Friday, August 4, 2017

Swinging Flix from '66

For this weekend’s blogathon on films of the UK, I wanted to concentrate on 1966, a turning point in that country’s cinematic culture, and specifically on a quartet of films that became quintessential examinations of the Swinging London mindset.  Of course, films ranging from the kitchen sink dramas of Lindsay Anderson & Tony Richardson to the electric A Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1964) and stylish social commentary of Darling (Schlesinger, 1965) paved the way for that year’s set of films.  But it still represents a telling chronological marker of how content, character, and craft all made a significant step to a more recognizably modern world.

Alfie (Gilbert, 1966) chronicles the caddish exploits of a profligate womanizer (Michael Caine in a game-changing part) living a libertine lifestyle with little concern for commitment or accountability but who is forced to learn some harsh lessons that chip away at the state of denial he values so highly.  The revolutionary conceit of the film is Alfie narrating his own tale by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly.  Of course, this wasn’t unheard of as the occasional comic aside by Groucho Marx or Bob Hope, but to have the whole movie built around this form of internal monologue, with him making constant casual asides to the audience right in the middle of the action with his fellow characters unawares, was very new in its intimacy.

From a psychological perspective, it’s also a way to provide a window into his web of justifications in what amounts to a romantic laissez-faire worldview.  He seduces a slew of women (married and otherwise) but never makes his nature or intentions a secret.  They’re ostensibly free to do what they want, but his emotional game of coercion is effective in its simplicity: upfront, charming and full of sexual confidence.  And his monologues craftily perform double duty as both a vehicle for viewer complicity (since we’re identifying with him through his story) and confessional, since he lays out his entire outlook on life with brutal, boyish candor.  We see Alfie do some distasteful things, but it’s tough not to fall under his spell, from his flirtatious introduction through his brazen honesty and up to his final moments of gradual self-awareness.  We never ally with his position, but we’re grateful for his progress.

It makes one wonder what Georgy Girl (Narizzano, 1966) would be like if the filmmakers took the same approach to Georgy’s callow roommate Meredith (a young and exquisite Charlotte Rampling), a perfect promiscuous counterpart to Alfie.  Rampling makes a singularly unsympathetic character rich with complexity and opaqueness and the movie is clear-eyed in depicting the double standard women face trying to live an Alfie lifestyle.  Like Alfie, the movie is remarkable for its time in accepting abortion as an everyday reality (though not without its stigmas and legal repercussions).  And while “plain Jane” Georgy (a wonderful Lynn Redgrave) pursues love in unexpected places, her final choice is a bittersweet one, borne out of compromise, insecurity, and an acceptance of the limited choices working class women have.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is the first film he made outside of Italy, and London brings a new sensibility to his filmmaking, taking his trademark theme of alienation and transposing it to the modern youth scene.  The result is a film full of coiled energy, stark compositions, and bursts of vivid color, and while his previous films were often about seething passions muffled by societal restraint, Blow-Up dives deep into a sensualist landscape where everyone is getting off but no one seems to be having much fun (best exemplified by the most ennui-tinged rock concert ever, courtesy of The Yardbirds). 

The central driving force of the film is photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) investigating what he thinks is a murder he’s captured on film in a fit of voyeurism, and the methodical series of darkroom enlargements is a masterclass of construction by Antonioni, all in the service of a mystery that’s ultimately peeling an onion.  For unlike Rear Window or The Conversation or Blow Out (all classic cinematic exercises in forensic sleuthing), the evidence in Blow-Up evaporates—or perhaps was all just a figment of Thomas's restless imagination—and the mystery becomes just another fleeting moment for him.  From the shocking (at the time) full female frontal nudity to the final enigmatic tennis game, Blow-Up shook the censors and the artistic establishment like few films had before, a perfect film to represent a generation undergoing a major tectonic shift.

Vanessa Redgrave is memorable as a femme fatale with a hidden agenda in Blow-Up, but she makes an even more substantial turn in Morgan! (Reisz, 1966).  In that, she plays divorcee Leonie trying to move on with her life despite the pervasive meddling of her former husband Morgan (David Warner).  It’s often said that films from the sixties feel dated, but that’s often in reference to window dressing like fashion, music or lingo.  But of these four films, Morgan! (subtitled A Suitable Case for Treatment) feels the most dated because of the prevailing attitudes that now feel so clichéd of that time: the enormous sense of male-entitlement, the knee-jerk embracing of radical leftism (in this case, Trotsky), the romantic metaphor of mental illness as a middle finger to the square status quo.  It's a hipster film, mostly full of empty posturing and zany swagger.

Certainly, romantic comedy in film has a rich tradition of former lovers entangling themselves in their ex’s love life (Cary Grant practically made a cottage industry out of it), but their tactics were usually a fine balance of suave and sympathetic.  But Morgan is just a self-absorbed cretin and like other charmless films of the 60s (Kiss Me Stupid, Irma la Douce), Jealousy is fawningly used as a toxic yardstick for Love. It’s a testament to Redgrave’s talents that she makes her conflicting feelings (but never her resolve) fluid and ambiguous, a study in how letting go may be essential but is never easy.  The most effective moments in Morgan! come late in the game, when Reisz projects us into Morgan’s mind where he reenacts the fantasy jungle worlds of King Kong and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, though that hardly helps the case of a man who wants to live outside even the most considerate norms of civilization.

These four films combined earned 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (Alfie), Director (Antonioni) and lead acting nods (Caine and both Redgraves).  Of course, the British film that swept the awards that year was a 16th-century period piece, far more the Academy’s speed.  And A Man for All Seasons (Zinnemann, 1966) is certainly a fine film, and one that’s worth revisiting these days since it talks about men of principle standing up to authoritarian heads of state and speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.  But it’s still a staid movie, with great dialogue and memorable characters but quite stagy, lushly produced but devoid of any personality.  This quartet represented the future, and it’s fun seeing certain points of future convergence, like how Georgy co-stars Rampling and James Mason would reteam 16 years later for The Verdict, or how Alfie co-stars Caine and Denholm Elliiott would compete for an Oscar 20 years later --with future Hannah and Her Sisters and A Room with a View writing winners Woody Allen and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala fresh off What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Shakespeare Wallah respectively back in 1966.

It’s funny to think about how people complain about franchises in the cinemas now when we see that there was a wealth of them from England in 1966.  Hammer had Christopher Lee reprising his Dracula and Fu Manchu roles, Caine was back as Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin, there were new installments in the long running Carry On! And St. Trinian’s comedy series, and TV’s Thunderbirds made their way to the big screen.   And like Antonioni, we saw high-profile directors from the continent making their way to their island neighbor: Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), Roman Polanski (Cul-de-Sac), and Vittorio De Sica (After the Fox) all had distinguished contributions in 1966.  And don’t forget the war movies of both colonial days (Khartoum) and WWII (The Blue Max), and new riffs on the spy genre (Modesty Blaise, The Quiller Memorandum) in the wake of the huge success of James Bond.  But perhaps my favorite British film made by an actual Brit in 1966 has Caine (in his third film of that year) heading a game cast in the very funny old-fashioned comedy The Wrong Box (my first exposure to a tontine), directed by Bryan Forbes.  And if you want to be a Caine completest, there’s also Gambit from that year, too.

My Top 10 favorite films of 1966

  1. The Battle of Algiers (Pontocorvo)
  2. Persona (Bergman)
  3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone)
  4. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky)
  5. Daisies (Chytilova)
  6. Blow-Up (Antonioni)
  7. Black Girl (Sembene)
  8. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson)
  9. Seconds (Frankenheimer)
  10. Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki)


The Oscar de la Renta stamps from earlier this year (Scott #5173b, e, & i) worked perfectly with the fashion-based films of Blow-Up and Darling, the latter card being featured previously on this blog here.  The Gee’s Bend quilt is #4097, the Edgar Rice Burroughs stamp #4702, and the Year of the Monkey stamp #3895l.  William S. Hart is #4448, the Civil War centennial #1181, and the Bellatrix Lestrange stamp (from the Harry Potter issue) is #4844.  Last year gave us Carlsbad Cavern National Park (#5080e), corn lilies (#5042) and Halloween (#5137), plus this year had the WPA poster #5183. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Pauvre, Pauvre Pussycat

It’s easy to forget that even though Walt Disney is the individual who won the most Best Animated Short Oscars with 12, the winningest animated characters in that category are Tom & Jerry, with 7 awards.  No other characters come close.  Mickey, Bugs, Daffy, Wallace & Gromit—combined, their totals don’t amount to as many.  Tom & Jerry were huge in the 40s & 50s with over 100 shorts produced by MGM during that time, but today, they don’t have the same iconic or nostalgic status as the stables of Warner Brothers or the Mouse House.  The National Film Registry at the Library of Congress has earmarked 700 American films (shorts, features, docs, cartoons) as national treasures of cultural and historical significance since its inception in 1989, but no Tom & Jerry short is included yet.  And needless to say, they don’t have a postage stamp either, while a host of Disney & Warners characters do.

It’s probably a combination of reasons.  Largely free of dialogue, the films don’t have the sophisticated humor and in-jokes of WB films by Bob Clampett or Chuck Jones.  Since the films always put the leads in violent opposition, they don’t have the warmth and sentimentality of Uncle Walt’s creations.  Certainly, it can be argued that the Tom & Jerry “brand” degraded into the 60s and beyond, as the quality of the humor and the animation went in decline and eventually migrated toward mediocre television.  And now, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, T&J's creators, are probably better known as pioneers of mass-produced TV cartoon sitcoms (The Flinstones, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo) than as multiple Academy Award-winners.

The Two Mouseketeers (1952) and its three prequels (Touché, Pussy Cat! ’54; Tom and Chérie ’55; Royal Cat Nap ’58) represent the film franchise at its peak popularity, but are also interesting departures from its typical formula.  The films follow the conflict set up in the Dumas books, with Jerry as part of the king’s guards and Tom, the Cardinal’s.  Even the use of the word “Mouseketeer” is interesting since Disney would appropriate the term for his Mickey Mouse Club just a few years after this first short was released.  And all films feature Nibbles, the smaller, grey mouse who appeared in only a handful of other T&J shorts.

There’s one thing that stays consistent with all Tom & Jerry cartoons, a thing which has always been a curious contradiction and that’s that while the anthropomorphized Mickey Mouse is living in an animal-only world, Jerry is a rodent trying to settle in a human domestic environment.  Unlike Sylvester’s preoccupation with Tweetie (a fellow pet) or Wile E. Coyote’s pursuit of the roadrunner (minding its own business in the desert), it’s Tom’s job as the house cat to get Jerry.  The closest cartoon analogue at the time might be Disney’s Chip ‘n’ Dale or WB’s Goofy Gophers (both introduced a few years after T&J’s 1940 debut), but even they are wild animals temporarily clashing with a disgruntled homeowner.  Jerry is an uninvited, comfortably-settled house mouse and in any real world scenario, we’d be rooting for the cat.  Or at least calling pest control.

So in Two Mouseketeers, Tom is tasked with defending a banquet table of food, while Jerry and Nibbles are only interested in crashing the feast.  Along the way, there are plenty of food gags and violent episodes, though their period roles here mean there’s plenty of fun swordplay, too.  Jerry is plucky and resourceful as usual, and Nibbles’s most prominent personality trait is a complete obliviousness to danger, much to Jerry’s chagrin.  And despite Tom often having the upper hand (he was always a formidable foe, rarely incompetent), the mice emerge triumphant in the end.

Touché, Pussycat! is essentially a prequel, focusing on Captain of the Guard Jerry first meeting Nibbles and training him to be a Mouseketeer.  Needless to say, the new recruit is not very good at it and despite him being initially rejected by Jerry, he proves his mettle in facing Tom when Jerry later gets into trouble.  The title comes from the first film, since unlike Jerry, Nibbles does speak in this series: mostly French with a smattering of English, all in an innocent French accent.

Tom and Chérie has Nibbles acting as courier of love notes between Jerry and a mouse mademoiselle, so he’s the one forced to spar with Tom every time a new correspondence is sent.  Royal Cat Nap is just a variation of their Oscar-winning Quiet Please! (1945), with the king trying to sleep but Jerry and Nibbles’s intrusion (again, in search for food) being the source of increasing anxiety for Tom.  Of course, if Jerry is part of the king’s musketeer guard (as the previous films establish), why is Tom the one guarding him against his own loyalists?
With this last entry, you can see the writing on the wall with the future of the franchise.  The animation quality isn't as good, there are lazy coloring mistakes, and the humor is really repetitive.  Personally, I'm a fan of the 40s T&J, where Tom is an actual cat, with terrific detailing in his fur and face and he actually moves around on all fours.  By the time of The Two Mouseketeers, Tom is a full-blown biped and while the gags are fine in the next two installments, you can see the set designs and lighting getting flatter and less interesting.

A few other random thoughts on the films: We’re used to seeing Bugs or Daffy in all sorts of historical time periods or geographic locations, but T&J have always battled in contemporary America, sometimes urbanscapes but mostly residential domiciles.  So 17th century France is a real departure.  Another thing unusual is that Nibbles gets drunk in the first two films—France, after all makes the presence of wine ubiquitous.  Both times are due to accidental immersion but the inebriation of a non-adult character is still unusual in a kid’s cartoon.  And take a look at the stills between Two and Touché and you see when Hollywood began adopting a wider aspect ratio from the standard 1.33.

One of the strangest things that happens in Two Mouseketeers is that Tom actually dies.  It’s made clear to him that failing to protect the food will result in his beheading and in the final scene, when Jerry & Nibbles are enjoying their spoils, we see the guillotine fall in the distance.  Hence, the title of this article (Nibbles’s closing tribute)--appropriately, since today is Bastille Day.  Of course, nine lives notwithstanding, Tom was subjected to countless lethal indignities over the decades, rarely succumbing to his injuries.  But we're led to believe he does here, and though I doubt Hanna/Barbera cared much about faithful continuity, making Touché a prequel (with the other two following suit) remains consistent in that sense.  Then again, in Touché, we see a falling axe slice Tom completely in half vertically, and he does recover from that, so maybe his date with The National Razor wasn’t 100% fatal after all.

One other thing worth mentioning is the music scoring, which is uniformly strong.  While Carl Stalling is deservedly venerated for his work with Warner Brothers cartoons, Scott Bradley does an excellent job with the T&J material, too.  And just like Stalling would use themes and motifs from WB musicals (mostly Busby Berkeley's), it’s great fun to see how Bradley takes advantage of the enormous MGM music library to seed the stories with little musical references.  Similarly, when Chuck Jones took over the Tom & Jerry shorts in the 60s, the design elements were reminiscent of some of his 50s work and the gags became more and more outlandish, but what kills those shorts for me is the terrible music that accompanies them.  They’re really hard to bear and the shorts from that era are best viewed on mute.

Of course, the most prominent legacy Tom & Jerry have left for contemporary viewers may perhaps be as inspiration for Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons.  While I’ve written previously on how Krazy Kat is a more suitable progenitor of I&S, there’s no denying that the vicious brutality heaped onto cat Scratchy from mouse Itchy owes a lot to the over-the-top physical gags and one-upmanship from T&J.

I mentioned that no other cartoon characters came close to Tom & Jerry’s Oscar tally, but I suppose it’s fitting that a distant second is Sylvester, who appeared in 3 winning shorts—two with Tweetie and one for Speedy Gonzales’s debut.  Of course, Sylvester did get a stamp and while the depiction of postage stamps are few and far between in T&J shorts (even when letters are sent, like in the Chérie still above), a mailbox gag is still a reliable standby, like this from The Flying Cat (1951).

Of course, if you want to count feature film appearances, too, then Mickey Mouse’s Oscar total comes close: Lend a Paw (1941, his sole winning short), Fantasia (2 awards), and his cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (4 awards).  That’s 7, but Tom and Jerry both appear in the Oscar-winning feature Anchors Aweigh (1945, Sidney)--most notably with Jerry performing a dance duet with Gene Kelly--so their total is 8 and still in the lead.  It’s actually interesting that while neither of them appear in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Droopy (another MGM property at the time) does.

And since this post is part of the larger Swashbuckler blogathon going on this weekend, it’s worth noting the one cinema icon best known as a swashbuckler who does have a USPS postage stamp: Douglas Fairbanks, who died in 1939, a year before T&J’s debut.  Be sure to check out the rest of this year’s participants!

The cat and mouse stamps from last year's pets issue are Scott #5122 & 5117.  Douglas Fairbanks is Scott #2088, Frank Sinatra #4265 and Sylvester & Tweetie #3204.  The Year of the Rat is #3895a and Marge & Lisa Simpson are #4400 & 4402 respectively.  The Halloween Jack-o-Lantern is #5137 and the U.S. Navy stamp dates back to 1945 and is Scott #935.