Posts tagged Curiosities
Elaborate Train Sets, Sadness, And The Compulsion To Create
All of his zest for invention, for creating fantasies, seemed to be going into this plaything. I came away feeling sad
— Bosley Crowther
I hope I don’t offend any of our listeners. The men who have the elaborate miniature train sets always they are sad.
— Michial Farmer

I’m not sure what to make of this sadness, and again no offense to the man himself, bu the first person I though of was Bruce Zaccagnino.

Now, this could be our own cultural reacting. When I was in Germany I visited many elaborate model villages and experienced a sense of joy and whimsy. Likewise, I have fond memories of visiting model train installations with my dad as a kid. It was a shared interest and there is something magical about the amount of effort that goes into those things.

My dad had a model train that has stayed mostly in a box. There was a short time when he had it out and started working on it. I asked for one for Christmas and loved going to the model train shop in town to look at all the possibilities. Nothing much ever came of it, which is why I floundered around in my response during the podcast. Again, I have fond memories: bonding with my dad, looking at plans and engines, day dreaming. That’s obviously not what Michial was talking about.

Those with elaborate sets have neccesarily taken things to a whole new level. I suppose they could be bonding experiences as well, but I wonder if more often they aren’t more akin to the way “Lord Business” from The Lego Movie acts. Using the toy not as a way to see his son, but as a way to not see him. Compelled to fill some sort of emptiness. I suppose you could say that about any creative endeavor. Which is probably why I feel uncomfortable casting any judgement. It’s like Ian Morgan Cron says (I’m paraphrasing): People make the most beautiful and destructive things out of their wounds. Sometimes both.

Jason Kottke asks in relation to Bruce:

What compels people to do things? Especially things that don’t make sense to other people?

Somehow I think the compulsion must have a bit of the divine in it. No matter if it’s twisted or redeemed we all have the spark of the Creator in us and reflect His image. Therefore we create. It makes me think of Flannery O’Connor.

“Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel… You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern.”
— Flannery O'Connor

May we all find joy in resigning ourselves to the will of God.

The Disney Afternoon
This block of syndicated programming, which aired nationwide and in countries across the world, became the touchstone of an entire generation of kids. So entrenched are these adventures in the collective subconscious that today you could approach most people ages 20 to 30-something and—even if they’re not a huge Disney fan—find they can instantly summon up a trademark DuckTales “woo-hoo!”
— Brittany Bell

That ‘91-’92 two hour block of afternoon television: Ducktails, Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, TailSpin, and Darkwing Duck, may have been the peak of civilization. History will be the judge, I guess.

Nostalgia junkies click here for historic details, theme songs, ring tones, tee-shirts.

How Ub Iwerks Ended Up Back At Disney

Ub Iwerks is a fascinating character in the history of animation and with Walt Disney Studios. Co-creator of Mickey and inventor of the xerox style of animation would be enough, but the personal drama with Walt makes the story more human, tragic, and interesting. Plus he built his own version of the MultiPlane camera out of car parts and scrap metal?!

The Walt Disney Family Museum has a biography and overview of Ub’s contributions to the company.

Ub Iwerks was a man of many talents. He was a prolific animator and a brilliant technical mind. He was Walt’s Swiss Army knife, a man who was to Walt whatever he needed him to be. He was as necessary to the beginning of Walt’s career as he was to the end. He left The Walt Disney Studios at a critical juncture to pursue his own career, but eventually found his way back to the company he had once animated into success to engineer it to new heights.

Kind of a lot glossed over in that “left…at a critical juncture…eventually found his way back”

Creative differences with Walt wore on Ub and when offered the chance for artistic freedom and financial backing to run his own animation studio in 1930, he took it. Unbeknownst to Ub, this deal was through Pat Powers, one of the co-founders of Universal Pictures who had a complicated relationship (to say the least) with The Walt Disney Studios. Powers distributed and provided sound equipment for Disney’s cartoons starting with the seminal Steamboat Willie, but soon after, Walt and Roy became suspicious of his business practices and hired their first company attorney, Gunther Lessing, to protect themselves and satisfy their remaining obligations to him.

Where Powers was the saving grace for Mickey Mouse and The Walt Disney Studios in 1928, by the next year he was in the middle of a legal quarrel with Walt over box office receipts, and then the following year, he had signed away Walt’s best friend and animator and ceded the right to distribute Walt’s cartoons to his company’s parent distributor, Columbia Pictures. Upon learning of his new employer, Ub went through Roy to explain to Walt that he did not mean to take a job from Powers, and had he known who he would be working for, “he would never have gone into this.”

So heartbreak for Walt who at the time was still trying to build a utopian studio. But not much on how Iwerks eventually ended up back at the studio. We get to see his name in the credits once again for Make Mine Music, which is a fun surprise if you’re following along in chronological order. Here’s what Neal Gabler has to say about the reunion:

Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of his regard for the ghosts of his past was his treatment of the man who had committed what was, in Walt’s mind, one of the worst betrayals: his old partner, Ub Iwerks. After leaving the studio abruptly in 1930, lured by the blandishments of Pat Powers, Iwerks had fallen on hard times. His own studio had failed, forcing him to subcontract with Warner Bros. and then Columbia, but these arrangements were ultimately terminated too. “He was one of the first—if not the first—to give his characters depth and roundness,” animator Chuck Jones explained. “But he didn’t have any story capacity, and I don’t think he knew very much about humor; he wasn’t a funny man at all.” In 1940 he was teaching animation at a local vocational school and had gotten up the nerve to write Walt that July about the possibility of opening a school of his own, presumably to help train Disney animators. Walt referred the letter to Vern Caldwell in personnel, who dismissed the suggestion. Meanwhile Ben Sharpsteen, hearing about Iwerks’s plight, phoned him, said that starting a school would be “belittling,” and offered him a job checking animation, which Iwerks gratefully accepted. Sharpsteen was obviously trying to broker a rapprochement between Iwerks and Walt, and when he told Walt that he had asked Iwerks back, Walt said it was Sharpsteen’s prerogative to hire whomever he liked. But on August 9 Walt and Iwerks had lunch at the studio, over which, as Iwerks later told it, Walt asked him what he really wanted to do there. Iwerks, always more interested in technology than animation, said he answered, “Prowl around.” Overlooking their past dispute, Walt assigned him to help develop a new optical camera for special effects, illustrating both Walt’s commitment to anything that would help his studio regardless of his personal feelings and his attachment to his old colleagues now that he presided over an increasingly impersonal bureaucracy.

And “prowl around” he certainly did. Here’s a summary from Michael Ruocco at Cartoon Brew:

When Ub rejoined the Disney studio in 1940, Walt Disney gave his old partner free reign to do as he wished. With Disney’s resources, Ub developed special effects techniques for animation, live-action films and Disney’s theme parks, much of which is still in use today. He helped develop the sodium vapor process for live-action/animation combination and traveling mattes, which he won an Oscar for in 1965 after utilizing it in Mary Poppins. He adapted the Xerox process for animation, which eliminated the tedious task of hand inking every cel. For Disneyland, Ub designed and developed concepts for many of the park’s attractions, including the illusions in The Haunted Mansion and the animatronics for attractions like Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney even loaned him out to Alfred Hitchcock to help with the effects needed to create flocks of attacking birds in The Birds.

And Iwerks desert years weren’t a total bust either. His failed studio was a bit of a Forest Gump of the animation world :

Many animators got their start at Ub’s studio in the early 1930s, including UPA co-founder Steve Bosustow and Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones. Manga and anime pioneer Osama Tezuka was also greatly influenced and inspired by Ub’s work.

Walt Disney's Alice Comedies And The First Faltering Steps To Blending Live Action And Animation

This is from the failed Laugh-O-Gram studios in Kansas City, a catalyst of sorts for what later became Walt Disney Studios. After making this movie the studio went bankrupt before ever getting it distributed, prompting Walt to leave Missouri and head to California. To borrow a cliché, the rest is history.

Perhaps Walt losing interest in the animation side of his studio shouldn’t be all that surprising; he was always practicing the art of pushing technology into the adjacent possible. He’s certainly doing that here. And, there is a joy in seeing him doing that. Even watching this nearly 100 years on (!) there’s a palpable sense of wonder and energy in those “rubber hose” animations. The Look-What-We-Can-Do playfulness still stirs the imagination, in many ways more effectively than what we see in The Three Caballeros.

The Disney Animation Strike of 1941

A very brief summary of the strike, told by Tom Sito, President-Emeritus of The Animation Guild. In other words, not Walt’s side of the story.

Walt felt personally betrayed when Art Babbitt, his highest-paid animator, resigned as president of the Disney company union to join the Guild. Three days after Disney brazenly fired Babbitt, the Disney strike began on May 29, 1941.

The strike lasted for five weeks, forever tearing the social fabric of the studio.
— Tom Sito

Around The Network: Sectarian Review, Episode #50: The Wolf Man

As part of the annual Christian Humanist Network Massive Crossover 2017 discussing the Universal Monster Movies, Michial went over and guested on The Sectarian Review.

Take a deep dive into the film’s story, background, and subtexts. Freud, Feminism, Class Struggle and more. Also, the team tackle questions about the film from listeners via Twitter. Plus, Danny makes an impassioned defense of the 2010 remake of the film.

Show Notes

Documenting the Recycling of Scenes in Disney Animated Films

What I love in here is the argument presented that the films were never really meant to be watched the way that we watch them now, where we can take the time to slow down and really analyze them, and create books, podcasts, youtube documentaries, essays, and more around them. I like that ecosystem of art: where once it’s in the world, it can support whole other endeavors that weren’t in the mind or even the imagination of the creator; all these Odes to Grecian Urns that we undertake. Yet the films can withstand it.

I was surprised to learn that this copying of previous work was happening prior to the use of xerography, although the xerography certainly seems to have provided an uptick in how much the technique was used; however there were several other factors involved there as well.

This video does the side by side comparisons, but also gives another overview of the history of Disney Animation Studios.

The Eras Of The Disney Canon
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As we converse through the Disney Animated Canon in chronological order sometimes we refer to the Silver Age, or the Dark Age (in the image above more charitably called the Bronze Age). Other than the wartime/package films era being a pretty clear line between the Golden Age and the Silver age, the rest of the eras are more debatable. For example Michial said during our 101 Dalmatians episode that he thought we were entering the First Dark Age, although many people put the start of the Dark Age after Jungle Book and Walt Disney’s death. Although honestly, Walt had definitely lost interest in the animation for several years before his death, and it may be a better delineator to call this the xerography era. Those debates are all part of the fun of looking at these movies. Either way, this graphic from Network 1901 is a pretty good one, and the video I grabbed it out of ain’t bad either if you’re looking for a nice overview of the entire canon. I disagree with a few of the narratives presented in the video, but it’s an overview so there’s not a ton of room for nuance.

And, if you’re just looking for a list of the films in the canon - Wikipedia is your friend : )

The Adjacent Possible and Xerography

On the show Michial and I spent a fair amount of time discussing the new technology, xerography, that both allowed animation to be cost effective at Disney, and ushered in a new aesthetic that perfectly matched the Dalmatians.

Steven Johnson is the popularizer of an idea called the adjacent possible. As he puts it:

The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.
— Steven Johnson

It’s a particularly apt idea to describe what happened with 101 Dalmatians because of the convergence of so many limits and potentials. The combinations of technologies that makes xerography as an animation tool an adjacent possible. (I’d love to know more of that story - Ub Iwerks, the guy who first animated Mickey Mouse, is a key player.) The xerography itself that makes animating 99 puppies an adjacent possible. Choosing to adapt that story makes the other modern art style decisions adjacently possible. And of course all these ideas are smashing into one another at the same time, which is another big idea in Johnson’s book: Where Good Ideas Come From. Very nicely illustrated in the trailer for the book below.

Matt Draper has a nice video that further explores some of those smashing together limits and potentials. If you listened to our episode you already know them: Walt Disney’s losing interest in animation, the financial struggles after Sleeping Beauty, etc. If you’re only interested in the actual technology of Xerography, skip to about 3:40 for a nice visual explainer.

Back to Johnson:

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.
— Steven Johnson

There’s no doubt that Disney already had a palace by the time 101 Dalmatians was released in 1961. However a whole new wing was opened through the use of the Xerography, not only to allow animation to continue at the studio, and to expand the types of stories that were told.

If you read all of Johnson’s Wall Street Journal article adapted from his book he gives one more example of the adjacent possible from the Apollo 13 movie. And as this has to be one of my favorite scenes in cinema, I couldn’t resist sticking it in here as well.

The space gear on the table defines the adjacent possible for the problem of building a working carbon scrubber on a lunar module...They are the building blocks that create—and limit—the space of possibility for a specific problem.
— Steven Johnson

Pink Is A Boys Color
For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
— Jeanne Maglaty

It seems gender neutral was becoming the fashion at the time of 101 Dalmatians in ‘61, and remained so until 1985!

When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?

Everything You Could Ever Want To Know About the Many Recordings of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf

This is the kind of thing I love about the internet, the space for people to just go incredibly deep on a single subject. Jeremy Nicholas, himself a recorded narrator of Peter and the Wolf, thoroughly examines the catalogue for Gramphone.

And in the process he says more clearly the idea I was trying to hit upon when I sacrilegiously suggested the Make Mine Music version would be better off without Sterling Holloway (keeping the introduction to the instruments and characters).

Then there is Suzie Templeton’s Oscar-winning animated film from 2006, already a classic of its kind. There is no narrator – none is needed – for the updated story unfolds with logic and comedic balletic precision in, arguably, the only attempt to bring some psychological realism to Prokofiev’s sketchy tale.

Essentially the narrator isn't necessary once you have the animation defining the action for you. I will definitely need to be checking out the film.

Or, if you wanted to, you could attempt to play the narratorless version while watching Make Mine Music with the sound muted. I might try that too, although I imagine there will be some synching issues.

[T]he Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Ondrej Lenárd...was issued initially without narration, an oddity you can still track down (the only other CD recording I’ve found without narration is Tatiana Nikolaieva playing her piano transcription). 

Do you have a favorite recording of Peter and the Wolf? Join the conversation and let me know.

The 1986 Disney DTV Valentine
Recorded Feb. 14, 1986 in all its grainy ELP VHS glory.

Michial and I sometimes talk about parts of the movies that were cut up and repackaged. This was one such package that I watched regularly.

So far the memories from this special that we mentioned in the show have included:

  • The twitterpated scene from Bambi cut to Stevie Wonder's I Just Called To Say I Love You. (Although I think I was conflating it in my mind with the Lionel Richie's Hello which is a little later in the program)

  • The animation from All The Cats Join In with the music replaced by Stray Cats' Rock This Town.

  • Ludwig Von Drake hosts

Hat tip to my mom for finding this on YouTube.



Flâneur and Fancy Free

If like me, you became interested in the flâneur after Michial mentioned it here is a rambling post titled Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur from The Psychogeographic Review. I didn't know anything about Flâneur, and so this seemed as good an introduction as any. As Michial pointed out in the episode, there is something more than just being cheerful and lazy in the hobo, or the flâneur- there is a spiritual quality they are pursuing. 

The concept of the flâneur, the casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city, was first explored, at length, in the writings of Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s flâneur, an aesthete and dandy, wandered the streets and arcades of nineteenth-century Paris looking at and listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life of a modern city. The flâneur’s method and the meaning of his activities were bound together, one with the other. Indeed...the flâneur is trying to achieve a form of transcendence
— Bobby Seal

And, in our own way Michial and I are picking up the baton of the flâneurs, although instead of wandering through Paris, we're wandering through the Disney Canon. I particularly like this idea:

Benjamin believed that one of the main tasks of his writing was to rescue the cultural heritage of the past in order to understand the present; not just the cultural treasures of the past, but the detritus and other discarded objects...Thus, we create a history which is not just that of the victor.
— Bobby Seal

Certainly we are wandering the cultural treasures (Bambi, Pinnochio) and the detritus (The Three Caballeros). And charitably (assuming you take the heroic view of the flâneur) maybe you could argue that is what Disney Animation Studios was doing in it's own way as well: picking through the stories of the past and repurposing them for their current moment. Making sense of the world through cultural heritage.

In fact, Benjamin also drew a parallel between the experinence of being a flâneur and theatrical entertainment, and I do not think that is coincidental. In a very real sense theater and movies are always collecting, cutting, pasting and remixing life in order to make sense of the world. This is why they possess a deeper truth; they are a distillation of truth. And the process by which we access that truth is our collective imaginations.

By describing the flâneur’s vision of the city as phantasmagoric, Benjamin seems to suggest that it is a dream-like vision akin to that provided in theatrical entertainment. He also reminds us of Marx’s metaphorical description of the commodity as having the power of a religious fetish; an item that owes its magical status to the imaginative power of the human brain which confers magical powers upon it, at the same time as venerating the fetish, as an autonomous object. Phantasmagoric experiences, therefore, are created by humans, but have the appearance of seeming to possess a life of their own.
— Bobby Seal

Not unlike Happy Valley coming to life through the combined work of both Edger Bergen as the story teller and Luana's imagination, which of course does lead to Willy having on a life of his own beyond Edger's conception. 

President Obama and Third Culture Kids

Bongo may be the most famous Third Culture Bear in the world, but certainly the most famous Third Culture Kid of our time is President Obama. As I mentioned in the episode, there are some fascinating articles about this. This opening line by John H. Richardson in a 2010 piece on Obama for Esquire sums it up perfectly: "America just doesn't understand President Obama." Richardson's piece does an excellent job of breaking down just what a TCK is, and why it is important, but here is the pertinent passage when considering Bongo:

People laugh at you for getting important social markers like dating rituals or slang wrong, and that's when you realize how deep culture really goes — because when people realize you don't share all their habits, they suspect you don't share their values either.

As Richardson says talking about President Obama, but it applies just as well here to poor Bongo: "Sound familiar?"

Another more recent piece (2017) by Ryu Spaeth, appropriately titled Barack Obama, Forever a Third-Culture Kid, sums up a part of the TCK experience in lovely terms, while also highlighting some more of the famous TCKs you may not have known:

This is the legacy of being a third-culture child, like a toll one pays for happiness. Yet the great irony of this life, one so improbable that it makes me laugh, is that of the very few public figures who share this condition—Uma Thurman, Timothy Geithner, Steve Kerr, Kobe Bryant—of the luminaries in this world who, just by existing, make me feel less alone and insubstantial, one of them is the leader of the free world.

If you are interested in the topic of third-culture kids, as I am, I'd recommend the book Richardson quotes extensively in his article: Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by Ruth E. Van Renken, Michael Pollock, and David Pollock.

Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition: Growing up among worlds
By Ruth E. Van Reken, Michael V. Pollock, David C. Pollock