Tag Archives: Nina Paley

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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San, Seas, Sita and Overpopulation: What I’ve Been Watching.

Hello, blogosphere. Happy 2010. Happy new decade. I spent half my life in that decade. Last night for an hour, my lover and I were in different decades. Time is a weird construct. Anyway. I’ve been very sick since Sunday; it sucks on many levels but the good thing about it is that I’ve been watching lots and lots of movies. And I want to talk a little about them and the thoughts I’ve been having. The night before last I watched two animated films from 2009 that were on Roger Ebert’s ‘Best of the Year’ list, Ponyo and Sita Sings the Blues, and last night I watched Coraline, Beauty and the Beast (I needed the nostalgic comfort) and Princess Mononoke.

Princess Mononoke and Ponyo are both by Hayao Miyazaki who is…pretty much a fucking animation god.  He also did Spirited Away (2001), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), etc. If you’re someone who’s into anime at all, you’ve most likely seen one or more of his works. I saw Princess Mononoke a few times when I was younger and really liked it though I didn’t understand it very well. Watching it again, especially hot off the heels of seeing the huge, clumsy, visually-refined-to-death, monster that is Avatar (in brain-burning 3D no less) was very refreshing. Where Avatar is very manipulative about who you’re supposed to like (because all the military people are assholes and all the Na’vi are nature-loving, good people) and what you’re supposed to feel about everything, Princess Mononoke presents all the characters as very real, rounded characters who have lives and motives outside of “I’m the opposition so I act this way!”. Even Lady Eboshi, the film’s main antagonist: she’s not really hateful or evil, you don’t like what she does and it’s frustrating and upsetting to see it but you don’t really hate her or want her to die. Avatar and Princess Mononoke have a similar core conflict: humans vs. nature. Avatar also has about a million other messages it’s trying to weakly get across (just tossing an idea into a movie without any development behind it does not a powerful message make) but that’s the main point.

Princess Mononoke and Avatar are two wildly different examples of how to present the same idea. Where Avatar is  heavy-handed and full of cliche characters and situations and a horribly predictable storyline, Princess Mononoke morphs an old idea into something more original. Not just man coming and destroying nature. Man’s industrialization of the land corrupting the very bodies and souls of the gods of the forest. You would think a film with a premise like that would come across heavy-handed but again all our characters are interesting and have personalities outside of being mere plot devices and it gives more depth to the film and more opportunity to think. Because although Avatar has a wealth of heavy subject matters it’s playing with, you don’t have to think to know what it’s saying. They spell it out for you. You don’t have to think about which side is good or bad because each side acts as a homogeneous entity, expressing the same ideas and beliefs. You don’t have to think about what you think should happen because the movie tells you what you think should happen: the military should take its ass away from beautiful Pandora.

With Princess Mononoke we care about and are invested in characters from both sides and the story being told is told eloquently and beautifully. And there are more personal biases, such as my natural tendency towards traditional animation. I have always been drawn to and more impressed by traditional forms of animation than I have CGI (Princess Mononoke has about five minutes that include some computer generated images and the rest is all hand drawn); people have been creating awe-inspiring worlds like Pandora for years and years and years, with ink, paints, clays, etc. And so while I didn’t intend to turn this into a comparison of the two films that’s what ended up happening and as far as I’m concerned Princess Mononoke wins.

On a much (much, much, much) lighter note: Ponyo! Ponyo just….made my fucking day. If you are sick, watch this movie. If you are sad, watch it. If you are happy, watch it. If you are a alive and breathing watch this movie. It is so wonderful. Just…delightful. In my opinion, it’s very hard to pull off films that have little to no real conflict; it’s why a huge majority of children’s G-rated films are so mind-numbingly boring, stupid and patronizing. But Miyazaki has a knack for films like this. Much like My Neighbor Totoro (which you should also watch if you are alive), most of the film centers around childhood and how children perceive things. Ponyo is Miyazaki’s take on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.

When little Ponyo mischievously wanders off one day and ends up in the bucket of a little boy named Sosuke, she decides that she wants to be a little girl too. Despite her father’s attempts to stop her she uses her powers to transform herself into a cute, hyperactive little girl and reunite with Sosuke. During all this, she manages to flood the entire town. Ponyo is especially delightful to me because all of it is hand-drawn, every last bit. And that’s really important to me. For traditional artists the idea that animation could be (or is being) replaced with computers is incredibly unnerving. And so it’s important for amazing animators like Miyazaki to maintain that balance between how much computer animation is used compared to hand-drawn.

Ponyo‘s American distributor is Disney and they dubbed it with appropriately moronic leads: Noah Cyrus, younger sister of Miley and the younger sibling of the Jonas Brother’s, Frankie (it balances out a little though; Tina Fey plays the mother). But I don’t really have a problem with that since I usually prefer to watch foreign films with subtitles opposed to dubbing nor do I have a problem with Disney distributing this film, it makes sense that they’re the American distributor (even though this movie is better than most things they’ve put out lately). Though I am kind of irked by the American poster for Ponyo:

Am I the only one who sees the similarities? If so, feel free to tell me I’m crazy but seriously. Just cause they both have a fish and water doesn’t mean they’re similar. But anyway, the point is you should watch Ponyo. Like seriously, go watch it right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re a little kid or a teenager or an adult or really old: this movie is great and you need it in your life.

All of the movies I’ve watched over the last two days have been animated, most of them traditionally animated but what I’m going to talk about next was made on a computer, mostly in Flash animation in fact. I know that might sound weird coming hot off the heels of me claiming my undying love for traditional animation but my love for traditional forms of animation doesn’t mean that I hate all forms of computer generated art. There is a lot of very wonderful, beautiful, meaningful computer generated art and I understand and respect that computers are now just another tool for artists to use if they choose to. And the following film would not exist or even be able to be SEEN without computers and that is just very sad to think about. The movie I’m talking about is Sita Sings the Blues.

It is very hard to even describe this movie, it’s so wildly original and creative. That basic story is that of an episode of The Ramayana, focusing on the story of Rama and Sita, with the perspective on what it was like for Sita and all she had to go through. The film makes use of four different styles to bring together parallel narratives: one which tells the story of Sita and Rama, with painted figures and minimal movement; another in which three traditional shadow puppets (voiced by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya) casually discuss the story and what it means from a modern viewpoint; a contemporary parallel done in Squigglevision which is actually the story of the writer/director/animator Nina Paley’s own divorce (which is how this whole movie came into being); and  brightly colored, cartoony episodes wherein Sita sings the songs of  ’20s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw (who has top billing).

The use of the Annette Hanshaw songs is where things get interesting. Sita Sings the Blues has a fascinating, inspiring story behind it involving freedom of culture, copyright and Nina Paley’s desire to share her art. I won’t get into too much detail about it here because it’s pretty complex and you can read all about it here but basically the use of the Annette Hanshaw songs meant that she couldn’t distribute Sita legally; after managing to bargain down the price for the songs, this woman went into debt to make this movie legal. It became a festival favorite while its creator was dead broke. It’s a perfect example of just how broken the copyright system is and how ridiculous it is to try and own culture. Happily though, Sita got a limited DVD pressing and is under a Creative Commons license which means that you can go and watch it, download it, copy it and share it. You should go watch it right now on Youtube.  In the words of Nina Paley’s website:

I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.

The story behind Sita Sings the Blues is about as amazing to me as the film itself. And as a result I’ve become incredibly interested in Nina Paley; she’s absolutely fucking awesome and I love her. I discovered that she is childfree (what’s up!) due to her concerns with overpopulation and I found this short film that she made. It is so interesting and fun to watch.

And it actually got me thinking a lot about my own views on breeding. I don’t want to breed, I’m happily child free and I have no maternal feelings or fantasies about being a mother or having babies. I don’t like children and I have about a million reasons why I wouldn’t make a good mother, despite what people who barely know me have to say about it. But this video cemented the idea I’ve had that if somewhere along the line I decided I wanted a child I would adopt. Why should I bring another human being into this world when there are so many children without parents? It doesn’t make any logical sense to me so I won’t have any part in it.

So that’s a little window into what I’ve been up to lately; forgive me if any of it is incoherent or just plain weird, as I’m still sick and not very clear-headed. I hope to start posting regularly again soon after I get better. I’m going to go watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which will make four Miyazaki films in the last two or so days. I’m awesome.

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