Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Following a Powerful Historical Story in Sound.

It's funny how Germany's history in the first half of the 20th century is so fascinating a morbid sense to see a nation so steeped in militaristic nationalism that they help plunge the world in such destructive agony in the first World War and then go collectively insane in World War II. 

For myself, I found listening to a whole list of history audiobooks from Audible.com cover much of that history with such enthralling narratives and there are still holes to fill with more to listen to.

It all started with the classic book, The Guns of August by  Barbara W. Tuchman  where you will follow how Europe's nationalistic rivalries exploded into an war led largely by arrogant idiots like Joseph Joffre who kept with stupid doctrines long after they have proved self-destructively useless until it was almost too late and weaklings like General Moltke who nervously fiddled with vital military plans and senselessly stuck with them even when the tragedy could have been avoided.  However, it followed through and reading about Belgium and the price it paid for its independence is powerful listening as the conflict that drowned it become something much worse in scope. Meanwhile in my reflexive interest in Britain's role in this rolling disaster, I never thought I would be rooting for General Douglas "Butcher" Haig and Lord Kitchener, but reading the moronic blundering of John French screwing up the British Expeditionary Force to the point of utter destruction you are drawn to the competent no matter their subsequent history.

After that, I couldn't resist listening to all of Richard J. Evans' The Third Reich Trilogy (The Coming of the Third Reich The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War) to listen to an comprehensive survey of Nazi Germany as a kind of grand historical horror story.  It starts with the trials of the doomed Wiemar Republic and how it provided the fatal precedents that Hitler exploited to the hilt.  Still, listening to the final book is almost impossible to get through entirely, the depravities inflicted in Eastern Europe, especially in the Soviet Union, beggars the imagination even when you know about the death camps that came later.

After that, The End by Ian Kershaw is the natural followup to learn why did Nazi Germany fight to the absolute bitter end. In that book, there is a perverse fascination to learn of a nation being ground into oblivion with such hopeless fanaticism for a future Hitler refused to contemplate and his people feared more than anything else.

Finally, I'm listening to Exorcising Hitler by Frederick Taylor to learn what happened to Germany afterward to answer that necessary question: what happened to a country that paid such a crushing price for following a leader's grandiose dreams in the face of all conscience and reason.  The answer I got is an intriguing mix where a punitive moral idealism and a pragmatic appreciation for the greater good for a nation that eventually came to a real moral reckoning on its own by its next generation.

All in all, it's been an intriguing trip and The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor will likely be next.

As modern history goes, it's well trodden ground, but it's a journey that is still powerful to follow myself.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Madagascar 3 and What DreamWorks Animation has Become

Well, this has been a rather good year for animation with most of the major feature animation houses having chart topping big hits, while even the acclaimed anime import, The Secret World of Arrietty, had the best North American box office performance in the history of Studio Ghibli (producers of the Oscar winning Spirited Away).

 For all that success, I saw Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted again and I am reminded of why DreamWorks Animation is the studio to watch in this golden age. This series began in 2005 as a rather craven attempt to undercut Disney's film, The Wild, about urbanized wild animals thrown into the wilderness for real, much like how Antz was produced to head off Pixar's A Bug's Life.

However, this film series grew with each film to become something more as the Zoo animals struggle to survive and get home, regardless of the fact that they are stumbling about, never knowing what they are doing. In doing so, this third film comes to a glorious payoff as the Zoo animals desperately join Circus Zarcosa in Europe. In a lesser film, you would expect the film would keep to the formula with Alex the Lion and his friends bringing disaster to the circus as complete amateurs the moment they stepped on the circus train. For a while, the film strings you along even as they become the circus' owners with veiled threats from the residents if Alex and company ruin their business.

Instead, you will see that the circus animals are all a bunch of bumbling incompetents themselves who have lost all confidence in themselves while Alex's gang proves to be the answer.  As the Zoo animals find a way to help the circus rebuild, there is a joyous feeling of growing love, whether it being simple friendship with Marty the Zebra and Stefano the Sea Lion or full romance with Alex and Gia the Jaguar, as all involved find their ways to become more than anyone thought they were.

This all comes to a head at the critical performance in London, when they have their one chance to impress an American promoter.  Disaster threatens when Vitaly the Tiger is found packing to leave, only to be inspired by Alex, the one for whom he had been most hostile, to give his impossible ring jumping act one last chance.  When that succeeds perfectly, that proves to be just the opening act for an astounding grand performance that you would expect would end in a humiliating catastrophe.  Yet, it doesn't.

Instead, it becomes a mindblower of a circus show that would make the owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus watch in awe.  Set to Katy Perry's song, "Firework," your heart will soar as the animals pull off the impossible as you realize that for the first time Alex and the gang are succeeding at their own initiative as free creatures who have made their own place in the world.  It goes even deeper as you see Alex and Gia fly and dive about with such loving trust in each other as they each subconsciously realize what they have been missing.  Furthermore, as much as I applaud my favourite theatre's plans to drop their 3D projectors, I am reminded of why DreamWorks has made the best use of it, making it a legitimate enhancement to their films, and not merely a gimmick as the circus show becomes such an immerse joy to experience.

That cinematic beauty and the powerful drama that follows show what DreamWorks has become: a film company that has many a cinematic mistake in its past, but has learned from them to become a producer of such cinematic excellence that Pixar used to have all to itself. As that rival enters a regrettable lesser period, give me a company like DA that never had that rarefied aura and allowed their mistakes to become building blocks for something better.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pictures at a Revolution: a personal book review

Of all the books about film I have read, or more precisely listened to in audiobook, there is one that I keep returning to, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Films and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

This book is an endlessly fascinating history about one of the most tumultuous periods of Hollywood in the mid 1960s.  In that time, the American film industry underwent a dramatic transition as the old guard of Hollywood found its hegemony challenged by a new generation of filmmakers with a new sensibility to the art even as the veterans tried and true ways proved to be neither anymore. In that time, the 1967 Picture Oscar Nominees proved to be a microcosm of this conflict like the roguish French influenced Bonnie and Clyde, the youth oriented iconoclastic satire of The Graduate faced off against the stogy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and the mainstream artistic and box office fiasco Doctor Dolittle while the searing detective drama, In the Heat of the Night found itself as much in the middle of this divide as its Black star, Sidney Poitier.

Along the way, you will enjoy bracing sidestories like the fall of Hollywood's production code as its censors found themselves out of touch and out of time in a world and how television finally changed from a simple threat to the film medium into a valuable tool that helped make new cinematic visions possible. On a larger scale, there is the competing influences of film as the French New Wave influenced the young turks like Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols to take a more personal and less inhibited approach to film.  Meanwhile, the mainstream studio establishment misread the brief fad for big budget musicals like My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins to set themselves up for a disastrous box office reckoning that would break the back of their power even while United Artists showed the way forward with a new looser business model that made the new media mainstays like the James Bond series possible.

Finally, there are the lives of the actors of this time they had to ride this storm with their own ways in enthralling stories.  There is Rex Harrison, a veteran actor who tried to take advantage of his mainstream break-out and squandered it as a drunken hateful prima donna on Doctor Dolittle, a film whose botched creation is more comically entertaining than the movie itself.. Against that, you have the struggles of Dustin Hoffman, a Jewish actor of the highest artistic ideals who found himself hitting the big time in the way he least expected, and opened up what was possible for actors of various ethnicities.  However, you will also see the slightly sad story of Sidney Poitier, a breakthrough Black film star who paid the price of too many of his employer's prejudices and the strictures of his own ideals and frustrations as the burden of being both a pioneer and a token began to sink his career.

Finally, this book is a enticing callback to an entirely different time of being a film fan decades before home video when filmgoing could be a enriching social occasion of ideas for the discriminating fan while seeing vintage stuff was a rare treat that required connections and the determination to make that possible.

In short, this film will give you a new appreciation of mainstream film in a time when Hollywood began to realize its old ways were self-destructing, but saw a future where newcomers could make it so much more.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A Woman's project and it's Dramatic Online Justification

I was just listening to a fascinating interview on CBC Radio One's The Current with a media critic blogger, Anita Sarkeesian and the harassment she encountered online by misogynistic gamers when she announced she was preparing and fundraising for a new video about the depiction of women in video games. The interview will be available on show's website either later today, or tomorrow if you are  interested.

I have not personally directly seen the specific examples of the harassment as of yet, but what I have heard makes me embarrassed to be a man who likes video games. I will be the first to admit that the imagery can get really consistent, although I think the sexism was worse in some regards in the earlier decades; for instance, the standard damsel in distress cliche was in full force as the sole preserve in many video games like Donkey Kong in the 1980s.  After the Street Fighter series with its various playable female characters and the Tomb Raider one going, at least there were active female figures who don't need any man's help, even if they are all idealized as super models.

Furthermore, a major reason why sexuality was relatively downplayed  back then was because the graphics were not refined enough for a home system to make anything sexy in the games with any believability.  If you want, just take a look at this video of the notorious game, Custer's Revenge, to see how pathetic porn on the Atari 2600 could be.

For myself, I like playing games when operating a pretty girl in it is an option and I think sexuality has a legitimate place in video game when handled with creativity and grace, but the overbalance of sexual content pertaining to women is not wrong either.  Alas, addition is always more difficult than subtraction and so balancing the scales with more gender equitable material is going to be a challenge for some time.  However, proper decorum is not much to ask either and the idiotic bigots have no excuse themselves.

At least there is some satisfaction that the attention from this ill treatment probably helped Sarkeesian exceed her Kickstarter goal of $6000 by 2,648% to raise $158,922 and raised her profile.  I intend to read her blog as regularly as any other and I look forward to reading her observations.