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.

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A Man’s Best Friend is His Invisible Rabbit

Everybody loves James Stewart. It’s a fact. Look it up. He’s just a likable guy. The star of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958) picked up many fans. In an old interview James Stewart revealed that his favorite role he ever had was that of Elwood P. Dowd in Henry Koster’s light-hearted comedy, Harvey (1950). And it is surely worth a look.

That is actually one scary rabbit.

That is actually one scary rabbit.

Perhaps James Stewart’s soft, gentle demeanor made him a natural for the role of the innocent and gregarious star of HarveyHarvey itself is a great movie with a wonderful cast. Victoria Horne (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) is splendid as his love-hungry niece and the incomparable Josephine Hull (Arsenic and Old Lace) in her Academy Award winning role steals most of the show as his well-meaning, long-suffering sister at wit’s end. The real charm of Harvey lies with its sweetness and pleasantness that finds its root in the perplexing relationship between Elwood (Stewart) and his best friend, a giant invisible rabbit, six-foot one and a half inches tall.

Josephine Hull and

Josephine Hull and Victoria Horne in two wonderful performances.

After living many years with her brother and his long-eared hallucination, Veta Louise Simmons (Hull), can stand it no more. Veta is going crazy trying to keep Elwood away from the house so she can entertain and throw parties for her upper-class friends, but Elwood continuously comes home from the local bar early and—very earnestly attempting to introduce Veta’s friends to Harvey—unwittingly chases them all away.

Veta cannot have this. She loves her brother, but he is making it very difficult for her to get her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Horne), to meet young men. With no alternative Veta makes plans to commit Elwood to a sanitarium…but once there, her emotions take over when she’s describing how Elwood’s invisible rabbit friend is ruining her life and she winds up getting committed instead and the affable, oblivious Elwood wanders off with his head cocked up and to the right (to acknowledge his unseen friend) and an extra coat and hat (with two holes cut in the crown) over his arm.

You can't see him?

You can’t see him?

Once the well-meaning Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) and the nurse (Peggy Dow) realize their mistake of locking up a sane woman and sending the would-be patient off on his way they do whatever they can to fix it. Veta is released and gets her old family friend, Judge Gaffney (William Lynn), in an attempt to sue the sanitarium. The less-than-compassionate sanitarium orderly, Wilson (Jesse White), is sent to find Elwood and bring him in, but gets sidetracked when he bumps into a romance-desperate Myrtle Mae. Meanwhile sanitarium director, Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), is making plans to fire Dr. Sanderson and convince Veta to reconsider her charges.

The amiable Elwood P. Dowd seems to be harder to apprehend than originally suspected…almost as if something (or someone) is protecting him as he blissfully saunters along on his merry way. If he really is crazy (however harmless) then he also might be invincible, but there seems to be clues that the ambiguously ambivalent rabbit, Harvey, might be more than just a figment of his imagination. Even if Harvey is make-believe, he’s real enough to the kind and gentle Elwood who will pull him out of traffic and hold doors for him.

How do you capture a man who is too reasonable?

How do you capture a man who is too reasonable?

Elwood eventually is found, but he goes peacefully (he hasn’t an unpleasant or disagreeable bone in his body), but the “sane” people who have been running around crazy for the entire film want Elwood to take a serum that will make him not see Harvey anymore. Sad that he will never see his best friend again, but not wishing to hurt his sister or niece, he agrees to take the treatment, but Dr. Chumley has something to tell Elwood in private first.

To be smart or to be pleasant? That is the question.

To be smart or to be pleasant? That is the question.

Elwood and Dr. Chumley have a long talk about Harvey and much is revealed about Harvey and about Elwood’s life philosophy. Elwood’s gentle behavior may appear simple and possibly insane, but he has this to say to the good doctor, “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ — she always called me Elwood — ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

In the end it doesn’t matter if the rabbit is real or not. The important thing is how people treat one another, and if it takes a magical, invisible rabbit to change people then so be it.

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away, but hopefully I have whet your whistle enough to watch the film for yourself. Harvey is funny, touching, and beautifully written and might be one of the most pleasant movies ever. Harvey is wonderful, charming fun for the whole family.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 12, 2009

Of Dogs and Bunny Rabbits

Warning: These are not children’s movies.

I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down in 4th grade. It was a book that examined different types of society but all the characters were rabbits. Many people may be familiar with this popular book and I’m sure some people are familiar with Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation, which came out in 1978. If you saw the movie Watership Down when you were a kid you might remember most notably the abundance of blood (for a cartoon about talking bunnies, it is a smidge on the gory side). All things considered, Martin Rosen (who had never directed a movie before) makes a pretty darn good job of translating Watership Down to the big screen.

Frith speaks!

Frith speaks!

I read Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs in high school. My biggest surprise came well into my college career when it was brought to my attention that there was a film adaptation of it as well. Lo and behold Martin Rosen also made Plague Dogs into a movie in 1982, this time with even greater command of his animated medium.

Definitely read Richard Adams’ books, but I would encourage you to also investigate their film companions directed by Martin Rosen. It is obvious that Rosen has a deep respect and affection for Adams’ writing and does not compromise the integrity of either story, nor does he insult the audience by dumbing things down or belittling the characters. Rosen respects his audience and trusts them to be savvy enough to track along with him. Both films are great adaptations from great literature.

Fiver's ominous vision.

Fiver’s ominous vision.

 

Watership Down, for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of some renegade rabbits. When the runty prophet rabbit, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers in the film), predicts bunny genocide, Hazel (the amazing John Hurt) leads a group of fellow rabbits far away (against the wishes of their chief, voiced by Sir Ralph Richardson). The rabbits journey across the English countryside in search of a new warren, but the way is paved with trouble and bloodshed. There are other societies of rabbits with varying ideological positions on the nature of things and many battles will need to be fought before the end. Yes, they are bloody and it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

There are some wonderful moments of suspense, peril, and surreal horror The rabbits’ relationship to their god, Frith (Michael Hordern), is a fascinating and touching representation of faith. Watership Down is not a sunny, happy Disney flick. It feels more like an historical account complete with myths and some original language (think Tolkien writing for a rabbit world). The movie also features the voices of Denholm Elliott and Zero Mostel (the role of the bumbling seagull, Kehaar, would be Mostel’s final film performance) and there’s even a very  beautiful song by Art Garfunkel. Both the book and film are a pleasure.

scary bunny

The filling in of the warren.

Plague Dogs might be the darker story. Two battered dogs (voiced by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin) escape a research laboratory in England and start their uncertain quest for happiness. They spend their time killing sheep to survive, but soon their attacks catch the attention of the humans and they realize they must become wild animals in order to stay alive. They get some pointers from a cunning fox who becomes a valuable—if not always trusted—ally.

Farmers report dog attacks on their livestock and the media investigates. Before long, some miscommunication leads everyone to believe that the dogs are infected with Bubonic Plague (hence the title). Starving and struggling in the wilderness the two dogs fight to survive and soon they must decide whether or not there ever was anything to hope for. This philosophical story asks the question: what if everything that drives us is just an illusion or a dim memory of a lost moment in time? Once again, Rosen adapts Adams’ tale very well. Technically it’s not as bloody as Watership Down but the violence is a little more disturbing and some of the dialects will be near incomprehensible to American audiences.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

The British cut of the film is longer than the American cut, but it is paced much better and it keeps little character moments that really serve to develop the story and engage the audience a little more. If you can find the British cut I would recommend you see that version.

 

I showed Plague Dogs to a few friends and many of them really enjoyed it, but several people found it terribly depressing…which it is. I would say it all depends on how you look at it. Just as some people might find hope or doom in the finale of Brazil, I would say the film leaves the ending open to interpretation. I find endings like that make the experience more personal to the viewer. It is bittersweet to say the least.

drowning

Depressed yet? This is like the first scene.

Watership Down and Plague Dogs make for unusual books, but turning them into films might have been even more daring. Both films are adult dramas featuring talking animated animals. Difficult projects to market, but ultimately rewarding for the lucky few who still seek them out today. Both books come highly recommended and I would suggest that after finishing them you look into watching the movies too.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 3, 2009