Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"We Like It and We're Pretty Sure You Will." : A Look at Time Bandits

"God isn't interested in technology. Look how He spends His time: 43 species of parrot, nipples for men...SLUGS! He created slugs! They can't hear, they can't speak, they can't operate machinery. I mean are we not in the hands of a lunatic?"
--(Evil) Time Bandits

Times Bandits is the story of a little boy who travels through time and fantastic realms in the company of outlaw dwarfs. It's not your average kid's movie. It's frightening, filled with dark adult humor, and quite bleak in some places. I wish I could say it's one of my favorite movies. It sounds like it should be (fairy tales! mythology! evil technology! Monty Python! David Warner!) but it isn't. As is often the case with Terry Gilliam's movies, I like the idea of it better than the actual thing. I found it overlong, confusing, and even a bit boring despite its terrific cast and adventure-ridden plot. That said, there are some wonderful parts so I would recommend seeing it at least once. It also has one of the most unique and hilarious trailers I've ever seen.

I love a good trailer. Sometimes I like a trailer better than the actual movie. Case in point. In the trailer for Time Bandits, clips from the movie play while the Classic Trailer Guy Voice keeps going off-script to the exasperation of Michael Palin--who has a role in the film. It's so inventive. The clips intrigue you, but they give nothing away because you can't hear anything. You see all the great people in the movie while laughing at what's being said. You'll remember it for sure and because the trailer made you laugh, you have every reason to think the movie will. It even ends with a philosophical question. Time Bandits may not be one of my favorite movies, but it is one of my favorite trailers.

One more thing. About those aforementioned wonderful parts. Most of them involve the character Evil as played by the one and only David Warner (sigh). He's the best thing in the movie and his rants against the Supreme Being (i.e. God) are insanely funny. Below is my favorite scene in the movie. It tickles me that Evil sees technology as his ultimate weapon: "When I have understanding of computers...I shall be the Supreme Being." And this came out in 1981. Did the world have any idea?

Incidentally, I recall this speech a lot when I'm at work, thinking about my ever-patient high school computer teacher and how amused and confused she would be to learn I now work for a tech company.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In Defense of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Today I found out that Wesley Scroggins, a professor at Missouri State University, wrote a piece in which he called for the banning of (among others) Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak from his community's schools, likening it to "soft pornography." Here's an excerpt from the article.

"This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes." --Wesley Scroggins

As a writer and lifelong bibliophile, I find the concept of book banning offensive on principle. It encourages ignorance and denial hidden behind the trusty veneer of "protecting our children." But Speak's appearance on the chopping block is particularly painful.

The summer before I started high school, my aunt gave me a copy of Speak. It became one of my favorite books and one of the most important I've ever read. It's the story of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman who survives a brutal rape and suffers in silence for months, hiding deep inside herself while keenly observing the absurdities and cruelties of high school life. It's a terrifying, darkly funny, and incredibly moving book, one I feel everybody should read, particularly every teenage girl as she prepares to start high school. I've read it many times since that summer. In my junior year of high school, I suggested it be added to the curriculum (I'm not sure if it was). In my senior year, I used selections of it as part of my piece for forensics (speech and debate, not CSI). Everybody can relate to Melinda's pain and isolation whether or not they are victims of sexual assault or rape. It's an invaluable book and I'm grateful to Laurie Halse Anderson for writing it.

Yes, it does depict the rape of a teenage girl. It's horrifying but it's not pornographic. I find it disturbing that Mr. Scroggins used the words "soft pornography" to describe it. Maybe he's trying to stir up fear and misconceptions about it for those who haven't read it. Maybe he doesn't know what "soft pornography" actually means. Yes, the idea of sexual assault and rape is disturbing, but it happens. One need only look the overwhelming statistics to see that. One in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. And those are just the crimes that are reported. Families are dysfunctional, teachers are as human as the rest of us, and teenagers have sex. Yes, these facts are icky but they are facts. They are a part of reality. Banning Speak won't change that. It will only deny potential readers the comfort and awareness it can provide. Mr. Scroggins uses his Christianity as one of his reasons for fighting this book. I'm also a Christian, but I don't use my faith as an excuse to hide under a rock and write off brutality as "soft pornography." This is fear mongering and ignorance, plain and simple. If Mr. Scroggins wants to improve his community, he should work to raise awareness about sexual assault and rape, not fight to take away a book that can help people.

Here's a link to Mr. Scroggins's letter:

And here's a response by Laurie Halse Anderson

Friday, September 17, 2010

Talk About a Good First Date: A Look at "Let Me Be Your Wings" from Don Bluth's Thumbelina

I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but I LOVED Don Bluth's Thumbelina when I was little. I've seen it so many times. Too many times probably. I was six when it came out and I made my mother take me to see it in the theater. Then I watched the VHS tape over and over and over until I had every song memorized and a good deal of the dialogue as well. Unfortunately, Don Bluth's Thumbelina is not a good movie. It's a bit cringe-worthy as a matter of fact. Based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale about a tiny girl (literally no bigger than a thumb) on her own in the wide world after she's kidnapped by an evil toad, it's a pretty blatant Disney knockoff, complete with Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid) as our heroine. Plus they bastardized the hell out of Andersen's story. Andersen's Thumbelina can be interpreted as a feminist narrative. The title character is refreshingly assertive, saving herself on several occasions through quick-thinking and compassion. She's determined to hang on to her independence until she meets the man who is right for her, turning down the son of the aforementioned toad and a misanthropic mole along the way. She doesn't meet the prince until the end of the story and when she does, SHE initiates the relationship. This movie turns her into a simpering idiot who meets the prince five minutes in and can think of NOTHING else from then on. He becomes her motivation for everything, which isn't the case in Andersen's story. Not to mention the fact that the movie has her meet her swallow friend much earlier in the story and yet she doesn't think to ask him to FLY HER HOME MAKING FOR A GIGANTIC UNNECESSARY PLOTHOLE.

Having said that, there is one part of the movie that I still love. One part that made me buy it on DVD (before I knew the scene was on YouTube). The love song, "Let Me Be Your Wings." Written by Barry Manilow, it's one of my favorite movie love songs ever. I know every word and listen to it often. It's been called a poor man's "A Whole New World" and maybe it is, but I don't think so. The animation is gorgeous and I've always loved Prince Cornelius's voice (provided by Gary Imhoff). Not the character himself (though you can see shades of Dimitri from Anastasia in the design) but the voice still makes my heart go pitter-pat. He and Jodi Benson sound lovely together.

Not to mention the reprise at the end gives me happy chills. See what I mean about shame.

I didn't love the song when I was little, but when I was little, I thought Thumbelina should have married the mole. Really. I thought his house was cool and he had John Hurt's could I resist? It wasn't until I was in my teens that I watched the movie in a fit of nostalgia and swooned during "Let Me Be Your Wings." I mean come on, does anything sound more romantic than dancing on Saturn's rings? I think not.

P.S. Speaking of John Hurt, a few weeks ago, at a wine and cheese reception, I let it slip that I have The Elephant Man on tape and watched it repeatedly in high school. When a horrified fellow guest asked me "Why?" I started stuttering something about how it was a good movie and blah blah blah. Nope, it is a good movie but I watched it repeatedly because I am in love with John Hurt's voice. I have been for years and as a result, I will watch (or rather listen to) him in anything. But do I love it as much as Prince Cornelius's? Another question for another day.

Let Me Be Your Wings

Let Me Be Your Wings Reprise (Spoilers)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My New Favorite Picture of Sleeping Beauty's Castle

"It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by the security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit. I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large format camera directly at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge...The photographer it turned out was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo's breathtakingly romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful." --Steve Martin, Born Standing Up

Thursday, September 2, 2010

"I Shall Be the Saddest Thing On Earth" : A Look at The Blue Bird (1940)

"We can't pick and choose." --Unborn Girl, The Blue Bird

Shirley Temple's movies were a staple of my childhood. Between the ages of seven and ten, I watched them ad nauseum. I had the crappy colorized VHS tapes put out by Fox Home Video in the 90's--I didn't know any better!--and they pale in comparison to the rich black and white of the DVDs available now but oh well. Young as I was, I was able to overlook glaring racism and poor literary adaptation and just focus on Shirley. She was an amazingly talented young performer, often outshining the major stars with whom she worked. Some of her movies may not hold up nowadays but she definitely does. One that got a lot of play in my collection was The Blue Bird, one of her most unusual and obscure childhood films. Most of the time, Shirley played an optimistic, hopeful little girl who inspired optimism and hope in everyone around her (usually via song and dance). She also inspired her Depression-era audiences and this was the key to her enormous popularity. What makes The Blue Bird so unique is that Shirley (then twelve years old) dared to play against type.

Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird is about a nasty young girl who gets a much-needed wakeup call after she leaves home in search of The Blue Bird of Happiness. Together with her little brother, she has all sorts of crazy adventures and gradually learns the value of kindness and selflessness. The movie was obviously an answer to The Wizard of Oz released the year before complete with a No Place Like Home moral. The filmmakers even had the audacity to start the movie in black and white and switch to color fifteen minutes in, though with none of the magic of Dorothy first stepping out into Munchkinland. Still Shirley is good in it as always and it has that fairy tale quality I can't resist. And there is one scene that fascinates me even more now than it did when I was little.

Towards the end of the movie, Shirley and her brother are sent to look for the Blue Bird "in the future." Having already been to the past (a visit with the ghosts of their dead grandparents), this makes sense but how does one visit the future? By going to Heaven and meeting the children waiting to be born. What an awesome idea. The scene does stir a little bit of ire in me. All the unborn children are, of course, white. And dressed in togas with gender normative coloring no less. Also when Shirley sees a few of the kids plying their future trades, they're all scientists and, sure enough, all boys. Because only boys are scientists. Clearly. Anyway...

Despite its flaws, I was very moved by the emotional power of this sequence. There's so much going on in it. One child suspects her parents don't really want her. Another tries to sneak away before her time. A girl reveals herself to be Shirley's future sister and has sad news about what's in store for the family. Shirley also meets the boy who will be Abraham Lincoln (never mentioned by name) already aware of and dreading the fate that awaits him. To me, the most powerful moment is when two children who have fallen in love learn they must separate. The boy must leave to be born and the girl knows she will not be born until after he's died. They will never know each other on Earth and so neither will experience love in life. ARGH! I must have seen this movie 20 times as a kid. That goodbye scene never made me cry before now. The idea of being born too soon (or too late) to be with your true love is devastating. The essence of loneliness. A very affecting scene.

The entire "unborn children" sequence is worth watching in its entirety (see below). It's easily the best part. The Blue Bird, unfortunately, flopped at the box office, marking the end of Shirley's reign as America's child star. It was too expensive to turn a profit and audiences didn't like seeing Shirley in a negative (or adolescent) light. That said, The Blue Bird is a good movie. It's beautiful to look at and Shirley's dark side is a lot of fun. If anything, it could lead you to rewatch The Wizard of Oz, which is always time well spent in my opinion.

Unborn Children Sequence First Part

Second Part