Lost in the Movies: February 2009

The Wind in the Willows: "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "Wayfarers, All"

[This post was accidentally deleted, and then quickly restored. In the interim I stumbled across some marvellous writing on similar themes, celebrating the language of Wind in the Willows and the way it reflects its author's life and vision. You can find the links here, but especially explore The Wind in the Willows at 100 which more fully and richly elaborates on the themes I tentatively explored in my own piece. - 3/9]

The following was written several years ago, and has been slightly modified.

Some time around 1987, we taped a television program and eighteen years later (!) [now twenty-two years later (!!) - ed.] it's still there, collecting dust on a shelf. The program was an animated adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. We also had an illustrated copy of the book on our shelves, and it was one of my favorite stories as a child. Almost everyone knows the epic comic journey of Mr. Toad, a chronic automobile thief who escapes prison disguised as a washerwoman and eventually wins back Toad Hall from the weasels who have taken it over in his absence. Toad is one of the great characters of children's literature, and his story has been adapted numerous times.

However, other aspects of this classic have been forgotten with time. Two chapters in particular, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" and "Wayfarers, All" have been left out of some editions of the book, and excluded from most adaptations. The animated special from the eighties was an exception to the rule, and both episodes were included, accompanied by a wistful song which added a whole new element to the story. These passages focus not on the cranky, arrogant, and irascible Toad, but on the quieter, more laid-back duo of Mole and Rat, the animals who live by the river bank in a life of leisure and comfort while their friend Toad goes cavorting around the countryside, wreaking havoc and wrecking cars.

Synecdoche, NY

Last night at the Oscars there was nary a mention of Synecdoche, NY. Not only no nominations, no wins - no jokes (even at its expense), no musical numbers, not even a moment in any of the montages. For Charlie Kaufman, the film's auteur in the fullest sense of the word (for now he has placed himself in the director's chair as well as the screenwriter's desk), this is actually somewhat unusual. True, the Academy has never full-throatedly embraced his work, but it would have been remiss not to at least nominate groundbreaking films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the last film finally won Kaufman an Oscar). Though not everything he touches turns to (potential) Oscar gold - the George Clooney-directed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the oft-maligned Human Nature (both unseen by me) were ignored by award-bestowers - the cold shoulder offered to Synecdoche is rather conspicuous. Partially because a number of critics have proclaimed it a modern masterpiece or at least extremely worthy of note, but primarily because as Kaufman's directorial debut this is obviously a very important project to him, and one in which he invested a great deal of time and thought. It may also be his most personal movie, which brings us to an interesting question. But first...

The Wind in the Willows

[This post is an entry in Moon in the Gutter's MIA on Region 1 Tribute Month.]

When preparing for this post, I dug my copy of The Wind in the Willows out from underneath about twenty other videotapes, toppling a few of them in the process. I figured this couldn't have been good for the condition of a 22-year-old VHS, and indeed, upon inserting it in the VCR my worst prognosis seemed confirmed. The picture was dismally dark so that the animated characters' features were obscured and the backgrounds could not be distinguished. In addition, the tracking was awful and the whole experience resembled watching some garbled dispatch from outer space. Yet the sound was fine, which only added to whole surreality thing. All in all, I took the catastrophic destruction of a childhood memento in stride. I considered a poignant blog post along the lines of "all things must pass," but first I played around with the VCR a bit and discovered it was a technical problem. There the tape was, restored to its full glory, eventually even without tracking issues. Yet the distanced, warping effect of the first images lingered in my mind and colored how I saw the rest of the movie.

Where It Stands

Obviously, I have been somewhat distracted from the blog lately. Even in the last couple days, when I ostensibly had time to catch up here, I ended up wading through the blogroll, keeping up with old posts from my fellow travelers, a worthy and enjoyable effort, but a time-consuming one. So here's a little heads-up, what I hope to finish by the end of February so that the new year can begin in earnest this March, with more regular posting, a diving into Netflix, and other forward-looking ventures. First, a post on the 1987 cartoon Wind in the Willows, which inspired my recent quiz. There are a number of spin-off posts dancing around in my head, but I'll save those for later. Second, my 20 Actors list (full of great You Tube clips just like its feminine counterpart) which I started in January, and have yet to finish (sorry, Dean). Third, finally writing about Synecdoche, NY which I first saw a month ago and saw again last week but have yet to sit down and sort out. And finally, I will finish writing about recently (not so recently anymore) acquired DVDs, an activity I promised myself to conclude before opening my new Netflix queue. Beyond this, I'd still like to offer up a critique of Richard Corliss' recent risible defense of blockbusters, resume the soon-to-be-rechristened Auteurs series with a focus on Cecil B. DeMille, offer up a series of posts dwelling on various adaptations of my favorite books, create another hare-brained oddball You Tube quiz, and contribute my own entry into the ongoing 20 Favorite "Fill-in-the-Blanks" series. See you then.

The Connection

So, this is the connection. Left to right, top then bottom, we have: Eddie Bracken, Roddy McDowell, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Jose Ferrer. Still confused? Let me backtrack. Last week, while watching Miracle on Morgan's Creek, I was delighted to realize that the cowardly teenager hooking up with a pregnant WWII-era bobbysoxer was the voice behind Moley in an 80s animated version of one of my all-time favorite books, The Wind in the Willows. So even as I watched him traverse the world of wartime 40s America, filling the recognizable role of small-town boy suffering from comic unrequited love, I kept connecting the sound of his voice with mystical visions of Pan in the woodland (hence the last video in my You Tube quiz), automobile escapades on dusty Edwardian highways, and rowboats lazily floating down a bubbling country brook in the springtime.

This phenomenon fascinated me: the different paths a career takes, the way a connection from our childhood can overpower anything else, the varied worlds an actor inhabits, often casually, without realizing the impact or impression they will create on people (think of the cast of The Wizard of Oz, engaged in just another project for MGM, unaware of how this run-of-the-mill kiddie musical would define their legacies for posterity). I found some peculiar clips of the other actors who participated - McDowell as Ratty, Reilly as Toad, and Ferrer as Badger - in various TV escapades, hardly their most shining moments, which adds another wrinkle to the the idea here. And - presto! - the quiz which no one seemed able to get (not a single e-mail!). Sorry for the obscurity, but I hope you were entertained. Now that I'm on this track, I may write up the cartoon which spurred this whole thought-process in the first place. (That will be forthcoming.)

Gold Diggers of 1933

Like rules and perhaps promises, general assumptions were made to be broken. I'd never seen a Busby Berkeley movie, except in excerpts, until recently and had always held a certain conception of them. The choreography was flashy, to be sure, with those infamous overhead patterns but it all seemed more an abstract, almost intellectual concept than something flesh-and-blood. Accordingly, I was absolutely knocked out by the end of 42nd Street. I must have seen glimpses before, but taken in its totality, the final sequence of the movie - ostensibly the climax of a stage revue but quickly turning in directions more attuned to a movie camera than a theatrical proscenium - served as a complete revelation. This is visceral filmmaking, as much as Kong swatting airplanes or Cagney falling down in the rain; more so because the kinetic energy of the roving camera and cascading figures gooses the already naturalistic flow of the medium, spilling over the boundaries of narrative to create a glorious overflow of pure cinema (to a tune, of course, which - tellingly - I can't recall). And today I saw my second Berkeley, Gold Diggers of 1933.

Search This Blog