Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas


Like last year, a Christmas one sheet of a Disney short, this time with Mickey and Pluto in Mickey’s Good Deed (Gillett, 1932). The holiday wreaths (Scott #3245-7) are part of the same set and match up with the wreath in the window. Depression era B&W Disney are far better in both humor and nuance, with lots of nice detailing in the animation and a greater gift for character design without being afraid of surrealistic elements. And there are still emotional touches that are charming.

May your Yuletide be full of food, fun, and fellowship.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Grim Burton


There are two types of Tim Burton movies—ones which are largely original, inventive, joyful, and inspired: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, The Corpse Bride. And then there are the adaptations. (shudder)

Despite the assumption that he loves these properties he chooses to embrace, he seems to have an underlying contempt for them too. How else to explain the turgid Sleepy Hollow, the embarrassing Planet of the Apes, the woeful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? And now the abysmal Alice in Wonderland, which appropriates all the trappings of Carroll but none of the cleverness or sophistication. It's an ugly movie, and an unfortunate one.

Although they have a decidedly dubious record with adaptations, too (even recent “classics” like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast can’t hold a candle to Andersen or Cocteau), the people at Disney managed to maintain a sly, misanthropic perversity in their 1951 version, perhaps the last time the studio embraced a truly surreal sensibility in its animated features. But for a real innovative adaptation of Carroll—true to the spirit but still singularly original—you need to pursue Jan Svankmajer’s remarkable stop-motion Alice (1988), or the fantasy sequences in the small treasure Dreamchild (1985). Both are quirky, visceral, and visionary.

As for Johnny Depp? His creative marriage to Burton used to highlight a quirky worldview in the interesting, underrated actor of the ‘90s. But now, in the days of the ever-more-tedious Jack Sparrow, it just feels like artistic laziness. Even the Oscar nod for Sweeney Todd is explainable only if you’d never heard a single cast album of the brilliant musical—in short, a worthy effort that longs for someone with real singing chops and not just brooding and viscera. Depp used to actually appear in fantastic movies: Dead Man, Donnie Brasco, Ed Wood. But that seems like a lifetime ago.

The Disney stamp releases of Alice (Scott #3913) and Peter Pan (Scott #4193) were an excuse for me to pull a few other postcards from my collection. This Alice illustration doesn’t have an ounce of cutesiness in it and more closely resembles the 1979 British Alice stamp, which I piggybacked on the FDC of the Queen of Hearts USPS Love stamp release (Scott #4405). The Cayman Islands stamp I ran across as a happy accident, and had enough of a pirate feel to marry to the Peter Pan postmark and the one-sheet of the first Pirates flick.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gotta Dance!


The Frank Sinatra stamps (Scott #4265) I used on these two musicals, On the Town (Donen/Kelly, 1949) and Anchors Aweigh (Sidney, 1945), only serve to remind us that Gene Kelly has yet to receive a stamp from the USPS. The fact that Fred Astaire also hasn’t been recognized made me think...are they preparing a Great Dancers issue? Still, the omission is quite conspicuous, especially since Judy Garland has gotten two already, completing the triumvirate of the most important actors in the history of the American musical.

I’ve always been a much bigger fan of Kelly, not because he was a better singer than Astaire (he wasn’t) or dancer (it’s a tie), but because he always seemed far more accessible. In his films, Astaire usually played a dancer. But Kelly played a soldier, sailor, ball player, actor, artist, ordinary working Joe. He wore khakis, not tuxedos. He was graceful, but also athletic. And while Astaire was usually kept apart from his love interest by circumstance, contrivance, or crossed wires, Kelly’s worst enemy was typically himself. He didn’t mind playing the heel, being unctuous and pushy. And sometimes, that shit-eating grin can annoy as much as charm. An American in Paris (as beautiful as it is overrated) makes him a little too insufferable for my taste, stalking, rather than seducing, poor Leslie Caron.

But more often than not, that smile was a façade to darker recesses, for he was a far better actor than Astaire, tapping into his characters’ emotional depths and neuroses that played out in choreography that often was as tortured as it was jubilant. Astaire had a delightful, feather touch that played counter to what felt natural if forced to portray a bad guy (Exhibit A: Yolanda and the Thief). But Kelly understood that such brazenness was a double-edged sword, that he could steamroll you with his energy, and that self-awareness makes his best performances (The Pirate, Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather) both charming and provocative.

A great comparison is between Town and Aweigh, for while he’s mostly a goof and a jerk in the latter, he’s wonderful in the former, finding a perfect pairing with Vera-Ellen while still being exceedingly generous with his hugely talented co-stars: Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, and Jules Munshin. Town was the first film he co-directed with Stanley Donen (himself, vastly underappreciated for his contributions to so many 50’s musicals), but except for the ballet sequence, Kelly plays to the strengths of the ensemble instead of hogging the show. Town is also the far better musical, despite abandoning huge chunks of the original stage show, with one boisterous number after number. Aweigh is now mostly remembered for the inventive dance Kelly has with the animated Jerry the Mouse.

I was lucky to find two related stamps that fit perfectly with both the theme and the color scheme of the respective one sheets. The New York Skyline is an Air Mail stamp from 1947 (Scott #C35) and the Navy stamp (Scott #435) is from a year earlier. Note how Jose Iturbi gets prominent billing in the latter, because the one-sheet itself is Spanish.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gone, but Not Forgotten

Even though I’m early by a few months to the exact date, 2010 is the 70th Anniversary of George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940) and another example where biding my time ended up paying off in a big way with my FDCs. I got this card after Cary Grant (Scott #3692) and Jimmy Stewart (Scott #4197) were already issued, so when the wedding set of ring and cake stamps came out (Scott #4397-8), I was tempted to try to squeeze the actors in as well. But while some stars may be Maybes when it comes to a future USPS release, I always knew that Katharine Hepburn was a Mortal Lock, so it seemed preferable to just wait and get all three lined up under one postmark eventually. Little did I suspect that her selection would happen so soon. And as you can see, the result is a real winner.



Many of the stamp designs in the Legends of Hollywood series have been serviceable at best, but I have to say that Hepburn’s is beautifully rendered and probably the most striking of not only the series, but of any USPS issue in recent memory. Aside from Hitchcock’s, it’s the only one in black and white, and the key light is very effective, creating an incandescent quality to an already terrific image. It’s an absolutely lovely tribute to a marvelous actress and to an era in Hollywood that is just a memory. I think it’s also interesting that, unlike Cary & Jimmy, she’s not looking at the camera, but upwards, as if pensively deciding which of the two to choose. Another nice touch is that the suit Stewart is wearing in the stamp is the exact same suit he’s wearing on the one-sheet! Got really lucky there.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Philadelphia, its “classic” status notwithstanding. It's superbly acted, of course, but still never quite feels divorced (ha!) from its stage origins, and I still think it suffers a little when compared to either the magnificent His Girl Friday (also w/Grant) from the same year, or Bringing Up Baby or even Holiday, which Grant & Hepburn made together two years previously. Engaged to uptight fiancée George (John Howard) and pestered by her roguish ex, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), Tracy Lord (Hepburn) has, the day before her wedding, an encounter with visiting reporter Mike (Stewart)—one that’s brief but which still proves formative in allowing her to fully realize what she knows she wants deep in her heart.

Like my real life persona, this blog has never really been eager to share many personal revelations. I usually prefer to play things close to the vest. But today being my 40th birthday, I’m feeling unexpectedly wistful. For a long time, I was never quite convinced by this connection (for lack of a better word) between Tracy & Mike. Mike knows that he’s not right for her, but he still falls and falls hard. And as fate would have it, he is exactly what she needs at that moment, for the circumstances around their connection compel her to decide between Dexter, the man she was meant to be with, and the rigid and judgmental George. I’d always wondered if you could really spend less than 24 hours in someone’s company and still know that you wanted to share a lifetime with them. Romantic comedies are usually designed to sustain us with fantasies about fate and resolution, closure and kismet; whereas the truth was that in the real world, it was always more common for me to feel like a Ralph Bellamy than a Cary Grant.

Yet, fate sometimes has a funny way of completely subverting all your expectations. Because, for one incredible series of moments, I became a “Mike” myself (I was told once that Sept. 30 is a good day for Mikes). As the Dire Straits song from their album Making Movies goes:
Juliet, the dice was loaded from the start
And I bet, and you exploded into my heart
And I forget--I forget--the movie song
When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong?
Even now, watching The Philadelphia Story feels a little like picking an old scab--one that still feels fresh. Mike proposes to Tracy, out of chivalry but also out of love; acting as a trigger to her awakening allows him to recognize something new and exciting in him, also. And a lifetime with a smart, spunky, creative, charismatic beauty--who wouldn't want that for themselves? But we know better. And so does she; she belongs to Dex. But after Tracy & Dex find their happiness, I still wonder about Mike--both his legacy and his loss. And sometimes, this Mike still wonders if his Tracy/Juliet ended up with a George or a Dexter. I always hope the latter, though if he’s anything like most of us guys, he’s probably a bit of both. For things are rarely as clear and clean-cut as in the movies.

Remembering things, both personally and institutionally, is an impulse that we can rarely escape. Birthdays commemorate another year gone by. Stamps memorialize our history and our shared and varied culture. Movies so often act as a record of our dreams and idealizations. And for me, even the happiest of films in the most happy of times still evoke that low-lying poignancy, of being that Mike on the margin and the distant echoes of that singularly special Friend and Lover, dearly missed, gone but not forgotten.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Cloud Nine

Tammy was 17 and both a sweetheart and a diva. Biggie was quite a bit younger and the friendliest cat I ever met. And in the span of the last 3 months, they both had to be put down, and the homestead is not the same. Ever since her brother Max died (another amazing kitty), Tammy would sleep every night on my pillow. Biggie could have his belly rubbed for hours, and would intrude incessantly if he saw you working in the garden. Her spirit was strong but her kidneys gradually failed her. The tumor in his lung came out of nowhere and in a matter of weeks had overwhelmed him. She doesn’t lecture me anymore if I stay up too late. He no longer appears out the backdoor, waiting to be fed. And I miss them both terribly.

With cats on the brain (but no longer on my lap), I found this postcard and ran down a few older feline stamps to pair up with the recent Garfield issue:

Krazy Kat (Scott #3000e)
Sylvester & Tweety (Scott #3204)
The Lion King (Scott #3867)

Plus, the cat from Bright Eyes, a postal strip of cartoon animal stamps (Scott #3232). I could’ve also included the Cat in the Hat stamp from the Celebrate the Century series, but the Seuss creation never really looked or felt like much of a cat to begin with.

I suppose I’ll add more cats to the postcard (as well as my home) at some point, when the time is right. But for now, RIP to two truly irreplaceable kitties.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Quilt by Association


While most of the time, the stamps I use for these covers apply to the movie posters in question for obvious reasons (a film’s star) or tangential (a location or subject matter), sometimes, I choose them for purely visual reasons alone.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend postal issue presented itself with an interesting opportunity because, while having nothing to do with film, the beauty of the quilts themselves I knew I could pair with some of the one-sheets in my collection—in this particular case, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, 1953) and Darling (Schlesinger, 1965).  I think the results are interesting and striking.

These two particular stamps are Scott # 4092 & 4097 respectively.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Plastics

Toy Story 3 is a triumph.

I, for one, had my reservations.  While I feel the original is about as good as animated films get, I’m one of those people out there who didn’t actually care for the second film very much.  Pixar has prided itself as a brand known for original thinking, but Toy Story 2 seemed larded with the easy type of meta-humor (Star Wars reference? Check; Star Trek reference? Check; etc.) which dates quickly and pulls me out of the film.  The movie has one show-stopper—the heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” flashback song—and plenty of funny energy, but the pervasive resorting to topical gags seemed more in the spirit of Family Guy (and that is not a compliment).

But Toy Story 3 plumbs emotional depths I wasn’t expecting, especially exploring the darker recesses of rejection, resentment, and petty tyrannies that resonate far beyond the playground politics of childhood.  Plus, the film has the courage of its convictions, taking us to the brink of a truly apocalyptic ending that is both terrifying and profoundly moving, while also providing us with one of the best deus ex machinas in recent memory, earning its stripes and never, ever feeling like a cheat.

But the one thing to which I’ve never been able to relate in these films is the emotional attachment Andy has to his toys.  They are not only springboards for his imagination; they are also his Friends, virtual proxies for a social life.  We see through the series the extent to which he personalizes that connection, having his toys as constant companions in his childhood, and caring about their fate practically into adulthood.

I guess that’s what I don’t get.  My toys were just my toys.  They weren’t confidantes, or buddies, or security blankets.  I didn’t invest them with larger personalities, didn’t attach emotional significance to them.  Did anyone?  I honestly don’t know.  I didn’t have a bad childhood by a long shot, but I did have a fairly isolated one.  I didn’t have many friends, rarely went to other people’s houses or got invited places, so I honestly don’t have a frame of reference on what other kids or families did.  My Dad was loving but logical.  An engineer, so empirical.  I never believed in Santa, never had a fantasy life indulged or a creative streak nurtured.

When my mom moved up to the Bay Area, selling the house we grew up in and Dad died in, she had an estate sale, which included all the stuff in my room, from my childhood.  Walking down memory lane that one last time, poring through artifacts, was fascinating but rarely sentimental.  Growing up, for me, was about ostracization, frustrated opportunities, and a singular awareness of how alone I was in the world.  

That’s why movies that are fueled by nostalgia, like Stand By Me or American Graffiti, do very little for me.  Because when it comes to that period of my life, I never look back with fondness or warmth.  It was just passing time until my Life could really start.  And maybe, in that sense, I’m not unusual either.  I just don’t know.

So for me, the first Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995) remains the best, because it doesn’t obsess about that relationship the way the other two films do.  That film is about self-actualization, coming to terms with who or what you are, on your own and in the community to which you’re tied.  It’s that sense of community that carries through all three films and serves as the vital backbone to the series (helped by a marvelous cast). 

As for the estate sale, I did sort through all my toys.  I don’t have any children (and likely never will), but I have two nephews, and I passed on a number of my old toys to them—not because I felt the toys deserved to be played with, but because I thought Josh and Caleb might get a lot of mileage out of them.  That’s the relationship I understand.



OK, maybe a few of the Star Wars action figures I kept.  As collectibles, you know.

Gene Autry (Scott # 4449)was part of the Cowboys of the Silver Screen series, while the flying spacemen (Scott # 2473) was part of a science fiction issue.  Yoda (Scott # 4205) was its own release, separate from the Star Wars issue earlier the same year, which included Boba Fett (Scott # 4143j)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cinema Centenary

I don’t read Russian but the dates suggest that this is commemorating Vera Kholodnaya (1893-1919), whose film work predates the better known silent cinema sparked by the Revolution starting in the early 1920's. I've never seen any of her pictures, but she was a stage actress who had some crossover success in films before her death.

But I got this envelope because of the very neat postmark with the motion picture camera and the length of film, a pretty unusual illustration to run across. I'm assuming this is commemorating the centenary of cinema, though the date illustrated here (1893) is a little earlier than most citations.


Sarah Bernhardt was probably the most famous actress in the world at the turn-of-the-century, and she had a few celebrated motion pictures, too--mostly recreations of her stage successes. This French stamp was issued in 1945 (Scott #B191) and nicely complements the illustration of Bernhardt on the card. The postmark is from 1949 so isn't a First-Day-of-Issue, but a regular postmark. Both items were choice finds at Westpex.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Orchestral Maneuvers


Fantasia celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and still remains a hot mess of a movie. Back in 1940, there was no “animation”; there were just cartoons, so as a testament to Walt Disney’s ambition in merging cartoons with high culture, it still gets plenty of appreciation in this corner. And some of the pieces remain quite striking, particularly Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Ponchielli’s deadpan ballet parody “Dance of the Hours”. This latter piece shows that Walt didn’t take the enterprise too seriously—that he could create images that were playful as well as nightmarish, with Mickey's Dukas number being an effective hybrid of both.

But the rest is a mixed bag. “Ave Maria” is lovely and reverent, but changes the original Schubert to the point of distraction. "The Nutcracker" is fun but slight, while the exercise in abstraction for the Bach remains rudimentary. And the bad remains bad, with the garishness of Beethoven’s "Pastorale" sequence trivializing the epic beauty of the symphony itself.

Probably the most daring piece is the most recent classical selection, too: "The Rite of Spring". This is the most interpretive of the pieces, taking the chaotic vigor of the Stravinsky and translating it to prehistoric times. It’s an inspired choice, and while it necessarily neuters the raw sexuality implicit in the number, it still works great as drama and animation. However, the primeval world only reminds me of an ever more audacious dinosaur dance—"Bolero" in Allegro non Troppo (Bozzetto, 1976), a largely farcical Italian spoof of Fantasia using the same conceit of an animated orchestral program. But while Disney's dinosaurs are faithful to a certain realism, Bozzetto’s version is a highly stylized fable, showing how an alien coke bottle ignites the spark of Life that, like the Ravel, builds and builds and builds into a grand march of evolution and survival of the fittest that is clever, funny, and haunting all at once. I’d easily take it over Fantasia in its entirety.


We’ve seen the 5 Mickey releases before (including a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" stamp itself) with the matching First Day of Issue postmarks. And the American Filmmaking series should be very familiar by now, too (Fantasia did indeed win 2 special Academy Awards at the time). The challenge was to find as many related stamps as possible and incorporate them into the body of the card. In chronological order, the seven additional stamps listed are

Walt Disney (Scott #1355)
The Age of Reptiles (Scott #1390)
Music Instruments (Scott #1614 & 1813)
Igor Stravinsky (Scott #1845)
Leopold Stokowski (Scott #3158)
Ballet (Scott #3237)

With 6 separate postmarks (all in sequential years) and 13 stamps total, this remains the most complicated single postcard within my collection.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Point Ache


Congrats to Kathryn Bigelow for being the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. Though highly-praised in some circles, I find Point Break, which she made back in 1991, is a joyless absurdity, with laughable performances across the board. I think Swayze and Reeves get a bad rap sometimes, but here they’re hopeless, fighting tooth and nail to see who can be less convincing—a renegade FBI agent or a craptastic hippie surfing guru. Bigelow has chops and has managed to create some flawed but engaging films from questionable material (Near Dark, Strange Days). But Point Break is epic loads of d-u-m-b. Here’s hoping, post-Hurt Locker (an undeniably terrific film) that she isn’t relegated to grade-B material anymore, even if she notches a failure or two on her belt (like many Oscar-winning male counterparts have).

Point Break doesn’t take place in Hawaii, but I used the statehood stamp because of the surfing motif.

Monday, March 1, 2010

2009 Yearly Wrap


Gary Cooper, Scott # 4421


Bob Hope, Scott # 4406


Classic Television sheet, including The Lone Ranger, Scott # 4414m


Wedding rings, Scott # 4397


The Simpsons, including Bart, Scott # 4401


50th Anniversary of Hawaii, Scott # 4415


Love stamps, including King of Hearts, Scott # 4404


Friday, February 19, 2010

Having a Ball


Of all the contrivances and far-fetched situations in Pretty Woman, the one that brought me most out of the movie was when Vivian (Julia Roberts) sits down to watch I Love Lucy and claims to have never seen the episode airing (“Lucy’s Italian Movie”, with the wine-stomping sequence). How in the world could someone from my generation make it to their mid-20’s and not have seen that? Growing up, Lucy was ubiquitous, airing constantly in endless rerun loops, a touchstone (along with The Twilight Zone) to television’s past that everyone seemed to have in common.

Of course, before Ricky & Ethel & co., Ball was a movie actress, though I’ve only seen a handful of her pics (most notably the entertaining Stage Door and Dance, Girl, Dance), though that’s still probably more than most. And she's terrific. She also had some turns on the musical stage, but it’s in that New York apartment that she’s best remembered, for it’s hard to imagine any movie showcasing her brilliant comedic timing & physicality as well as all those Lucy episodes. Being a child of an interracial couple, her marriage to Arnaz (and the inherent culture clashes involved) seemed perfectly normal to me, so I failed to see how ahead-of-its-time it was (as was her pregnancy on the show). It’s also interesting that the first time I ever encountered the name of Karl Freund, the extraordinary cinematographer of Metropolis, Dracula, and Camille, was on her show, where he helped pioneer multi-camera sitcom shooting. So in the movies, she was an able ensemble player, while on TV, she was nothing short of an hilarious revolutionary.

Ball is one of only three women in US Postal Service history to be on at least 3 different stamps (the others are Queen Isabella and Eleanor Roosevelt). The first, from the Celebrate the Century series (Scott #3187l),matches the postcard I had very nicely. The other two are from the Legends of Hollywood series (Scott #3523) and Early TV Memories (Scott # 4414b)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Oscar Ballot


Picture: The Hurt Locker
Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Actress: Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Actress: Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Original Screenplay: A Serious Man
Adapted Screenplay: In the Loop
Cinematography: The White Ribbon
Art Direction: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Editing: The Hurt Locker
Costume Design: Bright Star
Score: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Song: “The Weary Kind”, Crazy Heart
Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Sound Editing: The Hurt Locker
Visual Effects: District 9
Make-Up: The Young Victoria
Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon
Animated Feature: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Animated Short: Logorama
Live Action Short: The New Tenants

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Color Me Bor3d

Well, Avatar is now the phenomenon of the season and 3D has found yet another foothold in the public’s consciousness, once again hoping to be more than a flavor-of-the-month attraction. As the postcard reminds us, 3D made its first serious cinematic splash in the 1950s, with the classic anaglyph image (faithfully reproduced on the stamp) that required the red/blue cardboard glasses. The stamp is from the Celebrate the Century series (Scott #3187o) and represents one of the middle-of-the-road novelty attractions in movies at the time—not as important as widescreen or stereophonic sound, but not as brazenly goofy as those used by William Castle (“Emergo”, “Percepto”, etc.)



But while the technical components of 3D have improved dramatically since then, I’m still not convinced that the Emperor is sporting more than a Navi loincloth. Think back to the introduction of sound or 3-strip Technicolor to the movies: within just a couple of years, film directors were already going beyond the gimmicky phase of those technologies and creating beautiful, provocative pieces with those new tools in their kit.

But 3D has been around for over 50 years, and the number of genuinely innovative, artistic, non-gimmicky uses of the device can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. Henry Selick's recent Coraline was so unusual, and satisfying, because it effectively used the technology to enhance the theme and tone of the film, exploiting the multiple visual planes to create an increased sense of disorientation between Coraline's real world and the creepy mirror world she visits. The feeling was an immersive one, not just for its own sake, but to put ourselves in her state-of-mind, going beyond a Cinema of Sensation and really mining emotional territory from the effect.

But that has not happened in any of the other examples I've seen recently (including Pixar's Up, which used the device so unobtrusively that there was hardly a point to the 3D in the first place). For something to have existed this long and to have made so few genuinely creative inroads into the medium after all this time, I still have to consider it a gimmick—just one with more bells & whistles (and studio money behind it) now.

Predictably, every game in town is revamping their production slates to shoehorn as much additional 3D as possible into their choice tentpole flicks this year—even after-the-fact if necessary. I’m skeptical. We’ll see what the tipping point is before a public backlash occurs. For while people will pay premium pricing for Cameron’s magnum opus (as tedious, predictable, and visually superficial as I personally thought it was), are they going to be willing to shell out those bucks for every 3D film that comes down the pipe? I think we’ll have a much better idea by the end of the year.