A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.
As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.
Les Fleurs du Mal, “Correspondances”
Flatland and Beyond -- a Longish Post About Animation
Terry Teachout’s blog About Last Night has become a daily stop for me during its brief existence. It should be a regular read for you, too. And I’m not saying that just because he was the first blogger to link to this Fool (though I remain duly appreciative of the gesture).
Last weekend, we watched the DVD of Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful Spirited Away, and I had been wanting to write something about it. I didn’t really have a mental hook on which to hang it, though, until Terry’s Friday blog entry on computer vs. hand-drawn animation. In a nutshell, he genuinely likes Pixar’s computer generated Finding Nemo, but finds that it, as with other digital productions, leaves him at something of a distance.
What bothers me are the three-dimensional backgrounds, which are both fantastically elaborate and hyper-realistic. It’s an impressive achievement, I suppose, but I can’t help feeling an incongruity between the characters, which are obviously animated (meaning unreal), and their environment, which just as obviously aspires to a different set of visual objectives.I concur in the Teachout ranking of those two films, though I am more enthusiastic for Nemo than he is. The resort to watercolor backgrounds for the first time in decades in Lilo and Stitch -- seemingly driven as much by budget issues as by conscious choice -- is a big part of that film’s success. Similarly, the very unreality and “artistic” quality of hand animation is a central part of Miyazaki’s appeal to me. He has a particular passion for nature, and in several of his films there are shots of wind moving over fields or flower beds under glorious cumulus-studded skies that capture light, and the pure gorgeousness of light, with an enthusiasm to rival Monet.
I know there’s more to animation than animation, so to speak. Pixar’s features are good not just because of the way they look but also because of the way they’re written and voiced and scored. In those departments, Pixar stands head and shoulders over just about everybody else’s stuff. But the best animated feature of the past decade, Lilo and Stitch, is just as imaginatively written and voiced and scored -- but also makes generous use of hand-drawn characters and hand-painted backgrounds that don’t aspire to Pixar-like hyper-realism. I can’t help but think that this is part of the reason why Lilo and Stitch touched me, whereas Finding Nemo mostly only charmed me.
Miyazaki does not, I think, compete with Pixar or the very best of Disney in terms of story or plotting, but I confess that may be an erroneous impression based on my not being able to understand his films in their original Japanese. I can say that even in translation his films linger and resonate long after they end, and that this is true even of the films -- such as Kiki's Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro , to name two others I particularly admire -- in which, looking back, it seems that very little actually happens. Unlike most American filmmakers, Miyazaki is content to reach viewers as much with what is absent or implied as with what is set directly before them. While both Kiki and Chihiro (in Spirited Away) go through a growing-up process by their respective films’ end, their growth seems to come from actual self-examination and to be more organic and believable than the pop-psych quick fix young-outsider-finds-his/her-place-in -the-world that is the pattern for so many recent Disney films (such as Aladdin or Mulan or even The Lion King). (One of the charms of Lilo and Stitch is that the characters still are out of step with the world at large at the end of the film, but have each found a niche within their “little and broken, but still good” extended family.)
To return to Pixar, while the films as a whole may charm rather than touch, I find that there are individual scenes and sequences in all of the studio’s films that ring true emotionally and, for as long as they last, make the issue of analog v. digital irrelevant. I think of scenes such as Buzz Lightyear’s discovery of his true nature (he’s a toy, and not a flying toy at that) in the original Toy Story or the argument in the Abominable Snowman’s cave in Monsters, Inc. And many would argue, though I’ve never quite been one of them, that Woody’s confrontation of the Faustian bargain by which he might attain a sort of immortality in Toy Story 2 is a pinnacle of the genre. In Finding Nemo, the emotionally dead-on scene comes when the memory-impaired Dory (Ellen DeGeneres, whose acting I would not previously have ever expected to praise) pleads with Albert Brooks’ Marlin not to leave her behind, because she can only think clearly when he’s around and is desperately afraid of slipping back into her fog. (My wife disagrees with me on this one, having found the character of Dory just a bit too dim, repetitious and annoying to engage her sympathy. But that’s about the only thing she didn’t much like in the film.) Pixar’s John Lasseter is a huge admirer of Miyazaki, and the emotional effectiveness of the best Pixar sequences suggests that he has drawn many of the right lessons from Miyazaki’s films.
The animators who have best managed the trick of placing clearly artificial or “cartoony” characters in a “realistic” setting may be the talented clay-animation folk at Aardman Animations, particularly in Chicken Run . Even though (as that trusty steed Patsy would say) "it's only a model," the prison camp settings are lovingly detailed and are shot with the same attention to light, shadow and color that a good cinematographer would bring to bear on a “real” setting. Because the chickens and other characters actually are three dimensional, they fit into their filmic world with a consistency that Pixar characters don’t always possess. Aardman films combine the dimensionality of computer animation with the handcrafted quality that distinguishes traditional hand-drawn animation. They do not attempt the emotional reach of some of the other films mentioned here, but they successfully finesse the blending of character and setting that seems to be the obstacle to Terry Teachout’s full engagement with the Pixar films.
When I saw Toy Story in its original release, I distinctly recall thinking “Wow, this looks as real as Wallace and Gromit!” I meant that, and still do, as high praise. Aardmanesque aspects abound in Pixar’s films. With all those extra joints to articulate, for instance, the insects in A Bug's Life could easily be imagined as stop motion models. And particularly around the eyes, the seagulls in Finding Nemo -- whose single minded “Mine! Mine! Mine!” is one of the best jokes in the movie -- bear a troubling resemblance to the Professor Moriarty of the marine bird world, Aardman’s "Feathers" McGraw.
In the end, the choice of animation medium -- pen and paper, bits and bytes or clay models -- probably matters less than the thought, and heart, that is put into it. Computers make it unfortunately easy to create a character or effect without fully thinking or feeling it through -- as witness the catcalls and dissatisfaction that have greeted sophisticated computer-generated characters such as The Hulk. That’s a subject worth another post at some point. For the moment, I think the extent to which Pixar’s films avoid that trap is impressive, and the moments that work as well as more traditional animation outnumber those that don’t.
POSTSCRIPT 1: Information on all things Miyazaki can be found at the extremely thorough fan site, Nausicaa.net.
POSTSCRIPT 2: A Terry Teachout bonus: He gets interesting letters from his readers. I especially like the one urging reappraisal of the great Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain . [The author of that letter also appears to have reappraised the uses of capitalization, but that's just a pet peeve of mine, fogey of a Fool that I am. He/she is right about the need to reconsider O'Connor, although too harsh on Gene Kelly.]
If you have any interest at all in American education and How It Got This Way, I cannot give a high enough recommendation to Friedrich Blowhard's lengthy summation of the subject in his post on Education Reform and the Lessons of History. It is the sort of piece in which each part is tightly joined to the whole, so no excerpt can really do it justice. Nonetheless, here's a taste:
The arrangement of the Progressive high school was based quite openly on the notion that most children lacked the mental wherewithal (and cultural background) for academic studies, and that academic studies were actively harmful for the mass of children, making them discontent with their inevitable lot as cashiers, auto mechanics, beauticians, housewives, etc. At the same time, because these non-academic-track children had to be kept in school to ensure their socialization as good Americans (and also to further the empire-building ambitions of educational bureaucrats), less challenging alternatives to the academic disciplines had to be found. This was particularly the case for students in the 'general' track, who didn’t take algebra but did take 'general' math, who didn’t take history but took 'social studies.' Here we see the beginnings of the trend of inventing highly entertaining elective classes on distinctly non-academic topics. This trend is, of course, still quite visible in many high schools (and colleges) today.Much of the educational challenge today, F. Blowhard argues, stems from the fact that while the expectations we have of our high schools has changed significantly the underlying structures and assumptions of the education system have changed surprisingly little since the Progressive era -- or, for that matter, since the late Victorian era.
A must-read if this is at all your idea of an interesting subject (as it plainly is mine).
In Which I Speak Favorably of a California Democrat
It's no particular secret that, to the dismay of some of my good friends, my politics lean more against the Democratic Party than for it. That said, if there is one Democrat in Sacramento that I basically respect, it is Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Yes, he is clearly supportive of my worthy opponents in the plaintiffs' bar (and thus, I suppose, good for my business by generating more litigation against which I can defend my clients), but he is not blindly supportive of that agenda. Indeed, a number of the most sensible reforms to come out of the Legislature over the past decade or two [such as the imposition of a more stringent standard for punitive damages] have had Lockyer's name on them.
Lockyer is a smart fellow, so it is good to see him preemptively take Gray Davis to the woodshed by warning Davis against running the sort low and muck-ridden campaign of which he is the past master, raising the questions: (1) Will Davis take this good advice, and (2) if he does, does he actually know any other way to run?
The invaluable California Insider has more here, and a link to a relevant cartoon here.
A Little Night Music
One of the standard situations in family comic strips and situation comedies is The School Project That Isn't Mentioned Until Just Before It Is Due. The theme recurred, for instance, in the much-missed Calvin and Hobbes. (That link will take you to a more or less random example, not directly relevant to our topic -- which itself is a bit of a McGuffin in any case. Comics should be searchable by topic, it seems to me, but that appears to be a premium service. To return:)
Thanks to a low-level variant on that theme, the Wallace household was in search of live music last night, which led four of us to the lovingly newly-restored Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena's Memorial Park for a free performance by the band Minibar.
Minibar are four expatriate Brits, now resident in southern California, producing well-crafted music drawing on forms from both their old and new homes: think Gram Parsons meets Nick Drake by way of Travis (though neither quite so poppy nor quite so Scottish) or Coldplay (though not so arena-friendly). Regret, longing and cautious optimism are the lyrical order of the day, with guitars at the forefront and 3-part harmonies for almost every chorus. A pair of archived performances at Santa Monica's KCRW can be found here and here for ready reference.
Altogether a good band -- and a balmy summer evening on the grass did nothing to harm my fondness for the City of Pasadena. Minibar are just starting to tour in support of a new album (their second), heading north from here. [Attention Portland readers: they'll be in your town August 19. You know who you are.] Or, you could buy the new album:
Let's Get Lost
Good morning. There's a music-related post en route, but you can fill the wait time with Kieran Healy's report at Crooked Timber on the mazy convolutions of a molecularly-modeled University building. Architectural design by Carroll & Kafka?
Enough about Art and Politics . . . Time for Some Really Useful Engines
That busy fellow Brian Micklethwaite [see arts funding post, post] not only blogs on culture questions, he blogs about transportation issues here. His interests collide entertainingly in this post identifying good movies involving trains. His commenters offer further suggested viewing.
But Enough About Politics . . . Let's Talk About ART and Politics
Ah, the happy happenstance of browsing about the Net. I enjoy the accidental symmetries that turn up when one glimpsed link is immediately followed by another that directly opposes it. An example follows:
As the California Legislature slinks away having passed a budget more notable for its sleight of hand than anything else, ArtsJournal is linking to reports in the San Francisco Chronicle (no doubt typical of many similar stories around the state) to the effect that the new budget eviscerates State arts funding. ArtsJournal summarizes:
California slashes its arts funding from $18 million to a token $1 million, effectively shutting down the agency. 'The new budget translates to less than 3 cents per person statewide. California will now rank dead last in per capita state spending for the arts. The national average is $1.10 per person.'Sounds dire indeed. And for a number of dependent organizations, dire it surely is. No sooner had I glanced at that piece than a jaunt over to Brian Micklethwaite's Culture Blog drew me to this item [CAUTION: Contains coarse and unflattering characterizations of other sites' design], which glosses and annotates a rant against British arts festivals and the role of the public treasury therein by Stephen Pollard. (Still with me? Thank you. Now let's move along.) In the course of that glossy annotation, Brian links to his own analysis -- seemingly dating back to 1983, but still relevant -- supporting a libertarian case that art subsidies are themselves bad for The Arts. The Pollard piece sums things up quotably, guiltily enjoying cultural nourishment at the expense of others:
I’m one of that guilty minority who has his pleasure paid for by other people. So yes, I benefit from all this largesse. But every time I set foot inside one of these institutions, with their self-perpetuating bureaucracies, their now mandatory “outreach” programmes (obfuscatory attempts to show how “relevant” they are), and their oh-so-desperate attempts to be “accessible” (a bizarre aim, since the only people who want access to a minority pursuit are the minority who want access to it), I know that I am taking part in a giant scam, in which a cultural elite extorts money from the rest of society so it can better indulge itself.Discuss. Then support your favorite artistic institution.
It’s time the rest of you pulled the rug from underneath my feet.
[UPDATE 8/1/03: I checked the Stephen Pollard link cited above and find that although it does take you directly to the post in question, the version you get lacks such niceties as paragraphing. If you want a more legible version, click through to the main page of stephenpollard.net then go down to July 27 and find the "festival" entry. Brian Micklethwaite knows where of he speaks when he complains about the design.]
Bad Dogs and Worse Humans
Catherine Seipp revisits the San Francisco dog mauling case in the latest issue of the Pasadena Weekly, using it as the jumping off point for a timely meditation on media throat-clearing over the name of Kobe Bryant's accuser/victim:
But that’s the nature of violent crime — worth considering in light of the current argument about Kobe Bryant’s accuser and whether the media should identify alleged rape victims. I think they should. Because, yes, rape is violating and dehumanizing, but no more so (and probably less) than being torn apart like a rabbit caught by hounds. To suggest otherwise buys into the notion that sexual assault — alone among all kinds of assault — somehow contaminates its victim. The media has no business indulging this kind of thinking.She also hits on one of the most troubling aspects of the continuing slide into unpleasantness of the once-great City of San Francisco, the willingness of its citizens "to live with an astonishing amount of civil disorder in their own backyard."
Toleration for aggressive panhandling is the most visible expression of this phenomenon, and toleration for aggressive dogs may be another variant. But imagine if just one of these angry neighbors had complained publicly about the Noels and their dogs before the attack. Diane Whipple might be alive today.
People love to bash the media for airing dirty laundry. But the moral of the dog-mauling case is that sometimes dirty laundry should be aired. It’s the only way to get the stink out.
Progressivism Strikes Back
An historical footnote to the pending Gray Davis recall election:
Inscrutable, readable Canadian Colby Cosh carries us back to 1921 North Dakota and the only sitting U.S. governor (thus far) ever to have been recalled by the voters, Lynn J. Frazier.
A midwestern Progressive elected as a representative of the Nonpartisan League, Frazier apparently set out to socialize North Dakotan agriculture. The economy hiccupped, losses from "the state-run mill" were hidden in the budget, campaign funds wound up in questionable banking institutions . . . and all done without the aid of a single accountant from Arthur Andersen. Direct democacy ensued. Make it your history lesson for the day.
Going to the Dogs
I was expecting that blogging might be minimal or nonexistent today, because I am about to head out to present a seminar on professional liability issues. I did a quick cruise around some of my regular sites, though, and found this item at Walter Olson's Overlawyered: Push for veterinary malpractice continues.
The principal link is to this article from the Christian Science Monitor republished by ABC News. And, proving once again that it is (after all) a small world, attorney Robert Newman who is mentioned in the first paragraph of the article will be my opposite number at today's seminar. He and I get on quite well, but we disagree on most every point in this field.
More later today, or more likely tomorrow morning.
I have not written anything about Diane Ravitch's book, The Language Police, because (1) many others have done so and (2) I haven't read it yet. However, given the Bob Dylan sub-theme that keeps cropping up here, I cannot resist this anecdote -- leading into a discussion of the Ravitch book -- from school psychologist and college instructor Bernard Chapin:
Last year I was previewing a textbook that I was about to use in a Human Development course I was teaching. The book was the usual flamboyant montage of facts, grids, and pictures, but then I suddenly ran across a most unusual sentence. It read, 'As a folksinger once sang, how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult.' I was stupefied.(Emphasis mine.) Link via Joanne Jacobs.
This reminds me a bit of an old routine by The Capitol Steps, featuring corrected versions of rhymes by Under-Appreciated Primary Caregiver Goose. . . .
"We're Living in Swiss Cheese With a Door!"
I arrived home yesterday to find that during the day our house had undergone a quantity of unexpected (but necessary) and expensive plumbing work. This comes on top of a bout with termites and a long series of other homely headaches. Appropriate viewing at such moments: Tom Hanks in The Money Pit, a film that will either cause you to chuckle mightily or leave you completely cold. At the Wallace house, it is generally the former.
Potter and Pullman - A Longish Note About Children's Books
My parents kindly saw to it that we in the Wallace household had our copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as soon as it became available. I waited my turn like a good husband and father and finished reading it about a week ago. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it thoroughly, chuckled regularly at J. K. Rowling’s frequently dry sense of humor amid the supernatural adventuring, and will surely be back for volumes six and seven.
A number of bloggers have got themselves in a dither over this comment from Alfonso Cuaron, now directing the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, contained in a Newsweek story on a visit to the set:
Cuaron’s outspokenness is also new to the franchise. Does the evil wizard Voldemort still remind him of George W. Bush, as he said recently? ‘In combination with Saddam,’ he says. ‘They both have selfish interests and are very much in love with power. Also, a disregard for the environment. A love for manipulating people. I read books four and five, and Fudge’ -- Rowling’s slippery Minister of Magic -- ‘is similar to Tony Blair. He’s the ultimate politician. He’s in denial about many things. And everything is for the sake of his own persona, his own power. The way the Iraq thing was handled was not unlike the way Fudge handled affairs in book four.’All I will say on this is: no matter what your opinions of Messrs. Bush and Blair, if you have actually read the Harry Potter books you will know that Cuaron’s opinion is, to put it kindly, Just Silly.
(Aside: More disturbing to me is the report that Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris in the role of Albus Dumbledore, “now plays the Hogwarts headmaster as an elegant old hippie.” Oh dear.)
The release of the new Potter book has stirred up all sorts of nonsense in which various commentators purport to see allegories for this or that political or metaphysical viewpoint hidden about the novels’ persons. I don’t see it, myself. The Potter books do not bear any of the signs of explicit allegory, whether religious as in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, or political as in Animal Farm (which isn’t actually a children’s book anyway). They are simply ripping yarns that take time along the way to aim at targets that have been targets since the dawn of literature -- self-important and/or ineffectual authority figures in government or education, overreaching members of the press, the awkwardness of growing up, fear of snakes or spiders, the list goes on and on. The qualities the Rowling seems to praise -- even though her characters are wizards -- are innately human qualities, such as bravery, cleverness, ingenuity, steadfastness in one’s friendships, and treating those around you with simple decency (cf. Hermione Granger’s crusade on behalf of the house elves).
If you are looking for a more radical point of view in good quality children’s literature -- and you were, weren’t you? -- you should consider Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, which I also recently finished. I found the series immensely satisfying in any number of ways. While she is rightly praised for her skillful plotting, J. K. Rowling is regularly criticized (with some cause) for too frequently resorting to cliché in her descriptions and dialogue. Pullman, in contrast, is a more sophisticated stylist. To take just one example, here is the first sentence of his third volume, The Amber Spyglass:
In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with meltwater splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves clustered below.Tasty. (And you can tell you are in the hands of an English writer: the linnets are a dead giveaway. That volume comes with no less than three epigraphs, from Blake, Rilke and Ashbery, and teh series title is drawn from Milton. The children Pullman is writing for must go to interesting schools.)
On the level of pure story, Pullman has devised as exciting and unexpected a plot as one could wish, with complex and deftly drawn characters and more than a few passages that I found exceptionally moving. As carriers of Larger Messages, however, the books are more controversial, ultimately siding unequivocally with individual human liberty in the face of Authority of all kinds, most especially religious authority. A large part of the story leads toward a second War in Heaven, with strong suggestions that the wrong side won the first. Pullman manages the neat trick of presenting a strongly humanist point of view while setting his story in a world full to the brim with supernatural elements, including intelligent armored bears, angels, witches, and visits to the world of the dead. An altogether remarkable series, albeit not for everyone.
(Incidental intelligence: Further research reveals plans for a film version of Pullman's series, with Tom Stoppard attached as screenwriter and Sam Mendes rumored among the directorial candidates.)
Direct Democracy: Threat or Menace?
Daniel Weintraub in his Sacramento Bee blog, California Insider seeks to soothe those who see the Gray Davis recall election as a Bad Thing regardless of its ultimate outcome (in not-quite-a-candidate Leon Panetta’s phrase, "Direct Democracy Run Amok"). Weintraub’s advice:
Calm down, people. You would think folks were killing each other in the streets here, or burning down the Capitol. We are talking about holding an election, OK? The petitions represent a massive vote of no confidence in the governor's ability to lead. Now, in a few weeks, all of the people will have their say on that question. Britain has been doing something similar for hundreds of years now and seems to have managed to survive.[Scoffers will say that the relevant comparison is perhaps not Great Britain, but Italy.]
Weintraub also reports that Arnold Schwarzenegger most likely will not run as a Davis replacement, but that former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan probably will. Then again, maybe Arnold is running, in which case Riordan probably would not.
A Riordan run to replace Davis in the unorthodox context of the recall election could serve as a fitting riposte to Davis’ own unprecedented interference in the Republican gubernatorial primary, which effectively allowed Davis to eliminate the genuine threat to his reelection posed by Riordan and to select his own opponent, the hapless Bill Simon.
Things to Come
It is a busy Monday here, so blogging must take a back seat for the moment. If you are dropping by for the first time, please browse back through the Archives, where the reruns will be (as NBC used to say) "New to You." When we resume, expect yet another Davis recall post and a few words about children's literature.
Also, I'm hopeful that the "serious" law-related blog will launch in the next week or so. Details to follow.
More Thanks and Welcomes
I did not check in on the blog yesterday, so it was a very pleasant surprise this morning to find a burst of referrals via a kind link from Doc Searls. Thank you, Doc, and welcome all Doc readers.
Thanks are due as well to Denise Howell at Bag and Baggage for including this Fool on her long and interesting list of newish "blawgs" (blogs about or associated with lawyers and lawyering). The blawgroll at Bag and Baggage is as comprehensive and boggling a list as I have yet seen of blogging attorneys and -- to show what a varied lot we are -- contains something to appeal to almost everyone.