia Forever!! is quickly becoming one of those films where there's always another problem, always another roadblock. Already we've been living with this film since November of 2008. We were supposed to be done with it by the end of last year, and we've hardly gotten started.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why and How I Saw Pearl Harbor

It was recently revealed on Twitter, to my everlasting shame, that I paid full price to see Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. Let me explain. First off, gym teachers are to blame.

As the Woodman once said in his infinite wisdom, those who can't teach, teach gym. Often held in ridicule by both the studentry and faculty, the gym teacher was given, at least in my school system, a special power to compensate for the complete lack of respect afforded to him or her: "the zero for the day". Often given as punishment for forgetting one's sweatpants, the Zero for the Day adds an empty grade each time it is given.

Say, for example, that the gym teacher gives twelve grades through-out the semester, each one worth ten points. Your final grade for said semester is arrived at by dividing your total-- let's say you're some sort of athlete and you got all 120 points-- to reach your percentage. 120 divided by 120 is 1 or 100%, an A+.

But let's say you forgot your sweatpants or swim trunks or what-not: you've got two zeroes for the day. So your 120 points is divided not by 120 but by 140 (ten for each empty grade) and your final grade is 85%-- a B.

But at some point in the history of this twisted saga, the other teachers got jealous of this sexy status symbol and soon they, too, were given the power to award empty grades, thus regulating gym teachers back to their sad existences of disrespect and alcoholism. These academic empty grades (as opposed to their athletic counterparts) are up to a teacher's discretion, and can be awarded for any number of reasons-- tardiness, smarting off, et cetera.

And in my final year of high school, my history teacher had this astonishing power at her disposal. My history teacher also had a pretty lousy grasp of history, often saying things that, well, weren't true. And when I corrected her on areas that were up for debate, she gave me a zero for the day. When I corrected her on areas of fact, she gave me a zero for a day. When I brought in evidence to support my assertions, well, you can see where this story is going.

I think I accumulated something like 160 empty grades, which basically ensured failure no matter how highly I scored on anything. There is a lesson to be learned here about the value of keeping one's tongue, et cetera et cetera, and the necessity of compromise to get along with others, et cetera et cetera, but I was eighteen or nineteen years old and was renting a room in Detroit instead of living at home and thought I was smarter than everyone, et cetera et cetera. While I still get furious when I think of history teachers disseminating lies as facts, I also think I made some very bad decisions. Probably 160 of them.

Since I did want to graduate from High School, I asked my teacher if, in all honesty, there was anything I could do to salvage my grade. Some kind of extra credit that could somehow bump me up from an E to a barely-passing D-. And there was. Since I liked pointing out factual errors so much, she suggested I see both Tora! Tora! Tora! and the newly-released Pearl Harbor and do a compare-contrast.

And that's why I went to see Pearl Harbor. But that's not why I'm telling you this story. I'm only telling you this story so I can share this one with you.

So, I go to see Pearl Harbor. And there's this guy in the theater, a veteran of World War II. Old dude, wearing the little pointy hat and uniform, with a walker. And for whatever reason he decides to sit in the top row; it's one of those big slanted theaters. And during the big bombing of Pearl Harbor sequence, this little old dude says at the top of his voice, so everybody can hear: "This is bullshit."

Then he slowly, arduously walks down the aisle and makes his exit. I did the same, bullshitted my way through my compare-contrast, and ended up with a D-.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Rohmer: The Bakery Girl of Monceau

A number of our friends are mourning the passing of director Eric Rohmer. Some people hold his work in reverence, others dismiss it as being too talky and lacking in le department du visuals. For a long time, I've been in the latter camp; Rohmer is one of those filmmakers I just didn't "get".

The only exception was his film Perceval, which I adore; it's a wondrous work of stunning, breathtaking artifice-- a far cry from the naturalistic mileau that's often associated with his work. Maybe my problem was that it was my first exposure; if you go into Claire's Knee expecting something like Perceval, you're going to be really disappointed. At least I was.

But to clarify, while I didn't "click" with Rohmer, I didn't out-and-out dismiss him, either; it was more of a "I don't see what you see, Person X, but I'll watch his films again someday and hope that I will". And, moved by the grief of others and intrigued by the articulate appreciations they have offered in the late director's defense, I've decided that today is that someday when I give Rohmer and his work another go, beginning with the first of his Six Moral Tales, The Bakery Girl of Monceau.

Mary and I had seen this film before a few years back-- shortly after the Criterion release. We were not impressed: we hated the male lead, finding him smug and a bit thuggish in his dealings with the titular bakery girl. But as such luminaries as Gregarious Glenn Kenny and Cataclysmic C. Mason Wells have pointed out in various corners of the internet, acting as if Rohmer is unaware of his characters' dipshittiness, or that he buys into it or endorses it, is missing the point.

This second time, we got a lot more traction out of the film's final ironies-- his assertion that he acted morally contrasting sharply with the way he bullies and practically strangles the bakery girl into agreeing on a date, or the way he won over Sylvie. We also found it pretty funny, especially the progression of pastry purchases. (This may have been helped by Barbet Schroeder's slight resemblance to Jeff Daniels.) The first time through, we didn't find it funny and thought it dragged; this time, it moved quickly, smoothly, sprightly: entertaining and thought-provoking.

As we tackle each new Rohmer film, I'll take a moment, as above, to construct two or three quick paragraphs and post them-- longer than a tweet, shorter than an essay. My hope is that the entries, taken together, will form this minister's favourite kind of narrative: one of conversion.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bluth Blogging: The Land Before Time

I have vivid memories of The Land Before Time scaring the shit out of me when I was six years old. The vicious Sharp Tooth (his flaring nostrils and hideous eye), the quakes that split the earth down its seams, the darkened sky, the deathly tar-pits, the just-plain-desolation of the dry, leafless landscape, the threat of starvation, the fragility of childhood friendship, and, finally, Littlefoot's aching loneliness. All scary, heady, and ultimately invigorating stuff when you're six years old.

It was easily the most foreboding animated film of my childhood, and growing up through the years I was beyond disgusted by the twelve insipidly happy-go-lucky musical sequels that followed it. I quickly discovered that Don Bluth had nothing to do with those films, of course, but I had to wonder: did the people responsible for those unholy twelve have any idea what made the original tick? Well, no, of course not.

What's surprising, though, is that the original's two producers, Spielberg and Lucas, might not have understood it, either. Deep cuts were made in both production and post (which helps to explain the film's abbreviated 65 minute run-time). The T-Rex attack scenes were truncated because they were too frightening; some sequences that put the young dinosaurs in peril were eliminated; screams that were too scary were changed to "more suitable" ones.

In fact, Spielberg and Lucas almost removed the death of Littlefoot's mother. This is the inciting incident, the death that not only starts the plot moving but out-and-out defines Littlefoot's character. Without the scene, there is no movie. Indeed, Littlefoot spends so much time mourning his mother that cutting both her death and his tears would probably leave about thirty or forty minutes of film.

It also makes the threat of Sharp Tooth toothless; he's scary because he kills Littlefoot's mother, not because he's a T-Rex (for, as any six year old would tell you, all dinosaurs, but especially a T-Rex, are not scary but "awesome"). The triumph of Littlefoot and company over their carnivorous foe is a triumph because Littlefoot is avenging the death of his mother. And we feel his pain not because she simply died, as Bambi's mother did, but because she died saving his life, rushing into battle with a foe over which she knew she could not win. She died because she loved him; in his mind and in many ways, that makes it his fault. His guilt and pain is palpable.

And though my twenty-seven year old self thinks that there are perhaps too many shots of Littlefoot with tears spilling out of his big ol' emo eyes, I still found the film to be frightening and his mother's martyrdom to be moving. And the fact that those aspects still work despite the best efforts of Spielberg and Lucas is a testament to both Bluth's artistic skill and tenacity.

There are parts that don't work as well for me; at a certain point, the moodiness and awe give way to a lot of annoying supporting character schtick, the sort of "zany" material that the creators of Rufio and Jar Jar no doubt wish there had been more of (and that the creators of The Land Before Time numbers two through thirteen made up for that perceived deficiency in droves). And yet those three comic relief characters (Petrie, Ducky, and Spike) are used pretty well in charting the dynamics of the group and the struggle between Littlefoot and Cera for leadership. The scene in which these three begin the night snuggled next to Cera but slowly migrate to Littlefoot, leaving Cera shivering and alone, until she, too, nudges her way into the pile effectively captures the insecurities and smug satisfactions of childhood.

Looking at the film now, I can feel the compromises Bluth had to make rather acutely; it doesn't have the same sense of flow, mastery, and answered ambition that The Secret of NIMH had. NIMH, in Bluth's own estimation, was the film where there was the least interference. While Spielberg might not have micro-managed as much when it came to An American Tail, the story was also the sort of harmless pap for children that Spielberg was interested in making. Trying to tell this particular story with those particular benefactors was perhaps doomed from the start.

Still, because the film doesn't quite "come together" as a whole, the film's ability to plug into the myriad and deep, unnamable fears of childhood has a smuggled-out, outsider-art sort of quality. And though it's no NIMH, neither is it any of its blasted sequels, nor Hook. Pyrrhic though it may be, I think Bluth was the victor in his battle with his producers.

It would, however, be his last until 1997's Anastasia. The five films he made in the interim were box office disappointments and received decidedly mixed (if not out-and-out terrible) reviews. The first of these, All Dogs Go To Heaven, is also the subject of the final (and most disappointing) installment of this series. See you then.

Friday, January 08, 2010


With some considerable new tools at our disposal, Tom and Mary Russell are proud to announce new-and-improved but every-bit-as-scrappy DVD releases of our films The Man Who Loved (2007) and Son of a Seahorse (2008), coming in 2010. Not only will each disc be given a spiffy packaging redesign, but each film is getting a new sound mix and a host of bonus features, including, yes, that holiest of holies, Directors' Commentary Tracks.

More details (sneak peaks of the new packaging, lists of bonus features, and release dates) will become available in the next few months. But as a consequence of this shift, the previous DVD editions will no longer be available for purchase as of January 30, 2010.

Now, if you want to wait and buy the new ultra-spiffy editions later in the year, that's cool and the gang. But if you can't wait to get your hands on some ultra-indie self-distributed goodness and want to buy the cheaper and (comparatively) bare bonesier editions we put out last year, now is the time to do it.

Each of these old editions retail for $15 and are eligible for Amazon's Free Super-Saver Shipping. But remember, these editions of The Man Who Loved and Son of a Seahorse will no longer be available as of January 30.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Bluth Blogging: An American Tail

Don Bluth and his team left Disney because the mouse had stopped taking risks, becoming stagnant and content to churn out one uninspired, safe, friendly, marketable, instantly forgettable feature after another. As we discussed in our last exciting episode, The Secret of NIMH was in many ways a direct challenge to what Disney animation had become; NIMH was idiosyncratic, intelligent, dark, unafraid to scare (and thrill) with its moody atmosphere and exciting set pieces. As an artistic achievement, it still holds up nearly thirty years later.

It was also barely-released, resulting in a less than stellar box office return. But it attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg, who produced Bluth's next film and ensured it got the distribution (and the box office) it deserved. That film was An American Tail, and while there were elements that were comparatively risky-- the film is, after all, a picaresque journey through nineteenth-century New York, centering on the travails of the very Jewish Mousekewitz family-- it lacks the ambition, atmosphere, and artistic achievement of its predecessor. In many ways, from its basic lost-child-looking-for-parents plot to its reliance on musical numbers in lieu of personalities, it plays it very, very safe. In this viewer's opinion, it is (and it really hurts to say this) not very far from the sort of animated film that Bluth was trying to get away from.

Compare the comic relief characters played by the inimitable Dom Deluise in The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail: NIMH's Jeremy the crow is a clumsy, helpful, would-be ladies man, whereas Tail's mouse-friendly cat Tiger is a more-than-blatant imitation of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion, a road that was already well-trodden by Snagglepuss. NIMH gives Jeremy the time to develop his unique and charming personality over the course of the film; Tiger's screen time is extremely brief.

And that would not be a problem if Tiger was intended to be just another part of Fievel Mousekewitz's journey, like the Boss Tweed-like Honest John or the wealthy Gussie Mausheimer. But Tiger becomes integral to the film's plot, freeing Fievel from his cage (mere moments after they've been introduced) and assisting the other mice in their later search for him; Tiger is intended to be Fievel's bosom buddy, a fact that is rather unconvincingly lampshaded in one of the film's musical numbers. Listen carefully to the opening musical cue, which apes one of the cues from a Bert Lahr number in The Wizard of Oz:

Now, I'm not going to grouse here or be overwhelmingly negative; the song is certainly catchy, and indeed, all the songs are (the songs in, say, All Dogs Go To Heaven, which we'll be discussing in our fourth installment, eh, not so much). And I certainly have to give Bluth and company props for allowing the child characters to sing in slightly-faltering child voices, a choice that's even more apparent (and moving) in the film's famous "Somewhere Out There" number.

It's smart, artistic choices like that that elevate the film above and beyond its contemporary competition. And it's not every film that comments obliquely on the loss of identity inherent in the immigrant experience, made most explicit in the way Fievel is renamed Filly and his sister Tanya, Tillie. For what it is, the film certainly works, but that thing that it is is awfully ordinary when compared to the more idiosyncratic Secret of NIMH.

As I detailed in some, er, detail last time, NIMH was able to sustain suspense and terror for extended and often breathtaking sequences. There are moments in An American Tail that flirt with that terror-- consider, for example, Fievel finding himself working in a sweatshop. Here is a sequence that is positively ripe with phantasmagorical possibilities, possibilities that are denied when the film cuts immediately from the sweatshop's introduction to Fievel making good his escape. All the cats in this film put together can't equal the dread inspired by NIMH's old cat Dragon, he who made a widow of Mrs. Brisby; these cats have already been neutered (or spayed) by a musical number.

And, sure, it's a damn catchy number! (Me and the missus, being both of us ailurophiles, also consider it a form of hate speech, but that's neither here nor there.) But by making the death-by-feline "fun", it also makes them no real threat at all, simply a cartoonish plot device to be swatted aside by another cartoonish plot device. The film does not threaten or confuse, but assures us through-out, with each chorus or zany character, that everything's going to be just fine, that there's really nothing at stake.

It's the sort of thing that entertains children but is frankly slow-going for adults, and I'm sure some of you are saying, well, then what are you complaining about? But I keep coming back to C. S. Lewis and his essay "On Three Ways of Writing For Children". The whole of it is well worth reading and serves as a nice all-purpose debunker of those who think children's entertainments should be less than those of adults. But specifically there is this:
Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can't bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us -find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.

And also this:
And I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable.

In his next film, and to his credit, Bluth is not afraid to make us afraid, and lonely, and ballooned with a terrible grief. Unfortunately, Spielberg (and Lucas) were afraid to do just that, and the compromised work that survived is the topic of our next discussion. See you then.