That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

An Arabian Night All Too Often Forgotten

Minarets.

It is widely understood that Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the very first feature length animated movie. This is only half-true. It is still believed to be the first cel-animated feature, but there is another film that predates it by more than a decade. I had the good fortune to stumble upon a lost treasure several years ago. This treasure is Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's...a flying horse.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s…a flying horse.

This delightful fantasy is exploding with impeccable visuals and imagination and is really a lot of fun. Prince Achmed has some amazing spectacles; monsters, witches, demons, magic, flying horses, wizard battles, romance, genies, sword fights, etc. So why is it so obscure? Could it be that it’s German? Could it be that it’s silent? Could it be because it was directed by a woman? More likely this hidden gem is often overlooked because of the method of animation that was used to make it all happen. When Snow White came out it spawned a whole movement of cel-animated movies (headed by folks like Disney and Fleischer) that lasted for a good six decades plus, but Prince Achmed was not cel-animated and its style was not much mimicked.

Lotte Reiniger achieved the immensely intricate and breathtaking artwork of Prince Achmed by manipulating pieces of cutout cardboard shapes. Prince Achmed is an amazing technical example of a form of art that never really caught on like cel. Like the rest of Reiniger’s canon, this film was made via stop-motion shadow puppet animation (a style that has been most recently recaptured in Michel Ocelot’s Princes and Princesses in 2000 and the 2005 Anthony Lucas short The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello). Every object, character, joint, ruffle of fabric, leaf, and curtain is little more than overlapped two-dimensional silhouettes.

A woman's work is never done.

A woman’s work is never done.

This technique (invented and perfected by Reiniger) is fascinating to watch and creates an atmosphere and energy all its own. When you observe stills from Prince Achmed you can get an idea of the complexity of the images, but until you see it in full motion you do not get the full emotive power of Reingier’s creation. And it’s in color too! It’s so captivating that I forget I’m only watching silhouettes whenever I watch it. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a special treat, not just for animation-enthusiasts, but also for anyone interested in experiencing an epic fantasy adventure in the spirit of The Arabian Nights.

The story is exotic and magical. The evil African Magician deceives the young Prince Achmed and sends him on a harrowing adventure into the heavens on a magic flying horse. The evil Magician is really after Achmed’s sister. Prince Achmed figures out how to maneuver the horse and lands in the Isles of Wak-Wak, where he falls in love with the beautiful Pari-Banu, but the demons of Wak-Wak are very protective of their Princess. Achmed steals the Princess away, but is confounded by the shape-shifting evil Magician (who has escaped from prison). Achmed travels to China, where the Magician has delivered Pari-Banu to the lustful Chinese Emperor. Achmed must rescue his beloved, but again is hindered by the evil Magician’s trickery.

Hero time.

Hero time.

Luckily, Achmed makes powerful allies along his quest. He befriends a wild Witch in the heart of a volcano who is also enemies with the evil Magician. With the help of the Witch, her magic, and her army of monsters he pursues Pari-Banu, but meets an impossible obstacle when the mountains of Wak-Wak close on him, trapping the beautiful Pari-Banu in with the demons.

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Fortunately for Prince Achmed, he stumbles upon Aladdin—who is in love with Achmed’s sister, the Princess—and together they recruit the Witch to battle the evil Magician and get the magic lamp back so that they may enter the gates of Wak-Wak. A spectacular shape-shifting showdown ensues between the Magician and the Witch (in a scene I suspect Disney ‘borrowed’ for Merlin’s duel with Madame Mim in 1963′s The Sword in the Stone because I don’t recall that event from T. H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King). The lamp is retrieved and together Achmed, Aladdin, the Witch, and all of the genies in the magic lamp wage a fantastic battle against the demons of Wak-Wak to save Pari-Banu and return to the kingdom where Aladdin can marry the Princess and Achmed can marry Pari-Banu. Needless to say, it all ends well for our brave hero. The whole adventure is a dazzling, intoxicating journey that never ceases to amaze or fill with wonder. I loved it from stem to stern.

Wizards' cat's cradle.

Wizards’ cat’s cradle.

As the earliest surviving animated feature, the serious film buff cannot afford to miss this one. Not to slight the movie itself, however, I must add that in addition to being a significant piece of film history, Prince Achmed is also first-class entertainment. It’s a visual pleasure and a fun ride with more charm and adventure than you might suspect. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a beautiful technical marvel that Sheherazade herself would be proud of. It would even make for a great double-feature with 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad. This reviewer strongly recommends.

The DVD release also features a very informative documentary about Lotte Reiniger and the making of this and other stop-motion shadow puppet films from Reiniger.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 5, 2010

My Country White or Wong

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong

221246375_9e48852774The American film industry has had a long and illustrious span with fantastic films and innovations for more than a century. A great many good things have come from American film, but let us not forget some of the darker aspects. Throughout history non-white actors have had a hard time in American movies (as well as being the victims of prejudice outside the cinema). Things have gotten a lot better, but take a moment and appreciate how far we’ve come.

Chinese American actress, Anna May Wong, was one such talented figure whose road to success was blocked by the color of her skin. Wong was born in 1905 Los Angeles. She pursued acting in the silent era and became the first Asian American international movie star, but she had a tough time keeping her spot in the limelight. In a time when many actors of European descent would put on makeup to play other races and anti-miscegenation laws prevented interracial scenes of sensuality (including kissing) and not many ethnic leading players, the studios generally did not always know what to do with Wong and she was, more often than not, cast as exotic background or as more stereotypical characters.

Thief of Bagdad

Thief of Bagdad (1924)

I first saw Anna May Wong in Raoul Walsh’s silent classic, The Thief of Baghdad (1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. For all Baghdad’s special effects, impressive set design, and Fairbanks’ charismatic charm and stunts, it was Anna May Wong who (in my humble opinion) stole the show. She played a shifty Mongol slave and although the role was not particularly big or racially positive, her performance left an impression on me.

wong glam

Recently I went to Hollywood’s Silent Theater for a viewing of The Toll of the Sea (1922), which was Wong’s first starring role and also one of the first films to be shot with a very early Technicolor process (so, yes, in IN LIVING COLOR). Alas, the final reel was lost to history, but the impact of the story and Wong’s wonderful performance made it well worth the price of admission.

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Madame Butterfly” (which was turned into a pretty good operatic film in 1995), Anna May Wong plays a young Chinese girl, Lotus Flower, who finds a stranded American on the shore. They fall in love and are married, but the man, pressured by his other American friends and concerned with his public image, returns to his homeland without his bride. Promised he would return to her, Lotus Flower waits everyday for her beloved husband. Her Chinese neighbors chide her for her silly devotion because they believe she was just an exotic fling for the American. Years pass and Lotus Flower raises her son (who her husband doesn’t even know he has) and she writes letters to herself from him in broken English that tell of his love for her and his son.

Toll of the Sea (1922)

Toll of the Sea (1922)

SPOILER ALERT: The heart-breaking final act has the American at last returning to China. Lotus Flower hears of his return and puts on her best clothes and makes her son ready for his father’s arrival, but is emotionally distraught to discover he has married an American girl and forgotten about her and has only returned at the behest of his new wife to explain the situation. Lotus Flower tries to keep her composure, but soon the American woman discovers the truth and Lotus Flower gives her son to the new woman. The scene where Lotus Flower tries to tell her son that it was all fairy stories when she said she was his mother and that she was just a silly Chinese nurse is truly gut wrenching. Lotus Flower’s eyes are filled with tears and her young son does not wish to leave his mother and clings to her, kissing her and trying to dry her tears. Eventually the American wife takes the son and they return to America with Lotus Flower’s husband. Having spent her whole life waiting for her beloved’s return and removing herself from all other alliances and her son now gone she throws herself into the ocean, thus paying the toll of the sea. This film is very sentimental but it’s quite good and Wong gives a wonderful leading performance.

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

Anna May Wong was a glamour girl in her time and a very fine actress, but the Hollywood system continued to refuse her roles (Asian leads were never terribly common). The last straw arrived when she was refused the role of O-lan for the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1937). This was a role Wong had desired for a long time, but it was cast to the American actress, Luise Rainer (who won the Academy Award for her role). Wong eventually relocated to Europe where ethnic performers were met with somewhat less troubles. She eventually returned to Hollywood but remained chiefly a side character.

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

She played a slightly more positive double-agent character in the British musical Chu Chin Chow (1934), but her role isn’t big enough. She starred in the stylish E. A. Dupont film, Piccadilly (1929); did radio; and had a supporting role in the classic Marlene Dietrich film, Shanghai Express (1932). She starred in the wartime dramas Lady From Chungking and Bombs Over Burma (both 1942) and even became the first Asian American with her own detective TV show in 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (sadly, nothing exists of the show today). Later in life she sold her costumes and donated the money to Chinese aid for refugees. She died of a heart attack at age 56 in 1961. She never married.

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932)

Like Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar (as well as stealing every scene in Gone With the Wind, 1939), much of Anna May Wong’s success is marred by people who discount her and her work for portraying more racially stereotypical characters. I ask these attackers to consider the times in which these actors lived. It may not have been fair then, why should we keep it unfair now? Few can deny their talent or the obstacles that faced them. Let us celebrate them rather than belittle their legacies. Racial equality may elude us for another century, but let us not forget what steps have already been conquered or the brave, stubborn people who conquered them.

annamaywong_big

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 27, 2009