Village au panique

[Screenshot]This was screened at UofL, but I missed it, so I went back and got it on Netflix. It is one weird film. It’s apparently based on a TV series with similar production values and logic. Although nobody comes out and says it outright, I kinda get the vague impression the core demographic for the TV series is stoners; it’s got that blend of low-budget quirk, lack of cohesion, and vague similarity to children’s programming that folks totally eat up when high. The film perhaps shows a greater cohesiveness: there’s a plot, although it’s totally absurd. Nonetheless, I am not entirely sure I ever really engaged this peculiar movie the way it ought to be enjoyed. The animation is very crude, almost certainly deliberately so and intrinsically unimmersive. Most of the characterizations and situations are fundamentally infantile: in fact, I had the impression while watching it that the plot might have come from the story-ramblings of a four-year-old. I always watch a film with an eye to what experience is being delivered, and here the experience honestly felt pretty patronizing and simplistic. Which may be my fault, really! It’s not everyone’s cup of tea; the artistic crudity was somewhat intriguing, but it didn’t seem to really serve too much purpose aside from establishing “indie-cred” bonafides (and being less expensive, I suppose). Other than the deliberately crude model posing and low frame rate, the technical aspects were pretty respectable: voice acting was one-note but servicable, and the sets and models were actually fairly detailed (but easy to underestimate since they were so stylized).

Maybe it would make more sense if I had some familiarity with the underlying TV show. I can well imagine this sort of disjointed, vignette-style animation working well in the 10-minute or 15-minute storylet format. Stretched out to almost 2 hours, the whimsy starts to run a bit thin.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

[Screenshot]The 5,000 FIngers of Dr. T was very much destined for cult-classic status from its release, as long as it managed to not actually be successful, as indeed it was not. Its chief claim to fame is that the chief creative talent behind its creation was Dr. Seuss, who then disowned it. His hand is oddly not all that visible in many aspects of the film: while the backgrounds are unmistakably Seussian and the lyrics of many of the songs resemble Seuss’s wordplay, the intervening dialogue, the characters, and most of the foreground decorations are really not all that remarkable. The story occasionally veers into entertainingly crazy territory, but mostly feels like a product of its time, all in all. It falls into a sort of boy-hero plot which seems rather relentlessly 50s, and for enough of the running time the piano-related lunacy is in the background. My expectations may be my fault, but nonetheless I can’t help but think this film squandered its opportunities to be truly fantastic. Only the wide-angle outdoor shots really capture a sense of magic and unreality.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Hocus Pocus, by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut may not be a writer so much as a collection of narrative tics. In many of his works, his compulsions mesh to form something actually enjoyable to read. Hocus Pocus is one of his later works, and unfortunately is not as enjoyable as his better books. Many of his stories don’t have plot, but they do have a certain narrative intensity which keeps the reader invested; I didn’t really get that at all here; there was a disjointedness which made the story hard to actually maintain interest in. In some ways this story seems consciously imitative of many of Vonnegut’s less well-regarded works: it has the disjointed and fragmented narrative style of Slapstick, the obsession with genetic disorders of Galapagos, the amorphous socialism of Jailbird. It would be tempting to accuse Vonnegut of self-indulgence, and indeed this book is more than a little self-indulgent, but it doesn’t commit the sin I’d reasonably expect. Vonnegut’s always pretended to a certain shared-world continuity, and I half-expected to be bludgeoned with references to Kilgore Trout and Rabo Karabekian and the Rosewater Act and suchlike. But this wasn’t all that injokey; the only winks and nudges I saw were reference to Tralfamadore and the novelist Paul Slazinger. Nonetheless in spite of not falling into this trap, it wasn’t actually a very good novel. It’s all the structure of a Vonnegut novel with very little of the actual wry humor and soul of his better work, which makes it a bit of a grim slog.

See also: Wikipedia

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

I didn’t know much about J.D. Salinger except for his famed hermitage and The Catcher in the Rye, which I read in high school. I vaguely expected Franny and Zooey, his second-best-known work, to be pretty similar. In some ways it is: it’s the story of a person (or people, in this case) burdened by a feeling that they’re much smarter than everyone around them. But I find it more interesting in some ways, because while Catcher is the story of a disaffected teenager, Franny and Zooey focuses on college-educated adults, i.e. my people, so they’re caught up with academic concerns, which calls to mind some of my own thoughts and experiences on the subject: namely, what does all of their learning do for them, in the long run, and why has knowledge not led to happiness? Sometimes it does seem like the whole purpose of a college education is to feel superior to those around you.

And then again maybe not, anymore. In some ways F&Z feels like an artifact of its time, when colleges were havens of liberal-education full of people who honestly believed that they were seeking ascension into a Higher Plane of Knowledge, as well as prodigals who sought four years of dissipation (and people who score pretty high on both axes). These days, pretty much every college seems to serve a fairly vocational purpose, althoguh not the way vocational schools do, teaching skills particular to an occupation. Rather, a lot of schools (and I may be biased by the students I see, and saw at UCSD) seem to essentially serve to rubber-stamp students, sending them on into fields not necessarily related to their degrees, but with the requisite validation of their basic competence. Now as then, the knowledge learned in schools may not have much to do with actually living a life worth leading. But now people are either more honest (to be cynical about it) or cynical (to be honest about it) about the actual utility of their labors.

So while the particular social structure Franny and Zooey plumbs is a bit of a creature of the past, the fundamental question of what the point of it all is remains. And for a member of the overeducated class like myself, it’s a pretty interesting one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much in the way of answers, just an exploration of that particular corner of angst rather than an actual thesis. Nonetheless, if you’ve had enough education to harbor a desire to read this book, it’d probably serve to, if nothing else, to illuminate your own feelings and attitudes.

See also: Wikipedia.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

[Screenshot]I was first introduced to this film by accidentally catching the last 15 or so minutes on cable in a hotel some bored evening. The last fifteen minutes bear no particular resemblance to the rest of the film, but they’re definitely curiosity-inducing.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is unmistakably a cult film. It’s nonsensical and largely random. It has gratuitous sex and drugs and violence. It has a director whose career has constantly teetered on the edge of over-the-line. It has a random trivia fact to draw your eye (Roger Ebert, not notable as an actual creator of film, wrote the script).

It is, for all that, actually moderately effective, in its savage way. It’s never clear what if anything they want you to take seriously, but it oscillates between the absurd and the soberingly chilling in an actually surprisingly effective way. The film twists around so much that I’d hate to divulge any of its peculiar developments, but if you like your cinema ultraquirky and aren’t squicked out by depravity, BVD is worth a look.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Fritz the Cat

[Screenshot]A cult favorite. Controversy. Gonzo films deemed unhealthy for young audiences. A much-anticipated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson and Ralph Bakshi actually have a lot in common, but one of them actually had a career (and a watchable LOTR adaptation). History seems to have been a bit hard on poor ol’Ralph, since Fritz the Cat is actually a pretty good film (more interesting, and more mature, if we draw out the comparison, than, say, Dead Alive). It’s not exactly a laugh a minute, but it delivers fairly keen satire more-or-less throughout, poking at all of the right 60s touchstones and spoofing them in ways sometimes comical, sometimes serious, but with an overall light tone. There are very few sequences which didn’t work: the chase in the synagogue seemed honestly pretty pointless and wasn’t hitting any of the right notes, but by and large the plot and pacing are spot on for ridiculing in turn each iconic element of the late 60s. The mechanical elements of the art and animation are a bit more crude, but one has to give that a bit of a pass: it’s not materially worse than most contemporary animation. In a way, one has to be willing to ignore the ’80s and the ’90s to enjoy Fritz, I think: it’s the recency that gives it authenticity. Compare, for instance, to Across the Universe, which also plays the 60s schtick hard but has no real direction to go with it.

[edit: I did a bit more research and apparently Bakshi’s film career limped through the 90s, with occasional critical acclaim, so I guess up to that point he was actually doing at least as well as Jackson, so my disparaging contrast between the two’s directorial careers is unfair, at least up until 2001]

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.