Tag Archives: 1990s

fly toward the sun

Some people are meant to be with people. And others, like me, are just different.

vincent1

Though it begins with an urban legend about a menacing, bird-obsessed weirdo from Gerald, told in his lyrical, multi-theory style, the bittersweet ending of Hey Arnold!‘s “Pigeon Man” hits with an unexpected and enduring emotional weight. It settled heavy around my heart when I was a child and still squeezes tight occasionally in adulthood. I remember my younger self, watching, aching with pain for Vincent.

Poor Vincent. This gentle, tired man, unable to fit himself into what the world expects of him. The quiet joy he finds among his birds was something so foreign to my churning child-anxiety brain; how soothing to think that he could find a little peace even living in his strange way. And how tragic that his brief and ultimately doomed return to society is so delicious. Now, he just knows what he’s missing. What he’s been missing.

Hey Arnold!‘s grounded, cool jazz atmosphere and poignant moments helped it stand out among its more irreverent contemporaries. That sophisticated touch extends to the voice casting. In addition to the stellar cast of literal (!) children who voiced the kids of Hilldale, the show often utilized guest stars with great fucking voices. The real emotional meat of this episode, the very marrow of it, is the intimacy cultivated between Lane Toran’s empathetic but naive Arnold and Vincent Schiavelli’s tender, weary Pigeon Man.

I was too young to understand the flurry of emotions that unfolded in my chest when Arnold turned to Pigeon Man and said, “Vincent?” No longer the legend. Just a man standing among broken cages and a lifetime of pain. Sometimes the only thing to do is to pack that pain up and carry it with you, to a new place. My heart understood in a way my brain couldn’t yet what it sounds like to ask a question you already know the answer to.

 

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10 Beloved Performances of the ’90s

I love huge blogging events. Like, for example, the “Essential Performances of the ’90s” tournament being run by Andrew over at Encore’s World of Film & TV. Better yet: I was invited to add a few blurbs to it, explaining why certain performances are so essential. So I wrote about Joe Pesci in GoodFellas and Joan Allen in The Crucible, then later Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensiblity and Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Please read, enjoy, vote in the ongoing tournament, etc.

But here’s the thing. The tourney’s bracket, fantastic as it is, can only contain 64 performances. Which means that dozens of worthy competitors had to be omitted. Which is my long-winded way of presenting my top 10 performances of the ’90s by actors not represented in that bracket (ordered alphabetically):

Dylan Baker in Happiness (1998): Forcing the audience into sympathy with a pedophile was the biggest gambit of Todd Solondz’s button-pushing career. But thanks to the oh-so-bland Baker, he pulled it off. Awkward and trembling, Baker gives a performance as a suburban dad with a secret that’s terrifying, plausible, and very darkly funny.

Kerry Fox in An Angel at My Table (1990): This particular performance is obscenely underrated, perhaps because it’s in a made-for-TV biopic from New Zealand. Fox plays author Janet Frame as an adult, wrestling first with anxiety, then with institutionalization. Hiding under her shock of orange hair, Fox makes Frame’s pain palpable. Her sullen, introspective behavior is so recognizable it hurts.

John Goodman in Barton Fink (1991): Insurance salesman “Charlie Meadows” is such a complex, devilish creation on the part of Goodman and the Coen Bros. He’s friendly, reliable, a real salt-of-the-earth kinda guy—but also clingy, self-loathing, a chatterbox, and finally a serial killer. He evokes pity and terror in equal measure, and he will show you the life of the mind.

Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures (1994): Despite only being a teenager herself at the time, Lynskey’s portrayal of Pauline Parker brims with insight into adolescent life. How quickly love for her parents transforms into resentment, for example, or how she succumbs to her best friend’s powerful personality. Her startling authenticity makes the film’s grisly climax cut me to the quick.

Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): As the liquid metal T-1000, Patrick never gets angry. He merely looks a little peeved. A sleek contrast to the original’s hulking Schwarzenegger, his performance set the gold standard for robotic supervillainy. He’s unrelenting, unfeeling, laserlike in his focus and precision, and it all culminates in a single ornamental gesture: that condescending finger wag. Absolutely chilling.

Franka Potente in Run Lola Run (1998): I’ve written about this performance before, describing Potente’s Lola as “all but a superheroine, fighting space and time themselves… a woman who only exists from moment to moment.” She’s relatable—who hasn’t had to race the clock?—but still pursues the impossible, like a video game character come urgently to life.

Mimi Rogers in The Rapture (1991): Rogers’ transformation from hedonistic swinger to true believer, played out with caustic sincerity, makes Michael Tolkin’s lo-fi eschatological drama unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. As her spiritual intensity rises, the film gets darker and darker, leading up to the bleakest possible twist, yet Rogers fearlessly follows through. Her work here is psychologically layered, disturbing, and alive.

Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): Playing widowed trans woman Bernadette, Stamp doesn’t coast on the incongruity between his wigs and erstwhile “tough guy” persona, nor does he treat the role as an awards-baiting showcase. He plays her without condescension as a doyenne of drag, armed with enough biting wit to shut up all of Australia’s transphobic assholes. When she growls “No more fucking ABBA,” you listen.

Tilda Swinton in Orlando (1992): I wrote briefly about this performance last year, asking “Who else but Tilda Swinton?” Indeed, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime pairing of performer and role, and one that’s executed with so much grace and mystery. Who else but Tilda could swap genders and survive centuries as the only consistent character in Orlando? Nobody jumps to mind.

Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996): Valerie Solanas is a lot to play all at once—she was a real-life radfem ideologue, attempted playwright, attempted assassin, and streetwise hustler. But Taylor wraps herself around the whole woman, making her funny and likable even as her dreams turn to delusions, then violence. It’s a scruffy, oddball performance and an ideal introduction to the perennially underrated Lili Taylor.

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One Hour Mark: Run Lola Run

Via split-screen, 1:00:00 into Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998), we see two figures in motion. On the left is a stern, balding banker fresh from a rendezvous with his mistress, marching off to get a ride from a colleague. On the right is his daughter Lola (Franka Potente), a twentysomething slacker with dyed hair and a boyfriend in distress. During the first 2/3 of the film, as Lola’s lived out two of her “lives,” we’ve seen them cross paths twice—both times with disastrous consequences. Luckily for Lola, though she doesn’t know it yet, she’s about to miss him by mere seconds.

Third time, as they say, is the charm. In Tykwer’s Berlin, people are subatomic particles, running along their own paths and sometimes colliding arbitrarily. Just a mild change to each scenario—too quick at first, then too slow, and finally just right—produces drastically different results. And because mild changes are so powerful, because every second is as vital as an hour to Lola’s mission, she can never stop running. She’s a perpetual motion machine, channeling all her stress and fear into running faster.

Potente, by the way, gives a physically incredible performance. Her actions have such focus to them: she’s all but a superheroine, fighting space and time themselves. Feral and springy, she has literally no time for social niceties; she’s a woman who only exists from moment to moment. As such, she cuts straight through her father’s hypocritical midlife crisis bullshit. On a purely visual level, for example, compare her blurry sprint to her father’s polite, business-oriented gait. She’s the one with somewhere to go and something to lose.

Every element of the mise-en-scène heightens this contrast: the brown, gray, and black of the father’s suit and surroundings vs. Lola’s striking red, blue, and green; the father’s movement forward into a tracking shot vs. Lola’s side-scrolling velocity; and the fact that the father has been shot on video, whereas the footage of Lola is on 35 mm. This last trick has the added bonus of making the father’s scenes with his pregnant mistress look cheap and grainy, fittingly like a bad TV drama. It’s a subtle way of endorsing Lola’s reality as authentic and meaningful.

Fundamentally, then, this image visualizes a generation gap. It’s the divide between Lola, the jobless “weirdo,” and her unfaithful, paternity-disavowing father. Run Lola Run itself comes down hard on Lola’s side, that of the youth. It’s a film about running, not thinking; it prefers mindless kineticism over adult stagnation. Furthermore, as a product of 1998, it’s very much in touch with the (still-relevant) millennial hysteria, the pre-Y2K anxieties over an unknowable but imminent future. As Heisenberg would tell us, it’s impossible to predict what’s coming. Like Lola, the best we can do is run.

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Link Dump: #53

Hey, it’s Kirara, Sango’s demon-cat companion from InuYasha! Pretty old-school, right? Brings back memories of watching Adult Swim at 2 AM. (For me, anyway.) She’s here, in her cute diminutive form, to welcome us into December. And to entreat you to check out this compendium of fun, fascinating links:

And we’ve got search terms! Like “creepy distorted face music video.” Which, c’mon, doesn’t that refer to like 95% of all pseudo-avant-garde music videos? We had “define:pussy”—FYI, Google says it’s “2. vulgar. A woman’s genitals.” And finally, “satanic whore gets fucked on pentagram.” I’m sure there’s porn out there for that. Or, again, music videos. Lots and lots of awful music videos.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon, as I’ve written in the past, was one of the most important cartoons of my, and many others’, childhood. Most people in my age bracket that I talk to who are or were into anime at some point typically claim that one of three animes were the gateway: Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon. All three aired in the US at around the same time (Sailor Moon in 1995; DBZ and Pokemon in 1996) and immediately preceded, ushered in and fueled the great anime boom of the mid-nineties.

Although the opening theme changed each season (and of course, had its Japanese counterparts) it’s this opening from the English dub of the first season of Sailor Moon that most American fans remember with fond nostalgia. The opening is a hodgepodge of some of the season’s best animated moments merged with a lyrically dubious song; they try to find the right moments to match up with the words of the song but some of it is just a little off in regards to the actual character of Sailor Moon. For example:

Fighting evil by moonlight/winning love by daylight/never running from a real fight/she is the one named Sailor Moon.

Now if I wanted to get really technical, the only true statements in regards to the first season there are the first and last one. Yes, she fights evil (but not always by moonlight) and yes, her name is Sailor Moon. The whole, winning love thing though…Serena and Darien didn’t begin to have a relationship until the second season. They didn’t even know they loved each other until the very end of the first season. And Serena, the girl and the hero, is a huge wuss in the beginning of the show; on more than one occasion she expresses her desire to not fight. The song skips over the details about Serena being a flaky, unreliable, obnoxious teenager and about the in-fighting between the Scouts (read: between Raye and Serena).

And for some unfathomable reason, the song shows (and has a roll call!) for all five of the Inner Scouts! The Japanese opening goes the smart route and only lets on that there’s going to be three scouts initially; after Sailor Mars comes along we don’t get another scout until Jupiter-14 episodes later. But American kids already knew who Jupiter and Venus were and that eventually they were coming, thanks to the opening.

But despite all of that, the opening and the song does reflect the strongest themes of the show: the importance of friendship; finding love in the unlikeliest of places; and most importantly, for our hero Serena, growing up. Serena’s character arc is the most important and developed of the series; it happens not just over the course of the first season but the entire show. She grows into herself and her responsibilities as a friend and a super hero and the opening song details those more stellar qualities, even if they are something that she develops later on.

And it’s got that kick-ass guitar solo, amirite?

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Saturday Theme Songs: Animaniacs

Continuing my new series on theme songs from ’90s cartoons, I come to a hilariously anarchic, idiosyncratic show: Animaniacs. Produced by Steven Spielberg in coordination with a wide variety of writing and voice talent, it lacked the coherent narratives and respectability of its less manic peers. You could call it a sort of Monty Python, Jr. – just as the Flying Circus riffed on everything that 1960s British TV had to offer, Animaniacs took on every assumption children had about what cartoons were “supposed” to be. It followed in the hallowed footsteps of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, using borderline-sociopathic characters to assault and delight the viewer. All of these qualities are at work in this opening.

One important aspect of Animaniacs that the opening gets across is how scattershot and fractured it was. It resembled a string of vaudeville routines more than a conventionally plotted children’s show. Granted, it had main characters – “the Warner Brothers, and the Warner sister, Dot” – but they were more like self-aware hosts, delivering fourth-wall-breaking jokes in a detached, Groucho-like tone. The meat of the show was in the numerous recurring segments, like “The Goodfeathers,” “Slappy Squirrel,” and of course the beloved “Pinky and the Brain.” However, there weren’t solid borders between segments either, as the stories would occasionally slide together. It was a cartoon free-for-all, where all logical concerns were subordinated to the characters and jokes.

Alongside this intentional lack of structure came Animaniacs‘ love of self-reference. Starting from the title, it was a cartoon about cartoons, and the opening demonstrates this repeatedly, telling the audience that “now you know the plot,” and later exclaiming, “the writers flipped, why bother to rehearse?” Even the characters’ identities (the Warner Bros.) are rooted in the series’ real-life origins, as well as the history of animation itself. This is a show where characters drew attention to jokes as they were making them. They also regularly mocked other shows’ “morals of the week” with their “Wheel of Morality,” which would churn out an arbitrary (and absurd) lesson. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot seemed to take great pleasure in tearing down any pretense of straightforward fictional storytelling, just as they did with the niceties of TV programming. If not ideologically, it was at least a very formally subversive series.

It’s also a great text to examine when trying to determine the zeitgeists that drove ’90s cartoons. Animaniacs was a stand-out, but it was by no means alone in its innovations, and this might hint at a strange cultural moment when adult animation was just entering the mainstream (see: Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, or of course The Simpsons). Perhaps “children’s” cartoons were able to piggyback on their newly acceptable levels of topical sophistication, a stark contrast to the many ultra-toyetic ’80s cartoons with little to offer the adult viewer. Whatever the case, Animaniacs was decidedly a product of its time, with an original run (1993-98) tucked neatly within the Clinton years (and, indeed, Clinton himself is featured in the opening). This may have been the only time in history when cartoon theme songs have used the phrase “pay-or-play contracts.” Those are the facts.

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Animated satire and the death of our planet

So, at last, it’s 2010 (the year we make contact). I’m back in Northfield, classes have started again, but I still hope to find time to post every now and then. And in this, my first post of this new year/decade, I will turn my view forward, toward the future (“…for that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives“). That’s right: spurred on by Ashley’s recent discussion of Nina Paley’s “Thank You for Not Breeding,” I want to talk about the near-certain doom that awaits mankind and this planet before too long!

For a long time, I’ve been pretty fascinated by ecological catastrophes, the relationship between man and nature, and the many ways the one can fuck up the other. My first memories of the phrase “global warming” comes from a lame joke, learned either from Laffy Taffy or a classmate, sometime in elementary school:

Q: What would worms cause if they took over the world?

A: Global worming.

Soon thereafter came the five-legged frogs. I don’t remember the specifics of it, though a quick Internet search turns up many possible such stories; basically, the gist is that in the mid-’90s, mutant frogs were found across the midwest sporting an extra appendage. The culprit? Pollution, to which frogs are extra-sensitive (breathing through their skin and all, you know). Somehow this news story stuck in my mind. As a lifelong X-Men devotee, I was already familiar with the concept of mutation, and these poor frogs just solidified it as something real, dwelling quite literally in our backyards.

Around this time I also saw an episode of Captain Planet called “Planeteers Under Glass,” which Ashley and I recently revisited. The plot’s pretty typical for the show, involving a scientist’s attempts to run a virtual reality simulation of pollution’s effect on nature. The nefarious Dr. Blight traps her and the Planeteers in the simulation, Captain Planet himself intercedes, the day is won, etc. But the reason I remember it today is for its gruesome, Nightmare Fuel-laden visualization of the havoc wrought by industrialization.

You know what’s terrifying? Seeing all the careless damage and waste produced by a couple centuries of factories and smokestacks summed up into one slimy, bleak amalgam of statues and skyscrapers. Captain Planet may have been a very flawed show – OK, even a sucky show – but just this once it managed to parlay its eco-friendliness into some effective doomsday imagery. I’ve forgotten most of the show’s preachiness, and I can’t remember whether the motto “The power is yours!” belonged to its hero or to Smokey the Bear. But you know what I remember? That giant, scary effigy of destructive corporate greed!

While mulling over the topics of this post, I had a little realization: one of the perks of being a child in the ’90s was that environmentalism was no longer just a hobgoblin of wacky tree-huggers. (Granted, the first Earth Day was in 1970, but what can I say, I haven’t really done any research.) Instead, it was in the posters on our classroom walls, in our PSAs, even in our cartoons. Most weren’t as blunt as Captain Planet, but consider Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What made them “mutant”? The mysterious “ooze,” of course, a mutagenic pollutant released into the sewers of New York, which apparently also transmitted a craving for pizza. So even in the context of a straightforward, hyperactive Saturday morning cartoon, we see traces of this anti-pollution zeitgeist. (Also worth noting: Fern Gully was released in 1992.)

Another animated source of such nods to pollution and environmentalism as issues pervading the sociopolitical climate of the Clinton years is, naturally, The Simpsons. Tonight, Ashley and I watched “Marge vs. the Monorail” (season 4, episode 12) which even begins with an extended jab at corporate irresponsibility in the guise of the show’s many-layered plutocrat, Mr. Burns. Cramming barrels of toxic waste into a tree at a neighborhood park, Burns decries what he perceives as inefficiency: “The last tree held nine drums!” Meanwhile, a mutated squirrel frolics about with glowing, laser-emitting eyes.

I’m consistently astonished to see how much caustic satire The Simpsons at its prime could cram like toxic waste into 22 minutes. It’s even more impressive to think that as young children, we were laughing like idiots at it – even as the episode took on government corruption, the ignorance of the masses, and the sleazy con men who rip them off. And we learned about them all, satirically, through The Simpsons. For more evidence of the show’s subtle environmentalism, consider Blinky the three-eyed fish, another product of the power plant’s shoddy waste control, who I recall featuring prominently in advertising in the show’s early years.

It’s a testament to the show’s lasting genius that even in The Simpsons Movie, which devoted an hour and a half to an epic, environmentally-driven plot, the jokes just look stale and toothless compared to the most casual barb from episodes like “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish,” “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” or “The Old Man and the Lisa,” just to name a few of the times when the show probed our collective ecological nightmares. The fact was that the show had tread this territory already, only with far more venomous quips and more profound points to make.

So God bless The Simpsons for playing its own irreverent, invaluable part in bringing these issues to the cultural forefront. This goes right along with what I’ve long believed about getting ideas across in fiction: the sight of the ruined land that was once Springfield, devastated through Homer’s ignorance and incompetence, at the end of “Trash of the Titans” (season 9, episode 22) is so much more powerful on every level than having Captain Planet bark “The power is yours!” at you every day. The former serves as the ending to a wickedly funny and emotionally involving episode; the latter almost makes you want to pollute more, just to piss off that self-righteous Planet prick.

While I’m on the topic of animated satire laced with environmental messages, I’d like to pay tribute to a film that’s not seen nearly enough. I enjoy it immensely, but maybe that’s because it suits my sensibilities so well. I’m referring to Bruno Bozzetto’s uneven 1977 compilation film Allegro Non Troppo, a frequently witty series of vignettes set to classical music in the style of Fantasia. Except that Disney’s majesty and grandeur are here replaced with an earthy, lovably crude aesthetic, akin to the work of René Laloux, or Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python.

Aside from the free-for-all, rapid-fire bunch of cartoons that end the film, the stand-outs are undoubtedly the hauntingly tragic contemplation of war and death set to Jean Sibelius’s Valse Triste (i.e., “the sad kitty”), and the parody of Fantasia‘s Rite of Spring sequence set to Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. It’s this second piece I want to single out as relevant to the discussion at hand: it starts out beautiful, imaginative, and a little strange, progressing with Ravel’s martial rhythms through the ages until the marchers evolve into a panoply of wide-ranging creatures.

A primate starts quietly stalking some of the weaker fauna, but they march on, a little fazed by the artifacts they pass (pyramids, a cross, a tank), until at last they reach a barrier: the highway. Then, in a scene paralleling that horrible moment from Captain Planet, skyscrapers rip out of the earth, hurling the animals aside, only to be gazed down upon by a smiling colossus… whose head breaks off, revealing a devious monkey inside. It’s a comically pessimistic statement on man’s capacity for oblivious destruction.

So these are some of examples of how animated satire can (at least try to) make a difference in the broader discourse about how we treat the earth. I’d also add to that list the animated shorts included in “Thank You for Not Breeding”: “The Wit and Wisdom of Cancer,” “Goddess of Fertility,” and “The Stork,” all by Nina Paley. (She is an incredible woman, both in her animated work and her stances on art; expect to hear more about her in the coming weeks, and months.)

For whatever reason, I’ve always been attracted to these kinds of cartoons – the darker and more extreme, the better. I love people’s viewpoints, and I’m addicted to fear, so the further under my skin each vision of environmental apocalypse gets, the stronger my reaction. (These are some of the many reasons why Avatar‘s trivial, feel-good sparkliness didn’t work with me.) I’m terrified by what human beings have done and are doing to the planet we live on. And the fact that we can’t stop without giving up our current lifestyles. And that we won’t stop unless we want to, and we really don’t want to.

So what’s to become of us as a species, of earth as a living place teeming with endless biological diversity? What does the next decade hold in store for life in these parts? Will we wait until we’ve reduced this fertile land to a smoldering, treeless pile of ashes, poisoned the oceans, and hidden the sun behind a veil of smog? Then will we wring our hands, muttering to ourselves, “Hmm, we should do something about this before it gets out of control…”? Would you really be that surprised?

I’ll conclude with a brilliant little piece, the opening sequence to Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Its juxtapositions of cosmic iconography and surreal imagery really let it skewer modern man’s penchant for ignorance coupled with conformity. Also, it’s really fucking funny. And if the world’s slowly coming to an end, we’ll all need a laugh, right?

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