From the archives: October 2004

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Life imitates life

Thursday, 28 October 2004 — 1:20pm | Literature

Earlier today I read Janet Lo’s life story (in thirty seconds, but re-enacted by something quite different from bunnies). It’s one of those blog posts, the sort of which you will probably never read on this page, where she charts her course through those formative years of K-12 schooling and fluctuating levels of involvement. I could get into how she is now herself an educator in the making and correlate it to the circular journey of the Campbellian hero, but I won’t. Instead, I want to focus on what she says as she brings the story to its conclusion and ties it up in a neat little knot: she calls the one who first offered her a volunteer position in the Education Students’ Association “the catalyst that changed my life” – not at all an inaccurate assessment, given that it eventually led to her serving an entire year on the Students’ Union Executive.

But let’s consider the word “catalyst” for a second.

Whenever we examine literature – and for the purposes of this post, I’ll relegate the discussion to narrative works of fiction – we ask ourselves about the premises of the piece: the questions it poses and how it answers them, if it does at all. Placing different narratives in juxtaposition is a matter of finding common questions, and comparing or contrasting the respective approaches.

One of the questions that exists in such abundance that it could justifiably be termed universal is this: How do people change?

Is it by catalysis? Are we shaped by catastrophic events, plot twists, critical moments of paradigmatic unhinging? Janet seems to think so, and she’s not alone. The supposition that people’s lives and characteristics are residual effects of things that happened to them is the hallmark of the “origin story” that we so commonly associate with the comic book superhero. Batman would have been an ordinary spoiled kid with a stratospheric inheritance had Joe Chill not knocked off Thomas and Martha Wayne. Peter Parker would still be an isolated gifted kid, dwelling in loneliness until the day he enrolls in post-secondary and volunteers for his faculty association, had he not taken a nipping at the hands (legs?) of a radioactive arachnid.

The singular catalyst is perhaps most easily discernable in comics and pulp adventures where the archetypes are broadest, but appear in all forms. You’ll often see some readers or editors of fiction draw a line between plot-driven and character-driven stories. I would posit that the two are never mutually exclusive, though one often comes out on top as the dominant narrative thread.

The other model of character development is evolutionary, and works by way of one’s gradual responses to circumstance. I find it curious that more often than not, it is a process of decay. To cite an interdisciplinary example, one could make a case that Michael Corleone stopped being the detached and indifferent war hero the moment he killed Solozzo in the restaurant, but the real progression of who he becomes can hardly be pinned on one incident alone. He was conditioned by his immersion in a culture of crime, fear and fratricide.

The real puzzle, in the end, is what the relation is between how literary characters are defined and how is it we change as people – be it in our involvements, our sociability or whatever makes us unique. Perhaps marking out the turning points, the catalysts, are a purely retrospective analysis when we engage in the act of storytelling.

Do we tell stories, or do they tell us?

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Good things come to those who wait

Wednesday, 27 October 2004 — 9:42pm

Give it up, they all say. It’ll never happen. You had your chance. Move on.

I disagree. With a little patience, any curse can be broken.

Now what?

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Chandeliers are falling down, falling down, falling down

Monday, 25 October 2004 — 1:32pm | Adaptations, Film

Or are they? You decide.

I’m not going to comment on the vocals – I’m sure my fellow Lloyd Webber nerds in the audience can make that judgment for themselves – but I do want to make a brief remark about the orchestration.

Personally, I am of the belief that the farther this movie gets away from the 1980s, the better. Part of the benefit of translating a stage musical to film is that you can do away with the pit and have a full philharmonic orchestration in the vein of what John Williams won an Oscar for doing in Fiddler on the Roof. As for the sample on that promotional website I linked to above, its percussiveness draws it closer to the stage production, but I do have to wonder how this will turn out in the finished product. It is unclear to me at this point whether Schumacher is aiming for a completely period-authentic Phantom or a composite of period visual stylings and the contemporary Lloyd Webber sound.

And now for something completely different: Spock may play chess in three dimensions, but can he play Scrabble in several languages at once?

Those of you who are big on the Tenting for Tuition craze that seems to be all the rage around these parts for reasons pertaining to the word “freeze” should take note: this is how it’s done. Indeed, you can only conceal so much from the Muggles.

I conclude this post with a print advertisement – or a fingerprint advertisement, as the case may be. Alongside this, it seems that while I was looking the other way, Nintendo somehow assembled a competent marketing department.

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The Sharks are gonna have their way, Tonight

Sunday, 24 October 2004 — 10:37pm | Animation, Film, Full reviews

I was going to say a few words of praise for an absolutely phenomenal gangster movie involving sharks, but most of you are already well aware of my opinions concerning West Side Story.

Instead, I’m stuck talking about Shark Tale, which cannot be faulted for not being a finger-snapping rhapsody of forbidden love and close-quarters switchblade combat – few movies are – but can hardly merit a strong recommendation of any sort, either. I’ll say this much: it exceeded my expectations, which were not all that high to begin with. Judging by Antz and the two Shrek films, PDI and DreamWorks Animation appear to be exercising a repeated application of a specific marketing formula: a) sell your film to the mainstream audiences who like loud, obnoxious fart-joke comedies so they can pay their ten bucks and laugh in unison at the exact same jokes that everyone already saw in the teaser trailer, and b) pull the rug out from under the snobby critical types who write for such pretentious rags as The Chicago Sun-Times and Nick’s Café Canadien by delivering some semblance of a genuinely compelling product.

As far as the second part is concerned, they kind of did, and they kind of didn’t.

By now, nobody should doubt that the production designers and animators over at Pacific Data Images know how to paint a pretty picture. At first glance, Shark Tale looks tacky. Sit through 90 minutes of it, though, and the tackiness sinks in as a cohesive aesthetic that fits the tone and character of the piece. Observe the first shot in the movie: the worm that wiggles and squiggles about as it is cast as bait into the open sea has the worrisome sort of bulging eyes that reflect the precise absurdity of its predicament – especially when a docile shark comes along and sets it free.

Later on, said shark (Lenny, voiced by Jack Black) paints himself a light turquoise and dresses up as a dolphin. One scene features a derby of galloping seahorses where the favourite is, of course, Seabiscuit. The reef on the ocean floor is an aquatic Times Square, complete with a Coca-Cola billboard in a half-joking promotion on the scale of the giant Mountain Dew can in Antz. In many ways, Shark Tale is your average inner-city Manhattan movie that just happens to deliver its visual narrative in the environment of a marine ecology.

That’s where the film’s problems begin: it tries so hard to be oh-so-trendy in that I-love-NY way that it gets swallowed up in the whirlpool of its overplayed pop-cultural consciousness. Not the least of its expressions of that consciousness is in the way its characters are built around the actors, a celebration of a negative trend in the film industry today.

Yes, one has to admire how Lola, the seductive, dusky fish who speaks in a velvet contralto and lets her fins droop around her face like a wind-swept curtain of wavy long hair, is the spitting image of Angelina Jolie (who provides her voice), right down to the all-too-appropriate trademark fish-lips. The problem is when that becomes the be-all and end-all of the movie – compounded by the fact that one of your high-profile voice actors, the one who plays your main character, Oscar, is Will Smith. And if I, Robot were I, Any Indication, the last guy in the world you want Will Smith to play is himself.

As a pessimist would rightly guess, Will Smith walking onscreen – vaguely disguised as a fish designed to look and act like him – is exactly what happens in this movie. And from that point on, it’s all downstream.

That’s not to say Shark Tale elicits all groans and no laughs. It fulfils its minimum academic requirement of three Titanic jokes. It makes reference to a whole bevy of other films, most of which are in some way related to its cast, like they got a good laugh out of mocking the clichés that have developed out of their own filmographies.

Note my choice of words there. It doesn’t spoof other movies, it makes reference to them. There’s a difference. References are trivial allusions that amuse in the act of being identified – like Rex chasing the toy car as seen in the rear-view mirror in Toy Story 2‘s second-long poke at Jurassic Park. References have their limits, in that you can’t build an entire movie around them, like Shark Tale tries to do with The Godfather. There are better ways to do The Godfather with sharks – or even Jaws, for that matter, as when it is performed by bunnies.

On a more positive note, though: sharks humming the theme from Jaws, I’ll admit, is pretty darn funny. Shark Tale has these bright spots, and Will Smith aside, it doesn’t annoy so much as it impresses in very limited spurts. It’s a temporary pleasure, dispensible after its hour-and-a-half is up, and not quite so bad that you feel dirty for having been reeled in by its thundering pace like some novels I know.

Wait for the DVD. Being from a digital source and all, I’m sure the transfer quality will be excellent. Rent it when you’ve caught up on any theatrical necessities you may have missed – Garden State and the like. I remain almost disappointed that the animation didn’t stink, or I could have used a quotable closing remark like “Shark Tale bites.”

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In thirty seconds and re-enacted by bunnies

Saturday, 23 October 2004 — 2:14pm | Animation, Film

It has been a sparse week for updates to this website, and not for lack of material. Perhaps it is time to catch up, as leaving a blog for dead or comatose is unhealthy in its own way.

Just the other day, my English professor spoke about the writing process in the context of a paper that was due in his class. His prescription for serious writers, and a sound one that is too often ignored for practical reasons, is to take the same approach to the craft as would a concert musician; you can’t expect to practice it less than two or three hours a day, every day, and expect to score well on your ARCT Performer’s – not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

And it is on that note that I want to introduce one of the selections I watched in the Ottawa International Animation Festival presentation Monday night, Sonya Kravtsova’s “A Musical Shop.” This 12-minute short, done in cut-outs, took the prize in the Films Made for Children category. In it are two grasshoppers who run a music shop. The story concerns a mother fly and her twin boys who come into the shop one day looking for just the right instrument. One of the grasshoppers plays a joyful spring melody on a violin and all around him, flowers bloom and all the world comes to life. But the mother fly buys the violin with the expectation that her children can play it just as well; when they wreak havoc on their surroundings at a concert the next day (flowers wilt and so on and so forth), she blames the instrument and demands another.

Internet animation was very well represented this year, and the fact that they now have several prizes dedicated to it speaks to an acceptance of that mode of delivery. Seeing some of these Flash animations projected – from a DVD source, of course, not 35mm prints or anything fancy like that – provides them with a towering scale that absorbs you. Everybody on the continent has seen “This Land,” of course, but how about a political satire of an entirely more subversive nature, Sergey Aniskov’s “Candy Venery”? And then there’s “The Shining in 30 Seconds, Re-enacted by Bunnies” – an entry representing an entire series of similar Flash toons by Jennifer Shiman.

It was a pleasure to watch one of the best opening credit sequences in recent years on the big screen again, which won in the Station Identification / Title Sequence category – I speak of none other than the chase in a shadowy labyrinth of names at the beginning of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. The recipient of the Cartoon Public Prize, “The Crab’s Revolution” (“La revolution des crabes”) a 2D monochrome computer animation about a certain species of crabs that can only walk in one direction, was a delightful absurdity. The Music Video winner was for Prudence’s “À tort ou à raison,” sung by faces that appear in tic-tac-toe circles on a table stained with spilt red wine. It’s a good song to begin with, but you know how difficult Francophone albums are to come by.

My favourite piece in the mix, though, is without a doubt “Saddam and Osama,” a television special by David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti that everybody should seek out in hopes of experiencing. It is a Saturday morning cartoon spoof made for the “Abu Dhabi Network for Kids” whose titular characters evade the evil oncoming American forces with their super transformative powers. At one point it is interrupted by a commercial for the perennial children’s toy of the region, rocks. (Collect them all.) As one of the characters says – in Arabic, subtitled – it’s infidel-icious.

No mention of this year’s festival winners would be complete without some discussion of Canadian Maya expert Chris Landreth’s Grand Prix-winning short film “Ryan.” A 14-minute, 3D-rendered documentary about Landreth’s own encounter with animation legend Ryan Larkin, who has since become a panhandler on the streets of Montreal, “Ryan” is something really special. Far from merely resorting to a photorealistic emulation of the characters’ real selves, the film develops an entirely new style of expression that Landreth calls psychorealism – where a persona’s emotional state of mind is physically manifested on his exterior. So Ryan, a fragile artist who has descended from Oscar nominee to gentleman beggar, appears as a precarious frame of a man that reflects that fragility.

You really have to see it to know what in the hey I’m talking about.

In the meantime, as far as animated shorts go, I’m really looking forward to seeing “Boundin’.” Nominated for an Animated Short Oscar last year, this will be the opener that will precede The Incredibles when it opens in two weeks (alongside, I might add, the teaser trailer to Revenge of the Sith). As a fan of everything Aardman I should also get a hold of some Creature Comforts DVDs, should they be available in Region 1 (which I doubt). The episode “Cats or Dogs?” was another prize-winner in Ottawa, and I miss seeing it already.

Speaking of Aardman, does anyone know what happened to The Curse of the Wererabbit?

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