Santa Claus is comin’ to Town

Rankin Bass Christmas specials! This was one of the things I loved most about Christmas as a child.

Watching television on holiday afternoons featuring those distinctive doll-like characters, brought to life with a stop-motion animation technique called “Animagic”. (I used to look forward to it almost as much as Santa dropping off the presents!)

According to wikipedia
The company was founded by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass in the early 1960s as Videocraft International. The majority of Rankin/Bass’ work, including all of their “Animagic” stop-motion productions, were created in Japan. Throughout the 1960s, the Animagic productions were headed by Japanese stop-motion animator Tadahito Mochinaga.
Their traditionally cel-animated works were animated by Toei Animation, Crawley Films and Mushi Production, and since the 1970s, they were animated by the Japanese studio Topcraft, which was formed in 1972 as an offshoot of Toei Animation.

The 5 most popular films (and also my personal favourites) were

Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer (1964)

With narrator Burl Ives in the role of Sam the Snowman

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

About the birth of the baby Jesus, and with Greer Garson providing the dramatic narration

Frosty the Snowman (1969)
This was actually cell animation (as opposed to “Animagic”) and narrated by Jimmy Durante (who also sang the title song). Jackie Vernon voiced the title character.

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1970)
An origin story about Santa Claus, narrated by Fred Astaire as (the animated character) mailman S.D (“Special Delivery”) Kluger. Kris Kringle is voiced by Mickey Rooney

The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
Narrated by Shirley Booth as (the animated character) Mrs. Claus, and featuring Mickey Rooney once again as the voice of Santa Claus. The iconic characters of Snow Miser (voiced by Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (voiced by George S. Irving) also featured in this film.

Snow Miser

and

Heat Miser

Merry Christmas, happy holidays and best wishes for a great start to 2013!
(Back again in early February. All the best in the meantime).

Drinking from the poisoned well

There was once a wise king who ruled over a vast city. He was feared for his might and loved for his wisdom. Now in the heart of the city, there was a well whose waters were pure and crystalline from which the king and all the inhabitants drank. When all were asleep, an enemy entered the city and poured seven drops of a strange liquid into the well. And he said that henceforth all who drink this water shall become mad.

All the people drank of the water, but not the king. And the people began to say, “The king is mad and has lost his reason. Look how strangely he behaves. We cannot be ruled by a madman, so he must be dethroned.”

The king grew very fearful, for his subjects were preparing to rise against him. So one evening, he ordered a golden goblet to be filled from the well, and he drank deeply. The next day, there was great rejoicing among the people, for their beloved king had finally regained his reason“.

–Author Unknown

This story is told in a scene from the film Serpico (directed by Sidney Lumet and released in 1973) between the title character (played by Al Pacino) and his girlfriend Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young).

Serpico covers twelve years (from 1960 until June 15th 1972) in the life of NYPD officer Frank Serpico. It is based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Peter Maas and is about an extremely diligent police officer who discovers a hidden world of illicit activities among his own colleagues – witnessing cops doing drugs, committing violence, taking paybacks and other forms of police corruption. He decides to blow the whistle on the rot within, but doing do so leads to him being harassed and threatened, suffering great personal hardship and even enduring life-threatening situations. After being shot in the face during a drug bust on February 3, 1971, Frank Serpico eventually testified before the Knapp Commission, a government inquiry into police corruption between 1970 and 1972.

The fact is that going against the grain is never the easiest choice.

And voicing the unpopular can often make us terribly unpopular as well.

But sometimes the very things people are least willing to see and hear are the very things they most need to be told and have their attention drawn to.

Remember that Galileo was thrown in prison about 500 years ago for trying to tell everyone that the world wasn’t flat.

And until relatively recent times some people had the legal right to keep other human beings as slaves.

And doctors once used to advertise cigarettes.


“More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette”

So even if you can’t beat ’em, don’t ever be tempted to join ’em.

Be strong and be brave, and refuse your drink from the poison well.

The lonely voices of reason and sanity can take a while to make themselves heard, but without them the world would stay unhealthy, unfair and incorrect.

Fantastic Conspiracy Theories

No doubt you knew that the moon landing was faked.

And that the Roswell alien landing was covered up.

And that the CIA killed JFK.

And that the lottery is rigged

But did you also know that a race of beings called “Agarthians” live deep below us in the centre of the Earth? Apparently, they were first discovered in 1947 after an expedition to the North Pole by Admiral Byrd. (Sounds like 1947 was a big year between this and Roswell!). Byrd was in the U.S. Navy when he made two flights into the hollow earth, which has only two openings – one at the North pole and one at the South pole. The U.S. Navy, of course, are keeping all this information Top Secret.

And you know what else? Shapeshifting reptilian aliens are really running the planet and controlling everything. – the government, the media you name it. David Icke should know – he used to be a reporter for the BBC! Okay, he was a sports reporter, but who cares…He knows the truth about the “Reptilians” (or “Reptoids”, or “Reptiloids” or “Draconians”…guess they’re still struggling the naming process), an alien race which colonised Earth long ago which includes everyone from George W. Bush to the British Royal family. (And you thought “V” was just a television series!)

“The scariest and most powerful thing about conspiracy theories is they can’t be disproven, because any evidence that contradicts a conspiracy theory can be immediately dismissed as a plant of the conspiracy itself, created and disseminated specifically to disprove it. That’s what’s so clever about Fantastic Fest selection “The Conspiracy“. writes Matt Singer of Criticwrire (in a piece called “Fantastic Fest Review” 26th September, 2012).

The Conspiracy is a faux documentary which uses found footage and was written and directed by Christopher MacBride.

The film follows two doc filmmakers who decide their subject will be a man who’s made a name for himself by yelling protests in the streets of Toronto. This man explains that we’re all sheep (think real life Matrix), and slaves to a government attempting to become one powerful entity. The tales that are spun come directly out of conspiracy forums and are essential in integrating a level of believability to this intriguing mockumentary. When the old man goes missing, the filmmakers piece together his office full of newspaper clippings – which leads them down the rabbit hole of “truth.”

… what makes The Conspiracy so compelling is that it’s based on real conspiracy theories. Everything that’s suggested in the film is something I’ve known or read about, which makes the mockumentary that much more believable and even more thrilling.
according to Mr Disgusting at the Bloody Disgusting.com (“Chilling ‘The Conspiracy’ Brings Found Footage Thrills!” 23rd September, 2012)

Some people simply do not like the discomfort that a conspiracy theory creates. But for others, conspiracy theories are intriguing. They like to explore all of the possibilities that a conspiracy theory presents, in the same way that they like to explore puzzles or mystery novels. Sometimes a conspiracy theory is ridiculous and learning about it is a form of entertainment. Or you may find that the theory is credible and it makes you think. It’s interesting to consider the theory, weigh the evidence and come up with a conclusion“. Marshall Brain, “How Conspiracy Theories Work“. (How Stuff Works.com)

Personally, I struggle to believe that the world is being run by shapeshifting reptiles… but maybe that’s because their minion helpers – the microscopic carnivorous slug aliens – have hijacked my brain and I can no longer even trust my very own thought processes! Because they control them…telling me what to write at this very moment!!

Whatever. They’ve managed to be a bit more productive at this whole blogging thing than I have recently. Maybe I should leave them to it.

Not faking it

Ever watched something and gotten the feeling that somebody was trying to cheat in some drama?

Trying to cover up a weak plot with gaping holes with a gratuitous ton of fight or battle scenes? Or car chases? Or sex scenes? Or explosions? Or over the top plot twists?

Desperately hoping nobody would notice just how boring the story actually was?

Ironically, watching the truly magnificent series “Breaking Bad” has gotten me thinking about this. About how much poor storytelling I have settled for as a viewer in the past, because I didn’t think I could do any better.

You know what it’s like. Things start out with so much promise.

You start watching an exciting new TV series and get thoroughly hooked. Just falling in love with it.

And then the “inevitable” decline in quality begins.

Things get stale as it wears on.

After a while you know the magic is gone, but you find it hard to let go. Hoping that things can somehow be good again.

And then the abuse starts.

The plot just becomes more and more ridiculous, overblown and insulting until you finally have no choice but to preserve your own sanity and stop watching.

I get the feeling that “Breaking Bad” is a series that will never treat its audience that way.

I’m just about to commence watching the 4th season of “Breaking Bad”. (I know – I’m way behind the rest of the planet. Story of my life. Nevermind…)

And what never ceases to amaze me if how consistently strong the writing still is.

Not only do the character and relationship arcs never lose their momentum and dramatic build, but every moment of every scene in every part of the plot is brilliantly motivated.

And the plot twists – especially the big dramatic moments – are genuinely surprising. (Understatement. I never see them coming. And I’m usually one of those unbearable people who can usually pick the big plot surprise about 3 minutes into the story. I’m loving this!)

(Sigh) If only all drama could be this good…


Breaking Bad Trailer (Season One)

So where are the women?

Have you heard of the Bechdel Test or the Mo Movie Measure?

It originated from Allison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1985 and is a sort of litmus test to assess the presence of women in movies.

To pass the test a movie has to get a “yes” for all three of the following three questions.

1) Are there two or more women in it who have names?
2) Do they talk to each other?
3) Do they talk to each other about something other then a man?

It’s truly amazing (and more than a little depressing) just how many films don’t pass the test.
For example

Avatar
Star Wars (Episodes 1-6)
The Lord of the Rings Triliogy
The Dark Knight
Shrek
Watchmen
Transformers
Bruno
Ghostbusters
The Big Lebowski
Wall-E
Clerks
Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 and 3
Austin Powers 1, 2 and 3
Men in Black
Fight Club
The Fifth Element
The Princess Bride
The Wedding Singer
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The Truman Show
From Dusk till Dawn
Trainspotting
Mission Impossible
Toy Story
Gladiator
X Men
When Harry Met Sally
Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3
Tomb Raider
Pulp Fiction
Interview with the Vampire
Home Alone
Up

There are 3378 movies in the Bechdel Test database, 1809 (53.6%) of which pass all three tests, 377 (11.2%) pass two tests, 835 (24.7%) pass one test and 357 (10.6%) pass no tests at all.

In an article that appeared in the Huffington Post (22.11.2012) “Women Are Underrepresented, Oversexualized In Top Films: Study“, Amy Lee writes

A study released by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism took a survey of the 4,342 speaking characters in the top 100 grossing films of 2009 and compared it to results from the top 100 films of 2007 and 2008. For women, nothing much has changed — in these top films, 32.8 percent of actors are female and 67.2 are male — 2.05 males to every one female. This means that less than 17 percent of films are gender balanced, even though females make up half of the ticket-buying population.

Perhaps more disturbing is the finding that women are much more frequently sexualized when they appear on screen. They’re more likely to be seen in sexy clothing (25.8 percent to men at 4.7 percent) and more likely to be partially naked (23.6 percent to 7.4 percent).

Women are also more likely to feel the effect of their age on their career. Though teen girls (12-20 year olds) are more likely than adult women, 21-39, to be shown as sexy, or partially naked — 21.5 percent to 13.8. But older women, aged 40-64, are not only less likely to be shown as attractive (3.8 percent), but less likely to be shown at all. Only 24 percent of all characters aged 40 to 64 are female.

Earlier in the year, there was an uproar over the lack of female presence of amongst directors in competition for the Palme d’Or (award) at the Cannes Film Festival.

Melanie Goodfellow wrote in article for screendaily.com called “Cannes sexism debate explodes on eve of festival” (14/5/2012)

A fierce debate over whether the Cannes Film Festival is sexist or not has exploded on the eve of its opening this Wednesday, following a high-profile opinion piece in the Le Monde accusing the event of sexism.

The article published on Saturday and signed by Baise Moi director Virginie Despentes, filmmaker Coline Serreau and actress Fanny Cottonçon attacked the festival over the lack of women in competition this year.

Feminist group La Barbe (the beard), which was behind the initiative, simultaneously launched an online petition. By Monday morning, more than 1,000 people, mainly women involved in the French film world, had signed up.

“The directors of the 22 films in competition this year are all, by happy coincidence, men. For the 63rd time in its existence, the festival will crown one of its own, defending without fail the virile values which are the nobility of the seventh art.” Despentes, Serreau and Cottonçon wrote.

“Once in 1993, the Golden Palm was awarded to a female director, Jane Campion. And in 2011, probably due to a lack of vigilance, four women featured among the 20 nominees in competition,” it continued.

“This year, gentlemen you’ve come to your senses and we are overjoyed. The Cannes Film Festival will allow Wes, Jacques, Leos, David, Lee, Andrew, Matteo, Michael, John, Hong, Im, Abbas, Ken, Sergei, Cristian, Yousry, Jeff, Alain, Carlos, Walter, Ulrich and Thomas to show one more time that “men like depth in women, but only in their cleavage.”

And in a article called “Where are the women in film?” for The Guardian (18/5/2012) Amelia Hill interviewed Producer Trudie Styler and director Lucy Walker

Each of them had the following things to say

Lucy Walker : There is a remarkable problem. In Hollywood last year, just 5% of the 250 biggest films were directed by women. That’s down from 9% a few years ago. What’s going on? It’s not that women don’t want to do it: in film school, 50% of students are women. There is something going on between women wanting to do it, and getting to do it. It’s absolutely remarkable.

…When a man directs a turkey, he’ll typically be hired much quicker again than a woman who has had a film bomb. But what’s most heartbreaking as a director are the success stories; the films directed by women that do fantastically well. Look at what happens to those women. Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight film – a hit that came out of nowhere – was not hired to make the next one, but was described as too difficult to work with. Her next film had a budget twice as big as Twilight, but she couldn’t get the same fee. In Hollywood, when a guy directs a hit, his fee goes up, no questions asked. She was very upset about that.

Amelia Hill: Why is the film business allowed – and why does it feel it’s OK – to openly treat women so differently?

Trudie Styler: We let it go on and on, and none of us have answers. It just is. That’s not acceptable. There’s a very powerful woman in Sony [Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures], but look at her slate: she’s obviously being dictated to by a strong pool because she’s producing bad boy, action movies. Everyone is concerned in these lean times to show a profit, but while only 7% of directors in Hollywood are women, 23% of producers are women. It behoves those to be inviting women directors to step up and say: “We’ll develop your product. Bring it to us.”

Prophets of Science Fiction

The science fiction genre in storytelling provides an excellent vehicle for social philosophy and social commentary, often taking an aspect of contemporary society and projecting it into an extreme vision of the future to make a point about it.

The world in which it is set, or its “social stage”, is therefore one of the most important features of science fiction. And the technology within that world is equally important, as science fiction is often, fundamentally, a comment on technology.

Prophets of Science Fiction” is a documentary television series produced and hosted by Ridley Scott for the Science channel.

SBS aired the series earlier this year and their overview of the series states

“Each episode of this series examines and celebrates the life, ideas, convictions, philosophies and genius of eight legends of the science fiction realm. These are pillars of the genre, representing the most ground-breaking conceptual viewpoints of their eras. Notable for some of today’s greatest sci-fi concepts, these writers and their works continue to inspire the minds of young and old around the world.”

(I thought that was a really excellent description of it, so I lazily stole it instead of working on one of my own!)

The eight chosen visionaries the series examines and celebrates are

Mary Shelley who started writing “Frankenstein” as a teenager, in 1816.

Philip K. Dick who was both a literary genius and a paranoid outcast. His work inspired the films “BladeRunner“, “Total Recall” and “Minority Report“.

H.G. Wells who wrote stories like “The Time Machine“, and “War of the Worlds“, and famously wrote his own epitaph – “I told you so…”

Arthur C. Clarke who co-wrote the script for the “2001” with Stanley Kubrick, the pair having based it on a short story by Clarke called “The Sentinal” (although he was quoted as saying that comparing “The Sentinal” with “2001” was like comparing “an acorn to the resulting oak-tree”).

Isaac Asimov who wrote “I, Robot“, and hoped for a better future where we had nothing to fear from technology.

Jules Verne who pioneered the science fiction genre, writing about space, air, and underwater travels before practical means of had been devised. He is best known for “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea“, “A Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Around the World in Eighty Days“.

Robert Heinlein who is “a walking contradiction. His stories address themes of patriotism and duty, while stressing the importance of personal freedom and expression”. The theme “What is freedom?” permeates his work, which includes “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “Starship Troopers“.

George Lucas who gave us the epic space mythology of Star Wars and the concept of “the used future”, and changed the way movies are made altogether.

Critics of the series have deemed it to be “light on the substance and heavy on the exaggeration“. And, at times, I agree with that statement. (Especially with respect to the final episode, number 8 on George Lucas).

That said, it is still a fascinating, thought provoking and very worthwhile series to take a look at in my humble opinion.

The Stuff of Nightmares

According to Douglas Winter, in his 1982 anthology Prime Evil “Horror is not a genre, like a mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion”.

Stephen King once said “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones”.

Perhaps fictional horror provides us with a relatively safe space to inhabit the fear (without the genuine threat) of real horror.

The horror genre essentially revolves around the questions of “What is human?” versus “What is inhuman?”

I heard screenwriting guru John Truby give a talk about genre a number of years ago in London. His view was that horror generally comes from something inhuman trying to act like a human being. The monster is the hero’s greatest fear made physical.

And the best horror stories often tend to involve a “flip” of what is human and what is inhuman, so that somewhere in the story the monster becomes the hero and the hero becomes the monster to fully mine the idea. (For example, Frankenstein).

Horror is also a very metaphorical form and horror archetypes stem from different fears.

Werewolves and vampires stem from the “fear of the animal” – the fear of animal passion and the loss of control. (This genre is all the more popular in a repressive world. Could that, perhaps, have some connection to that fact that a devout Mormon ended up writing a best selling vampire book series?).

A scene from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)

Zombies, on the other hand, represent a “fear of the machine” horror – a fear of the loss of identity and individuality.

A scene from the “Resident Evil” computer game

These archetypes never really seem to go away, but rather undergo periodic reinvention and surges in popularity according to the relevant societal context.

For me the best horror film ever made is “Jaws“, the story of a giant man-eating shark which terrorises a (fictional) summer resort town called Amity, in New England. I first watched it on video (back in the dark ages, obviously), as a twelve year old, one Saturday afternoon.

It scared the living crap out of me, but I still thought afterwards that it was probably the best film I had ever seen.

When Jaws came out in 1975 it scared the living crap out of a lot of other people as well, and was a massive hit. It also cemented the idea in public consciousness of sharks as monsters lurking in the ocean, waiting to devour us – an idea that is still taking much effort to change.

The film taps into a strong preexisting primal fear – the horrifying fear of a very real animal which has the power to shred a human body or swallow them whole. Even with the knowledge that shark attacks are incredibly rare, and much less commonly fatal, the nature of a shark attack can provoke a lot of fear in most of us.

One thing Jaws exploits very well is the fear of the unknown, or the unseen. Often what we imagine can be more terrifying than what we see and director Steven Spielberg tapped into this fear by denying his audience any clear visual of the shark – especially not in its entirety – until late in the film. The use of music (that iconic theme by John Williams whenever the shark is around) and objects being moved by the shark through the water (e.g barrels that Clint, Hooper and Brody attach to hunt/kill it in the second half of the film) are used instead to let the audience know that the shark is lurking and present.

In part, this could be an example of what Sidney Lumet meant when he said “For any director with a little lucidity, masterpieces are films that come to you by accident”.


A short film about the infamously problematic mechanical shark in Jaws, called “The Shark that Didn’t Work”.

A highly unreliable mechanical shark – which was often out of action, and already forcing the film well over budget – made it necessary to shoot in ways where the shark in the story was only hinted at.

Years later, Spielberg remarked, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen“.

Another gift the mechanical shark’s perpetual failure gave to the film was time and focus invested into strong naturalistic performances. As Spielberg put it “The more fake the shark looked in the water, the more my anxiety told me to heighten the naturalism of the performances.”

Clint’s famous speech about the SS Indianapolis in a scene from Jaws.

Often in horror films the characters and relationships are highly reduced because the hero/es spend/s so much time running away from or fighting against the monster.

One of the things that truly sets Jaws apart from most other horror films is the naturalistic responses and moments of touching believable humanity in its characters.

Brody’s famous “You’re going to need a bigger boat” moment in a scene from Jaws.

In my opinion this is still a film, especially a horror film , that comes closer to answering the question of “What is human?” than many others.

As Peter Biskind wrote in ‘Between the Teeth’ in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media No. 9 (1975) “Jaws flatters us by holding out the promise that such triumph over unspeakable terror is within the reach of us all”.