Monthly Archives: May 2010

Saturday Theme Songs: Powerpuff Girls

The Powerpuff Girls, maybe along with Dexter’s Laboratory, epitomized everything good about Cartoon Network’s output in the 1990s. Maybe some of their shows were a little too repetitive, or sophomoric, or smug, but the channel was committed to producing original and interesting cartoons for our generation. Like the decades-old cartoons they once aired, Cartoon Network took a more absurdist approach to animation. Unlike, say, Fox Kids or Kids WB, which were more action-oriented and toyetic with only a few exceptions, Cartoon Network’s roster as a whole was premised around either very unusual situations, or twisted adaptations of familiar scenarios. Dexter’s Laboratory and Courage the Cowardly Dog were both totally new and bizarre; The Powerpuff Girls was a fresh, humorous look at one of the oldest concepts in cartoon history – the superhero.

The show is based around a historical gender divide: little girls are supposedly gentle and demure, while superheroes (i.e., men) are tough, powerful, and sometimes brutal. Craig McCracken knew better. He plays on the old cliché of girls as being made of “sugar, spice, and everything nice,” but then adds Chemical X, which derails any and all expectations. The girls maintain their “girliness” – in fact, when Professor Utonium is knocked against the wall, it happens in a burst of hearts and stars – but it’s still very compatible with their superheroism and violent acts. Kick-Ass‘s Hit-Girl was nothing new; the Powerpuff Girls have been doing the same routine for years.

As if to underscore the girls’ comfortable fusion of girlish innocence and manly violence, there are gender divisions within their ranks. These are all communicated from :33-:41 in the video solely using musical leitmotifs and the girls’ unchanging facial expressions. Blossom is marked as the standard, the perfect balance of power and puff. Bubbles and Buttercup, meanwhile, represent the opposite poles within the girls’ unusual range of gendered behavior – the giggly maiden and the sneering tomboy. Nonetheless, both of them take equal pleasure in savagely beating up villains. The way that their rogues gallery is presented and then dispatched hints back at their origins as the “Whoopass Girls”; they may be little girl superheroes, but they’re still willing to take out Fuzzy Lumpkins with more than a little sadism.

The opening abridges a lot of the show’s psychological complexity, especially as the girls’ childish outlook is put up against Townsville’s harsh realities. (This would most often happen with their greatest foe, Him.) But it gets across a pretty good one-minute synopsis laying out the show’s huge appeal. They’re extremely violent superheroes, but they’re cute little girls, and they’re served up with a very ironic edge. So boys, girls, and jaded college students can all find something to enjoy. As effective as the opening may be, though, I actually enjoy the closing theme more, mainly because it’s a full-blown song by the Scottish band Bis. Enjoy!

What about you, dear reader? Have any fond Powerpuff Girls memories?

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One Hour Mark: Love Me Tonight

This is an image from 1:00:00 into the light, fun, frivolous delight Love Me Tonight. It was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who was on a roll in the early ’30s, making virtually nothing but pre-Code masterpieces like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Queen Christina. Love Me Tonight belongs to the same wonderful proto-screwball tradition as many of Ernst Lubitsch’s early Paramount films, where the battles of the sexes and classes intersect through song and mistaken identity. Like several of the Lubitsch works, it also stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald – along with a host of aristocratic buffoons to act as their foils.

It’s one of the beauties of the studio system, after all, that a place like Paramount would have a reliable company of contract players to liven up even minor scenes. Here it’s Charles Butterworth and C. Aubrey Smith as the Count and the Duke respectively. Smith was in his late sixties at the time, and had been acting since before the birth of cinema. The two of them, along with Charles Ruggles as a spendthrift nephew, act as a little sideshow to the film’s main story, which is Chevalier’s wooing of MacDonald. Their comical interplay, as they’re duped again and again by Chevalier’s charismatic tailor, makes up the film’s atmosphere; we’re in the domain of the born nobility, yet their behavior makes noblesse oblige appear ignorant and ridiculous. Love Me Tonight, like many Depression-era comedies, is a socially egalitarian film.

These blue-blooded Frenchmen could hardly look more ridiculous than they do in this shot. The stiffness of the Duke’s armor reflects his personality, but it also impedes his movement and accentuates his age. Later in this scene, the armor’s visor slams shut and as Smith fumbles to open it again, he’s laughed at – his attempt to be regal just emphasizes how preposterous the aristocracy really is. The Count’s Napoleon outfit has a similar effect, especially since he plays such an ineffectual character. He tells the Duke that he can’t entertain, explaining, “I fell flat on my flute!” It’s a recurring joke with, like many of the film’s visual and verbal cues, vaguely phallic connotations, the point of which seems to be that the upper-class men are essentially dickless. The tailor concealed among them, however, is bursting with virility.

The framing of the shot expands this accusation of impotence. These two men have repeatedly been set up as leaders of the nobility, and their position at the doorway to the ballroom confirms this. They’re surveying the event, they can see who enters and exits, and through a sort of visual synecdoche, they’re also identified with the dancers behind them. By locating this scene here, Mamoulian makes it clear that decisions made by this doorway will have consequences for the rest of the house. However, when Ruggles and later a seductive Myrna Loy appear, it becomes very apparent that the Duke is not the one in charge. One of the film’s main themes is the struggle between the old/aristocratic/order and the new/common/chaotic, and the representation of the Duke here makes ironic use of his armor to suggest petrification rather than strength. He’s a pillar of his family, but he’s immobile and powerless.

It’s worth noting the divide between order and chaos as well. The film isn’t just about a conflict, but about the synthesis that results, and how the princess ends up in terms of class and gender at the end. One of the major ways it resolves the tension between the princess and the tailor is through the absurd. This film was made while the Marx Bros. were also raising cain at Paramount, and it has a lot in common with Horse Feathers or Duck Soup. Chevalier never goes so far as to pelt the Duke with fruit – Love Me Tonight is far less overt – but he does cast doubt on the family’s authority through his enchanting yet subversive music. And the film’s finale ascends into sublime absurdity as the princess rushes to rendezvous with her true love. So while this image may be comparatively low-key, it’s still a very quiet Bronx cheer at the moneyed classes, and more evidence of why we should love a poor tailor.

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Week End: Godard’s Cinematic Apocalypse

A couple weeks ago, some droogies and I watched and analyzed Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End (1967) for our radio show. However, I really didn’t get the chance to express all my thoughts  about it at the time, since it’s such an endlessly fascinating movie. It’s ideologically and formally hyperactive, like the best of Godard, flitting from one plot structure or revolutionary ideal to another in the space of a single scene. Godard rallies together every idea and device he’d been using to reinvent cinema for the past 7 years, and with them lurches toward the end. So, if I may, I’d like to put forward some ruminations about what, exactly, Week End is, and why I love it.

Week End is a very conscientious, on-target reaction its historical moment (i.e., the political climate of late-’60s France), yet it’s just as relevant today. It’s a flood of images and sounds depicting the slow, ignoble downfall of western civilization at its own hands. If Guy Maddin can say that his brilliant short film “The Heart of the World” is a creation myth for cinema, then Week End is a destruction myth. Everything must go: it’s a blowout sale of outmoded values.

The film’s #1 target, what Godard most wants to end, what he yearns to throw into the wastebasket, is its main characters, Corinne and Roland. They’re a comfortable bourgeois Parisian couple with few interests outside of themselves and their possessions; they’re also complete sociopaths. Each one schemes with a lover to do away with the other, while together they scheme to murder Corinne’s rich parents. This plot itself could make for outrageous satire, but it’s small potatoes for a director as ambitious as Godard.

For the first segment of his career, Godard had had great ambitions, and fulfilled them. He and his characters went right to the very edge of cinema. With Week End, he went right to the edge and then dived on in. Two despicable people embark on the perfect middle-class diversion – a jaunt into the countryside. But instead of pastoral beauty, their new environment contains cacophony, unbridled violence, and open class warfare. And just as the fundamental structures of capitalist society are breaking down, so are the mechanisms of the film’s narrative. On every level, this is a film about endings, whether of the week, of technology, of western culture, or of art itself.

In each of his early films, Godard attempted break up the story and to interfere with the audience’s enjoyment. In A Woman Is a Woman, he presented a musical without songs; in Vivre sa vie, he explained what was going to happen in each scene just before it began. But none of these was as directly an affront to the conventions of narrative cinema as Week End. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Corinne narrates a sexual encounter she had with another man and woman. (This borrows from a similar scene in Bergman’s Persona).

The scene goes on, and on, and on, in one lengthy take, but Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard blanket Corinne and her friend in shadows. So while the scene is as verbally pornographic as possible, the image is obscured. Complicating our experience of it even further, Corinne’s monologue is sometimes interrupted by music that swells, then fades. Godard gleefully throws wrenches into how we perceive cinema, and it’s fitting that many viewers would take Week End as a personal attack.

This is a movie burning with authorial aggression. You get a sense that Godard’s fed up with every system that governs life in the western world; it’s palpable in the irrational, often destructive behavior of his minor characters, in the nonsensical directions that the film travels, and in the burning car crashes littered along the country roads. Godard doesn’t place himself above this corruption and hypocrisy, though, since his film is mired in it as much as anything. But he’s hacking at these political and economic institutions from the inside, from his perch as a pioneer of French cinema.

Week End is a film that can sincerely be described as “anarchic.” It doesn’t just some flout some accepted filmmaking traditions. It sets the stage for honest-to-goodness political/aesthetic anarchy, and it questions the processes of making and watching a movie. To quote Sweet Smell of Success, Week End is that “cookie full of arsenic.” It’s drama and spectacle, yes, but laced with vicious sarcasm. I love it because it looks so aimless and haphazard while containing extremely sharp Buñuel-esque satire and a wealth of intellectual tidbits (as Godard’s films usually do).

I love how the satire leads the film down a rabbit hole where borders blur or disappear – fiction vs. documentary, actors vs. characters, past vs. present vs. future. Nouvelle Vague golden boy Jean-Pierre Léaud appears as a stranger, singing as he maneuvers around a telephone booth in the middle of nowhere; a hitchhiker turns out to be a revolutionary who takes Corinne and Roland hostage before turning out to also be a Christ figure. The characters sink deeper into the ennui of their would-be bucolic paradise, and the entire reason for their trip (Corinne’s parents) becomes a moot point.

The film ends on a note somewhere between nihilism and optimism. Not content just to torture his protagonists, Godard also radically changes the world around them, so we close with Corinne, now a guerilla soldier, consuming meat that may be Roland. Society, in the form of this upper-class couple, succumbs to Week End‘s apocalyptic violence. To paraphrase Pedro Almodóvar, this is a world on the verge of [and later, in the throes of] a nervous breakdown. Godard starts his revolution in what, as a filmmaker, is the most sensible place: with the end of his film. The bourgeoisie has eaten itself, and now their era – which has been in its twilight days throughout the film – has ended. But implicit in revolution is a new beginning… and thus Godard reignited his career in the aftermath of Week End, dedicated to rebuilding cinema shot by shot.

In Week End, Godard fiercely politicized and weaponized cinema. It’s a bleak sci-fi vision, a blistering black comedy, and a brutal polemic against everything he found to hate. With technical mastery – as demonstrated most obviously in the 10-minute traffic jam tracking shot – he and Coutard charted the boundaries of this self-immolating landscape, and then went beyond. As it struggles along, the film folds inward, repeats itself, backtracks, and skips through time, but then arrives at its inevitable and irreversible end. It’s morbid, but it’s the only acceptable conclusion Godard can see.


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Cartoons: They’re Not Just for Children EVER

I don’t know where people got the assumption that animation is a children’s domain. Maybe through further research I could ferret it out. Is it because animation’s ability to violate physical rules appeals especially to children, who may not yet entirely understand them? Or is it because animated characters tend to be especially broad and caricaturish, and this is supposedly geared toward a child’s lack of sophistication? Is it because animation has historically been realized best – for many artistic and industrial reasons – in 5-10 minute shorts, as opposed to the more critically respectable feature length of live-action films?

I don’t yet know, but the assumption couldn’t be more wrong-headed. It’s been mostly within my lifetime, since the emergence of “adult animation” as a distinct category, that magazines have trumpeted (and continue to trumpet), “Cartoons [or, often, comics]: they’re not just for children anymore!” Well, duh. But what’s particularly sad about this sudden realization is the fact that animation was never just for children. From the very first (lost) feature-length animated films of Argentina’s Quirino Cristiani, which were apparently full of complex political commentary, right down through beloved classics like “Red Hot Riding Hood” and “What’s Opera, Doc?”, animators have consistently operated at a level of sophistication (and perversion) equal to or even above that of conventional, live-action filmmaking.

Which brings me to Max Fleischer’s 1931 cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation,” which I was recently introduced to by my friend Jacob. It’s 6 1/2 minutes of mayhem, persecution, and Freudian nightmares. Its visual sensibilities lie somewhere between M.C. Escher and Alice in Wonderland, and its characters’ primary motivations are sheer sadism and uninhibited lust. It dispenses with all but the minimal necessary narrative: Bimbo is dropped through an open manhole out of his mundane surface world and into a violent underground funhouse, where he’s systematically pursued and tortured for the remainder of the cartoon. The only real plot progression occurs as Bimbo’s trials become increasingly dangerous and nonsensical, and when the Mystic Order that’s attempting to initiate him reveals themselves as dozens of Betty Boop prototypes.

I can understand how an anti-realistic story like this, brimming as it is with flagrant absurdism, could be potentially viewed as childish. It’s practically preverbal, as most of the dialogue is a simple chant – “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” – followed by Bimbo’s “No!” The cartoon physics at play, especially in the Rube Goldbergian torture devices, follow their own ridiculous logic, and the anthropomorphic characters include a sword, fire, a skeleton, and a shadow. These aspects of the cartoon’s universe suggest either a child, or else an altered state of consciousness, whether dreamed or drug-induced. These aren’t just infantile fantasies; they’re a baring of the male psyche, reducing Bimbo to his lowest state of vulnerability and victimization. This cartoon has some pretty intense psychoanalytic subtext for it to just be “kids’ stuff.”

And then there’s the afore-mentioned sadism and lust. This isn’t just typical cartoon slapstick as Bimbo tries to reach some concrete goal; he is literally running for his life from a secret society obsessed with killing him, or at least paddling his ass until it burns. (This cartoon really has an unhealthy ass fixation.) And it’s only after Betty’s rubber-bodied dance that Bimbo’s interest in becoming a member is quite visibly aroused. The happy ending seems to imply a forthcoming orgy – is this the transition from nightmare into wet dream? Whatever it is, it’s definitely beyond the sexual reckoning of your typical child. This cartoon takes haunted house clichés and stretches them out through repetition into rituals of torture; it’s as if this underworld were itself conflicted, infinitely punishing and rewarding Bimbo.

I don’t pretend to understand “Bimbo’s Initiation,” but I do enjoy it immensely. Wikipedia claims that comics artist Jim Woodring was heavily inspired by this cartoon, and if you’ve read anything by Woodring (like, say, Frank), the influence is clear both in architecture and in tone. A child could easily find this funny, sure, because it is funny. But there’s so much going on below the surface, and even on the surface, that’s decidedly adult; it strikes you on numerous levels simultaneously. This is a sick cartoon. That’s not a judgment, but more of a declaration: this cartoon has diagnosable psychosexual maladies. It’s sick. This isn’t the only place I could have started when talking about how cartoons, even back in 1931, were never just for kids, but it’s an entertaining place. Disney may get the press and all the money, but Max Fleischer had one hell of a perverse creative vision.



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Maggots, Brains, and Intestines, Oh My: City of the Living Dead

[The following was written by both of us as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like innards spewing from a teenage girl’s mouth.]


I’m honored (?) to say that this is my first full Lucio Fulci film. My foremost thoughts on the film are: ewwwwwwww. This isn’t a particularly good film however the things it gets right, it gets really fucking right. What is this movie good at? Grossing me out and scaring the fuck out of me. And as I told Andreas while we were watching the movie, at the end of the day, sometimes I just want to be scared to fuck and back. There are lots of horror movies or ‘psychological thrillers’ or whatever the sophisticated-minded want to call them that try really hard to be scary and fail at it while still being very good movies. But this movie really knows how to scare. The insane ability for the zombie(ghostwitches?) to teleport and pop the fuck out of nowhere at any time demolishes any sense of safety. Characters who you expect to make it to the end get brutally savaged and I’m just sitting here like WHAT THE FUCK!?

I was so tense for almost all of the movie and a lot of it came from how completely disjointed and confusing everything was; the narrative is very jumbled and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sadly, my exposure to Italian horror extends to Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Deep Red. Suspiria is one of my all-time favorite horror movies and yesterday I was thinking about how City stands up next to it. They both have shaky, almost throwaway plots but both have something to make up for it. While Argento’s film was a masterpiece of beautiful, stylized Technicolor death, Fulci’s is full of unrelenting, straight-up nauseating gore. I have never been as disgusted by a film (in a oh-my-God-this-makes-me-wanna-vom way) as I was with City of the Living Dead.

Part of that could be because I don’t seek out extremely gory films but most of it was because that shit was just GROSS. But gore, by itself, doesn’t really scare me; it squicks me out but it doesn’t scare me. This film has the right mixture of extreme violence and gore and suspenseful terror. I haven’t seen Fulci’s Zombi 2 but I have seen the infamous eye-gouging scene; it has the same kind of drawn-out suspense as a very similar scene in City. The only big differences being that the splinter of wood is now a drill and the eye is just general head area. But, man, is that shit drawn out and disgusting! You just watch and watch and watch until it happens. And when it DOES happen, you still just watch because it doesn’t cut away and it’s nauseating and terrifying and strangely gratifying. If a film is going to go the opposite route of less is more, if they’re going to show me scary, gross shit, they better fucking show me scary, gross shit. And Fulci definitely delivers.

I enjoyed this film despite the fact that it wasn’t all the great because it really and truly scared me. It made me feel unsafe in a lot of ways; I had the feeling that Fulci was more than willing to expose the viewer to anything no matter how disgusting or horrifyingly violent and that is scary.


My voodoo priest grandfather used to have a saying about zombies: “In your head, in your head, they are fighting.” After watching Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, I’m starting to see what he meant by that. I’m not too well-acquainted with Italian horror; like Ashley, my experience goes as far as some Argento and Bava. So although I kind of knew where Fulci was coming from, in terms of poorly-dubbed English, violent deaths, and “WTF?” editing, nothing could really prepare me for, well, the grossness of it. Because, as Ashley says, “ewwwwwwww.” We’ve got guts being vomited up, brains ripped out through the backs of heads (multiple times!), icky worm gunk smeared in a girl’s face, a sex maniac’s brain impaled with a power drill, gale-force maggots – all the yucky shit you could ask for, and it’s all on-screen. Fulci does not hold back when he has the option of holding forth.

All this vomitrocious vileness takes place in Dunwich, Massachusetts, or at least in Fulci’s secondhand version of it. This puts us squarely in a warped, Italified version of Lovecraft Country, and many of Lovecraft’s pet themes are present in an obscured, garbled way. A town dominated by undefinable, unpredictable evil? Check. The imminent demise of mankind at the hands of forces from beyond something? Check. The triumph of chaos and insanity over cool-headed reason? Check, check, and double check. The madness is unleashed (somehow, I guess) by Father Thomas, a priest who hangs himself in a graveyard – and continues hanging himself aggressively throughout the rest of the film. The plot never gets past much more than an outline, especially since it has several time-consuming, tangential subplots that go nowhere. You’d think the infamous head-drilling scene is caused by a zombie, right? Nope, it’s an angry father… who’s never revisited again, but probably becomes a zombie at some point.

But Fulci (who co-wrote the film with Dardano Sacchetti) doesn’t appear to believe in exposition, except of the vaguest, most uninformative kind. The first few scenes introduce several seemingly important characters – a medium with a criminal record, a Shaft-like hard-boiled cop – who immediately disappear from the film, as well as several others who aren’t put into any coherent context. But, I admit, faulting City of the Living Dead for not making any sense is missing the point. Its plot holes and baffling ending are among its charms, just like the hilariously overacted dubbing or the many, many random close-ups of eyes. There’s certainly an element of so-bad-it’s-good at work here, alongside some so-well-done-it’s-scary, and of course the so-gross-it’s-oh-lord-stop-that. Let’s call the quality “uneven,” and leave it at that.

For all its inconsistencies, City of the Living Dead does have some moments of Argento-esque beauty. Twice we see houses drip blood, and both times it’s scary; the second time is worse, because it’s dripping into milk, and eww, you can’t drink that milk now. A mortician paints a corpse’s lips, which makes for a good eerie/beautiful moment, but doesn’t quite wipe that “died of fright” look off her face. And the multiple occasions on which women’s eyes start bleeding? Argentastic. (Fulci clearly doesn’t believe in overkill; if an effect looks disgusting the first time around, he has no compunction about repeating it.) I also have to give kudos to what I saw as the most artful part of the film, namely its use of off-screen sound. Sure, horribly scarred zombies are frightening, but it’s ten times worse when you can hear their yowling yet have no idea where they’re coming from. It’s impressive when a movie can show everything, and still have room left to scare you through suggestion.

I’m not willing to commit myself and say that City of the Living Dead is a good movie, or even that good of a zombie movie, but I did enjoy the further taste it gave me of Italian horror. Italian cinema is an inherently strange realm, from Visconti to Pasolini to spaghetti westerns, all the way to Lucio Fulci. To generalize outrageously about Italian movies: nationalities frequently get mixed up – and indeed, City features lead performances by an American, a Brit, and a Swede – as do accents, time periods, and genres. (As noted, City features brief glimmers of blaxploitation.) Fellini is known for his self-indulgent excesses; Fulci matches him, but instead of excessive sexuality or visual style, it’s in putrescence and bodily fluids. Make no mistake: this may not be a “good” movie, but it’s still terrifying. As Bob’s head was pulled closer and closer to that drill, I waited for the last-minute rescue, for Ann to stop her father… and it never came. After all the suspense, that drill still went straight through Bob’s head. At the end of the day, that’s kind of how I feel about this movie.


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