Thursday, April 30, 2015

Chaplin versus Gandhi (not a Fight Club scenario)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

"The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died."

-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "Once More Unto the Breach"

To print the legend or subvert the legend; that appears to be the question which concerns Hollywood's efforts to fashion biographical films. Usually, the legend wins out, even if the legend is not complimentary towards the subject. Certainly no one expects a biographical film about Adolf Hitler to render him fully sympathetic, but films such as Max and Downfall at least tried to unearth his human side. Films such as The Imitation Game, The Life of Emile Zola and Malcolm X are very laudatory towards their subject; I haven't seen Selma but I understand it attempts to render a nuanced portrait of Martin Luther King. Then, of course, there are times when Hollywood ignores the legend and invents their own thing (A Beautiful Mind, The Babe Ruth Story).

All of this is fine; I like to know that filmmakers are attempting to be truthful about their subjects, yet I understand it's impossible to fully render a real human being on the screen in all of their complexities. What I find interesting is how a single filmmaker can approach two different famous figures from quite different perspectives. Said filmmaker was one Richard Attenborough; the films, Chaplin (1992) and Gandhi (1982).

"Everyone has a wild side. Even a legend."

To an Englishman such as Attenborough, both Chaplin & Gandhi loom large in his culture - one, the expatriate who became the most famous man in the world by venturing into the US, only to be brought low by scandal; the other, a revolutionary whose actions steadily chipped away not only at Britain's dominion over India, but over all its empire - and thereby, all of Earth's imperialist nations.

"His goal was freedom for India. His strategy was peace. His weapon was his humanity."

The story of Chaplin is drawn mostly from Charlie Chaplin's My Autobiography and is sewn together by scenes of Chaplin discussing his life with a (fictional) biographer. It journeys from his first appearance on stage, to his troubled childhood, into his conquest of Hollywood, his scandals, exile and ends on his return to Hollywood in the 1970s. Gandhi, however, is told in a straight forward (mostly) chronological fashion, beginning with the protagonist already 24 years old as he began his struggle against racism in South Africa, then moves into his opposition of the British in India, then the formation of Pakistan, his famed hunger strike and his assassination.

The most telling difference between the two films is George, Chaplin's biographer, who frequently comments on the story, offering doubts to Chaplin's recollections of how his life unfolded. At one point he questions Chaplin about his father:

George: "Your father?"
Chaplin: "What about my father?"
George: "Well, he died during that period, didn't he? When you were 12. You don't write very much about him."
Chaplin: "I don't know very much about him. He left just after I was born, he sang on the stage, he died of drink. What else should I say?"

And we in the audience remark, "Aha! He's concealing something about his father! If only we had the pertinent Freudian details about Chaplin's life, that would be the Rosetta Stone to understanding his personality!" Yet, having read My Autobiography, I'm inclined to agree with Chaplin's response in the film - that there really isn't too much to be said (there's also more about his father in the book than this dialogue would have you believe). Chaplin's relationships with his mother and brother seem more meaningful to me simply because those bonds lasted for many decades of his life.

If you're looking for a similar amount of interrogative scrutiny into Gandhi's upbringing, then his eponymous film will leave you disappointed. There are no Freudian insights to had about Gandhi's father; as noted, the film begins with him already a grown man.

Much of Chaplin is concerned with Chaplin's scandals which - fair enough - cannot be overlooked. His many problematic marriages are brought in, along with the suspicions that he was a Communist sympathizer, all of this conspiring to his eventual exile from the USA.

By contrast, Gandhi is not terribly interested in any of Gandhi's scandals. Do such scandals even exist? I'm afraid Attenborough is my only source on his life. I know enough from 1930s radio comedies to comprehend how much disdain there was for Gandhi in the western world and a lot of that contempt is shown in the film - but always by the Bad Guys. While there's a moment where Gandhi quarrels with his wife over the Untouchables (not the Brian De Palma film) and he comes off as being very harsh in that instance, he's ultimately proved right. Gandhi is depicted as a candidate for sainthood, unlike the roguish scoundrel Chaplin.

Again, all of this is fine.

While I admire both films, there is something about Chaplin which unsettles me. If I could put it into a single thought it would be: what's so great about Charlie Chaplin? Why is he still considered a giant in cinema, not merely a figure of historical significance but one whose movies are still the subject of film studies, books and documentaries? What made him so great? Because that context is what, I think, Attenborough overlooked in his film. He didn't forget it in Gandhi - anyone who wondered why Mahatma Gandhi is spoken of with reverence would have this pondering answered by Attenborough's film. But if you wondered why we speak of Chaplin with reverence, I don't think Chaplin would settle your mind. The film leaves you thinking, "Ah, Charlie Chaplin was an irresponsible jackass who ruined his career by sleeping around." According to Attenborough, that was the legend of Charlie Chaplin. It feels rather like telling the story of Louis Pasteur but downplaying the invention of pasteurization in favour of his home life. The first film is a celebration of Great Men; the later film is about tearing down Great Men.

I still like the film Chaplin, but I feel it could have been so much more. And just as Gandhi has become the greatest influence on how we think of Gandhi, I fear the portrait of Chaplin found in Chaplin is what many people have based their understanding of Chaplin upon. His life was something more than a tabloid headline.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Stop Giving MST3K a Bad Name, You Hipsters!

A recent article at L.A. Weekly entitled "Stop Laughing at Old Movies You $@%&ing Hipsters" delved into the matter of how when film patrons make audible mockery of a film, they ruin the experience for others in the audience.

I have to admit, I felt somewhat convicted. I'm not an extraordinary offender, but when I'm seeing a film with the right group of people, I surrender my better judgment. It seems to happen most frequently with trailers; before seeing Signs, of the trailer for the film Death Ship I exclaimed: "The Shining II: Cruise Control!" I was rather proud of that one. I also found myself riffing various scenes in the Matrix Revolutions with my friends; independently of each other, we all began comparing a scene of human ship landing in a cavern to a similar scene in the Empire Strikes Back (and I've since learned many other people have made the same joke). In each of these instances I was probably seeking the approval of my companions because I never talk out when I'm at the cinema alone.

Have I ever been made to shut up? Yes. Last Christmas when I went to see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, my brother and I began quietly mocking the film's first five minutes until his wife told us to knock it off. I did store up many of my "witticisms" to share with the family afterward.

When theater patrons do talk loud enough to be heard by others I think it can positive, serving as a form of bonding with each other, especially when what's been said is what other people in the audience are thinking. I have one friend who tends to be very outspoken during trailers. I recall how we once saw a very dramatic trailer for a new Russell Crowe film; the closing audio of the trailer was the announcer intoning: "Russell Crowe - Cinderella Man." There followed brief lull while the next trailer began cuing up, wherein my friend exclaimed (his voice dripping with derision): "Yeah! Cinderella Man!" In the silence of the theater it was loud enough for everyone to hear and it won him some admiring laughter.

The funniest audience moment I observed was when the trailer for Devil played. At the moment M. Night Shyamalan's name appeared, the crowd audibly groaned, then laughed at each other for sharing the same reaction (this is another response seen in many other theaters to said trailer). I didn't groan aloud, but I felt the same way as the other patrons, being a former Shyamalan fan and now quite embarrassed about that fact. The derision Devil's trailer met with is undoubtedly closely related to how much we in the audience formerly admired Shyamalan.

Have I ever had my film-going experience ruined by the reactions of others? Yes, but I don't begrudge them. A couple of years ago I went to see a Halloween double feature of 1931's Dracula and Frankenstein, hosted by TCM. I noticed that many of the patrons (a small crowd to be sure) were younger than I, but hoped the introduction by TCM would help them understand the historical context of the films. However, while no one riffed the film, they did frequently burst into laughter - notably at the films' attempts to be frightening. Scenes in Dracula of Dwight Frye bulging his eyes and hyperventilating were met with giggles. The odd growl Boris Karloff used as the monster in Frankenstein was usually met with a snicker (he does sound a little like a snarling cat, to be honest).

I was most disappointed by the audience's reaction to the monster drowning the little girl, which was historically the most controversial/disturbing scene. And yet, upon reflection, I understood why the audience laughed - they were all experienced film watchers who have been educated to understand certain styles of film language and weren't accustomed to 1930s styles of either acting or editing. When the monster throws the girl into the lake, then sees her drown, he frets about the shore, moving back and forth, then finally runs away - end scene. To contemporary eyes, the scene is shot like a comedy blackout sketch, with the monster's stage left exit the crowning touch. I was disappointed, but heck, audiences back in 1931 were supposed to have been quite raucous as well and unwilling to seriously contemplate what was happening on the screen; why do we expect better from today's patrons? Because we pay so much more money to get in?

I've seen every episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have listened to many examples of Rifftrax. And yet, part of what I enjoy about MST3K is the grudging enjoyment the films granted the riffers. On some level, they appreciated the earnestness of a picture like Manos: the Hands of Fate and couldn't bring themselves to hate it. Unfortunately, all too often I find that attitude missing from Rifftrax - there, the riffers seem more willing to tear down a picture just because it's front of them. Hence, when I do purchase a Rifftrax, I avoid the films I genuinely enjoy (I won't even watch preview clips if I truly like the film).

MST3K and Rifftrax have, in some way, encouraged my bad behaviour in the cinemas. I've been conditioned to fit in a riff where there's a lull in dialogue, to voice my opinions of poor line reads/visual effects/editing/choreography. Alone at home, I almost never talk back to my movies; put me in a theater and I'll somehow dredge up the most obnoxious parts of my personality.

And that, I think, is the root of the problem in talking during a motion picture. It's one thing to feel the atmosphere of the room and say aloud what everyone's thinking - but when you're jealous of the film and would rather be the center of attention yourself, you're the problem - and in the moment, it's hard to tell the difference between the two. Tip: if you came to the theater alone then probably no one wants to hear your opinion of the film while it's playing.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Wonder of Wonders: Ross Saakel's Captain Wonder

In the last two years I've had a great opportunity to expand my knowledge of World War II Canadian comic books - the so-called "Canadian whites." Among those characters I've discovered is Captain Wonder, a super hero who appeared in Triumph Comics stories created by Ross Saakel.
I most certainly will not!

The Captain Wonder series began in Triumph Comics #7 (1942) and you can read the early stories for yourself at the Digital Comic Museum. Our hero's origin is fairly typical for a comic book of the day: a yogi in the Himalayas calls upon the gods of Valhalla to grant their powers to a young Canadian man whom the yogi raised after his parents were killed. Kind of a Mulligan stew of super hero origins. With his newfound powers and the identity of Captain Wonder, the young man returned to Canada to fight crime!

Even they're being sarcastic about these tropes!

Captain Wonder's first adventure pit him against a mad scientist called Frank N. Stein, which may give you some conception of how much care and originality went into crafting those tales. However, that's not exactly what I want to talk about. I'd like to talk to you today about swiping. Perhaps it's not too surprising to begin with Bob Kane - he is, after all, notorious for signing his name to the work of other artists and tracing much of his own work. And yet here, in Triumph Comics#8, Kane was himself swiped by Saakel!

Top: Bob Kane, Detective Comics #33 (1939); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #8 (1942)

Now this isn't such a terrible swipe - the Batman pose has proven to be a popular one for artists to swipe over the years and considering the conditions artists had to labour under in the 40s, you can't blame them for the occasional tracing.

The thing about Saakel, however, is that he didn't trace occasionally - he traced frequently!

Top: Jack Kirby, cover, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #13 (1943)

I think Ross Saakel really enjoyed Marvel's Daring Mystery Comics #6, an early Marvel offering with some of Jack Kirby's earliest art for the company. Saakel loved that issue so much that he - well - traced the ever-lovin' almighty out of it! He must have pressed his pencil over the pages so many times they turned back into pulp! Not only did he lift his layouts from Kirby & Joe Simon's cover and interior pages but he also made liberal use of the dialogue!

Top: Jack Kirby, Marvel Boy story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #8 (1942)

He did, at least swap some names, such as the Nazi spy Stohl being changed to Storhm, while the submarine commander Strohm was renamed Stohl by Saakel.

Top: Jack Kirby, Marvel Boy story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #8 (1942)

But then he lifted most of the dialogue too! "Still the old destroyer dodger, eh Strohm?" became "Still the old destroyer dodger, eh Stohl?" And likewise with the submarine commander's response.

Top: Jack Kirby, Marvel Boy story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #8 (1942)

These panels I'm posting constitute only a minority of the Captain Wonder art from Triumph Comics #8, but it's possible there are other swipes I haven't yet identified - another sequence where Captain Wonder attacks a submarine could have easily been traced from a Sub-Mariner comic - not an accusation I'd normally lob at an artist, but with Saakel, the more I see of his work, the more I wonder how much of it was his own work.

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

Saakel went on to pen a multi-part story where Captain Wonder battled the Devil himself. However, as you can see by comparing the introductory text above, he again lifted his layouts from Daring Mystery Comics #6 - this time from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby's Fiery Mask story.

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

Most of the swipes are found in part one of the story, leaving me again to wonder where Saakel might have swiped the rest of the battle with the Devil from (a Spectre story?). The sheer amount of swipes in this one story is staggering.

Top two: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

At some point you have to think Bell Features should have cut Joe Simon & Jack Kirby a cheque! Bell Features came into existence in 1941 to fill the gap caused by restrictions on importing comic books from the USA. That means Canadians would have already had a chance to see Daring Mystery Comics #6 for themselves in 1940. Then again, in those days reprints were frequent and not normally identified as such. Is a swipe really that much worse than a reprint?

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

Yes, a thousand times yes! To lift one's plot, layouts and dialogue from another comic book without crediting them was unfair of Saakel to his US counterparts, even if they were much better reimbursed for their work.

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #9 (1942)

And yet, I'm more bemused than outraged. Saakel lifted so liberally from his copy of Daring Mystery Comics #6 that I half-expected to see a tracing of Stuporman somewhere in Triumph Comics!

Top: Jack Kirby, Fiery Mask story, Daring Mystery Comics #6 (1940); Bottom: Ross Saakel, Triumph Comics #10 (1942)

Hey, not every Canadian comic could be as good as Nelvana (Captain Wonder's stablemate at Triumph). Saakel churned out some cheap super hero fare for very little pay and expected his work to be almost instantly forgotten. Between you and I, we've now spent more time considering Saakel's work than probably anyone else in the last few decades. As the history of Canadian super heroes continues to be unearthed and archived, Saakel is perhaps destined to a form of immortality and while he was no Adrian Dingle, he was (probably) not malicious about tracing other people's work. And what better artist to be rediscovered in this age of reboots and relaunches than a tracer? He was into retellings before it was cool!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

RIP: Herb Trimpe, 1939-2015

Herb Trimpe

Herb Trimpe

Herb Trimpe

Herb Trimpe

Herb Trimpe

When we talk about the Marvel Comics of the 1960s we always bring up Kirby and Ditko. Steranko. Adams. Everett. Severin. Colan. Ayers. Buscema. Smith. Even divisive talents such as Colletta and Heck receive their share of attention (both positive and negative). We've never spoken about Herb Trimpe at length.

Sure, we made fun of his art in the 1990s when he changed his style to imitate Rob Liefeld. Then we wept for him when he went to the New York Times and revealed how Marvel had let him go after three decades, pretending that we cared.

You can't talk about Wolverine for very long without at least noting he drew Wolvie's first appearance. Likewise G.I. Joe. Captain Britain. And he must surely have drawn more Hulk stories than any other artist.

What can we say? He began his career imitating Kirby and wound up imitating Liefeld. He and Severin were a great team. He loved to draw airplanes, such as in the Phantom Eagle example I've posted above. He spent most of the last two decades teaching art classes.

Will he be forgotten? ...Yes. He'll survive as a footnote in the histories of Wolverine & G.I. Joe.

Want to evaluate him for yourself? Here's my recommended reading list of his Marvel Comics career:

  • Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (Phantom Eagle)
  • Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #8
  • Incredible Hulk #140
  • Machine Man #1-4
  • Rawhide Kid #1-4
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #1, 3-4, 6-8, 50
  • G.I. Joe: Special Missions #1-21, 23, 25-26, 28

Thursday, April 9, 2015

RIP: Stan Freberg

This week one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century - Stan Freberg - passed away at the age of 88. Many will recall him for his great radio and television commercials; here's one of my favourites:

He was also one of the vocal talents behind Looney Tunes, including the characters Pete Puma and Tosh (of Mack 'N Tosh). He even claims a connection to the realm of comic books, having written two articles for Mad Magazine (they gave him an obituary here; in other news, apparently Mad has a website!). However, if Freberg will be remembered at all, it will be for his comedy recordings - both for his albums of sketches (such as "St. George and the Dragon Net") and his briefly-lived old-time radio series the Stan Freberg Show which aired only 15 episodes from 1957-58 (they're all here at the Internet Archive).

I first became aware of Freberg through my interest in old-time radio; the first episode I heard was the 13th, which featured his horror parody "Grey Flannel Hat Full of Teenage Werewolves." Strangely for me, that sketch wasn't what I really remembered about the show - what I found funniest was this dialogue of Freberg's from the closing:

"Those of you who several weeks ago sent those many card and letter - to say nothing of countless phone call - congratulating us on our take-off of a certain well-known accordian-playing bandleader may be interested to know that it is now a Capitol record which came out this week under the title "Wunnerful, Wunnerful." I hope you find it in your pocketbook to buy it, if only to skim it across Lake Michigan."

(That said, these days I have been known to quote "Leading specialists agree that food is the number one cure for hunger!" from the same episode.)

My OTR hobby began in the 1990s and really blossomed when I found Yesterday USA through my family's backyard satellite dish. There, I frequently heard Freberg as the host of programming run by Radio Spirits. Although I mostly broke from the habit of listening to Freberg's show when I got on the internet (where OTR is much more easily obtained), I was fortunate enough to hear about his retirement from Radio Spirits and caught his final show for them.

While visiting San Diego Comic Con in my first (re: only) trip in 2009, I took note Freberg would be there. Heading past his table, I saw copies of his autobiography It Only Hurts When I Laugh, which I'd been unable to purchase elsewhere. Happily, I stepped up to pay for a copy - and only then realized Freberg himself was there at the table (I assumed he had other places to be) and signing copies! I came away with an autographed copy of his book and that book is, as it turns out, a very funny and interesting biography.

Part of what I appreciate about Freberg's humour is that although in his prime he satirized popular culture, he didn't get laughs by simply holding something up and mocking it. His sketch "Bang Gunley US Marshall Fields" (heard on his 11th episode) pokes fun at the western genre, with the sparse dialogue scenes serving as a fun riff on Gunsmoke, while the Swiss sidekick in the climax obviously references the Cisco Kid, but Freberg is subtle with the humour; I think the funniest way to make a pop culture reference is to avoid making it obvious you're making a pop culture reference. The humour comes from the dialogue in the sketch and I think the sketch would be funny regardless of whether the listener has heard Gunsmoke before. Freberg's satire fiddled with subjects his audiences were broadly aware of, hence he could trust them to understand the inspiration for the joke and simply concentrate on landing the joke.

Freberg's program took the place of Jack Benny's on radio. Appropriately, to me he's the best comedian in history - after Benny himself.