24 December 2012

A Rankin-Bass retrospective, part II

The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

Plot: We open to the melodious but stern voice of Miss Greer Garson whose schoolmarmish reading of scripture lets us know it's time to sit up straight, as there will be a quiz following. It's the time of Caesar Augustus and there's a "cruel tax"—although what does she think, those roads just grow on trees?—that requires everyone to shuffle through the desert in bleak, single-file lines. Everyone, that is, except the n'er-do-well entertainer, Ben Haramed (Jose Ferrer), and his cross-eyed companion, Ali (Paul Frees), who seem to be strolling through the sand dunes without a destination or provisions. Perhaps the story that follows is merely a hallucination brought about by extreme dehydration.

Here comes the titular drummer boy, Aaron (Teddy Eccles)—who is drumming, because what else would he be doing? He's accompanied by his "old friends:" the donkey, Samson; the lamb, Ben Baabaa, and the camel, Joshua, all of whom are swaying about on their spindly hind legs as though they've stepped out of a particularly apocalyptic Bosch painting. The catty Aaron is unimpressed with the animals' footwork and spurs them on like a stage mother: "be lighter! Happier!" Ali notes that "it is said" that Aaron hates all people—at eight years of age, Aaron already has a rich body of folklore surrounding him.

Ben Haramed and Ali take Aaron and his friends captive as the title song plays, unhelpfully. Ben Haramed reveals his nefarious intent of putting on a variety show for the taxpayers through the song "When the Goose is Hanging High." The connection between poultry and show business is left unmade as Garson leads us a flashback explaining why Ali hates people: this involves the onscreen knifing of his father and the offscreen murder of his mother, as well as the destruction by fire of Aaron's home. Happy Holidays, everyone!

The horror continues within the bleak gray walls of Jerusalem where Aaron is compelled to perform for a leering crowd while wearing a painted smile that would make Heath Ledger cringe. "Why can't the Animals Smile?" he sings, as his furry companions stage a bacchanal in which they pretend to be other creatures, and we recall the words of Lovecraft, that the most merciful thing in the world really is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. All this proves too much for Aaron, who finally snaps and turns on the crowd before a passing of the keffiyeh can garner a single shekel.

As luck would have it, outside the city the troupe runs into a trio of wise kings (all Paul Frees), who are uninterested in percussive music but are happy to purchase Joshua, having killed their own camel by loading it with an industrial pallet of Frankincense and Myrrh from Sam's Club. Aaron is none to happy about this and runs after the kings' caravan to be reunited with Joshua. There hasn't been quite enough tragedy in this children's story, so Baabaa is abruptly run over by an irate Centurion in a chariot, late on his way to a filming of Ben Hur.  Aaron takes his dying lamb to the stable where the kings are, and finally notices this huge star in the sky thing that's been looming overhead the entire time. Fortunately, the Messiah is hip to Aaron's crazy beats and Baabaa is miraculously healed.

Notes: This show is based on the listless, monotonous,and inexplicably popular Christmas song, written by Davis, Onorati and Simonein 1958. It never ceases to amaze me that it took three people to write the thing. The gritty sets and misshapen china-doll character designs are straight from your nightmares—or perhaps a Cold War era animation studio somewhere in Czechoslovakia. Reflecting the emerging crafts movement that would dominate the early '70s, everything is gritty and dirty and the palette runs the gamut of browns from dirt to mud. While the actual hills surrounding Jerusalem are quite lush with vegetation, this story takes place in what looks like the Gobi Desert, because it's the Middle East, am I right? 

For a children's special, The Little Drummer Boy is pretty brutal: violent death, enslavement, and the Vienna Boys' Choir all feature prominently. But it's also earnest and honest in a way that, say, The Christmas Shoes isn't, like a big sloppy dog that just wants you to love it and to forgive it for what it did to your socks. The basic message, that we should give what we can as we are able, is both theologically and ethically sound. But did they really have to make the bad guys Arabs? 

23 December 2012

A Rankin-Bass retrospective, part I

Plot: The story opens in the manner of Citizen Kane: with spinning newspapers whose headlines announce a terrible storm, because there were no bigger news stories in the early ’60s. But fear not, our narrator, Sam the Snowman, assures us that Santa will still be coughing up the presents. In fact, the next scene reveals that the greatest threat to Santa is in fact the monstrous Mrs. Claus, who is intent upon producing arterial sclerosis in the jolly old elf.

Sam introduces us to Rudolph, a reindeer who was born with a 5-watt penlight instead of a nose. Fascist parents Donner and Mrs. Donner are deeply disappointed with their minute-old offspring, as is a grumpy Santa, who nonetheless launches into the stirring “I am old Kris Kringle”.  Meanwhile, Hermey the elf tries in vain to defy his phallicly-nosed boss by becoming a dentist.  “Why am I such a Misfit?” he asks no one in particular. “Such is the life of an elf,” observes Sam, philosophically. In another part of Christmas Town, Rudolph provides a melancholy echo to Hermey’s haunting song. Somewhere in between comes the musical number “We are Santa’s Elves,” but nobody ever remembers that one anyway.

At the Reindeer Games (which are no fun at all), Rudolph’s hides his shame, allowing him to make friends with the spunky Fireball and to put some moves on the coquettish Clarice. He  blows his cover just as Santa arrives. Spurned by the beloved saint, Rudolph is nonetheless encouraged by Clarice’s observation “There’s Always Tomorrow.” Several woodland creatures seem to agree, but just as the two are about to mate, Clarice’s dad intervenes. Hermey appears and the reindeer and elf set out together to seek “Fame and Fortune,” nearly plunging off a cliff to early deaths.

Suddenly, the Abominable Snowmonster of the North appears, snarling, over the mountain tops, in a scene designed to forever scar the collective psyches of a nation’s children. For no apparent reason he allows Hermey and Rudolph to pass unmolested. The duo meet up with the prospector, Yukon Cornelius, the only competent individual in this holiday special. Sam chides Yukon’s avarice—or does he celebrate it?—with the ambivalent ditty “Silver and Gold.” Enter the Snowmonster again, attracted to little red light bulbs. Yukon saves the day with his pickaxe, leading the three to the “Island of Misfit Toys,” a bleak, pale pink land whose denizins spend all day hiding in giftwrap. The loudest of the toys is the whiny Charley-in-the-box, who sends the newcomers to the castle of King Moonraiser, this world’s secular version of Aslan. Moonraiser grudgingly allows the trio to spend the night, but in a fit of altruism, Rudolph sets off on his own to be eaten.

After growing some horns, Rudolph returns to Christmas Town only to find that his mom, dad, and girlfriend have been taken by the Snowmonster to his cave. There the cross-eyed brute drools over them for several weeks, apparently waiting for Rudolph to show up before administering the coup de grace. Rudolph fails miserably in his attempt to rescue them, but Hermey and Yukon save the day by yanking the monster’s teeth out, another scene designed to further terrify. “I’ll light the way,” Rudolph offers as they leave the cave, but no one pays his cry for attention any mind. Yukon torments the defenseless Snowmonster and ends up falling over a cliff, and by now, the shell-shocked viewer has run screaming from the room.

Of course there’s a happy reunion at the end to the tune of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and Yukon and the monster aren’t really dead and  Rudolph, by virtue of his nose, gets to lead Santa’s sleigh, although a pair of headlights seems the more obvious answer.  In the most heartbreaking scene of all, the Misfit Toys weep bitterly about their apparent abandonment. “I haven’t any dreams left to dream,” states the rag doll, who has absolutely nothing wrong with her. But down comes Santa and Rudolph, and off they fly to the tune of Sam’s rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Notes: This was the first Christmas special to be produced by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, and the animation has both the freshness and the funkiness of a maiden effort. The simple felt-covered characters have a tendency to sway wildly and stare blankly ahead, and the sparse, blank sets sometimes make you think you’re watching a frozen Meshes of the Afternoon.

As networks have demanded more commercial time, Rudolph has often been shortened for broadcast. I once saw an airing which cut “I am Old Chris Kringle,” yet confusingly left in Santa’s lead line “You see, Rudolph, every year I polish up my jingle bells...” before jumping to the shot of the jolly man exiting the cave. Donner’s line to the Mrs. when he sets out to find Rudolph—“This is Man’s work”—is also often cut in these more enlightened times.

Santa and Mrs. Claus are nothing like their later Rankin-Bass incarnations, and both seem to be quarrelsome and unpleasant—the Italian mother Mrs. Claus, especially. Santa calls her “Mama,” which leads to some disturbing questions about their sex life.

22 December 2012

Someday soon we all will be together

One advantage of working at a Catholic university is they take their holidays seriously. Boston College closed down for its week-plus Christmas break yesterday, although to be honest, the campus has had the population of a war zone for days now, albeit a peculiarly friendly war zone. The few faculty and staff left shuffling off the last paperwork of 2012 have displayed an affectionate, almost maudlin mood, stopping in hallways for lingering chats, hugging each other or slapping shoulders. In the locker room of the university gym, balding middle-aged guys in towels proved to be the most effusive, talking long after their saunas should have ended, gripping hands, getting up to leave and remembering one last thing. And all the conversations I heard ended the same way: "see you next year."

Next year, when you and I are older. Next year, when things will be different. Next year, when we will start all over again.

It's odd, this taking leave of each other and the year. Really, it's only a few days, like any others. We know, of course, that calendars are made up and every day, every minute, starts a new year if you want it to. Perhaps the Mayans had it right, and we should reckon our years from the winter solstice, when days wax in length—that, at least, has some poetry to it, assuming you live north of the equator.

But however arbitrary our measures are, they carry a psychic punch. We feel it, this passing of the year, and what's more, we need it. This year, like all, was hard. Sometimes, the world has to end. The Mayans were right about that, too.

19 December 2012

Don't want no trouble here in my place

The West never happened. Cowboys in the 19th century were not, by and large, self-driven lonely men making their own lives on their own terms. They were extremely poor. They were employed by eastern meat-packing firms and were lucky if they owned their own kits. A large number—perhaps a half—were Mexican or freed African-Americans; in addition there were Native Peoples and Chinese on the range. But mythical cowboys loom large in the consciousness of the United States, as does the idea of fending for oneself and making your way by the seat of your pants and the sweat off your brow. This heroic vision of the cowboy as a master of survival, handy with a gun, and ready to fight for what's right grew out of the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill and others and eventually reached its pure form in the Hollywood films of the 1950s.

Those films were a treasure trove of clichés that all of us know even if we've never seen High Noon. The lone deputy defending the town; the saloon with its rinky-tink piano and swinging doors; the crazy prospector who just struck it rich; the defenseless homesteader in need of saving. One particularly well-worn trope is a scene played over and over in many Westerns: a gunman strides into the bar; patrons look up from their drinks or cards nervously. The bartender spies the man's firearm and shouts "You have to leave your weapon at the door. Don't want no trouble here in my place."

It's telling that this scene is such a common chestnut in the midst of a genre that celebrates the ideal of gun ownership. The barkeep and the patrons recognize the introduction of danger. Perhaps the gunman is virtuous and poses no threat. Perhaps his intent is only to protect himself and others. But the presence of the gun itself invites all sorts of mischief. Someone else could get their hands on the gun. Someone else could feel threatened and respond with violence. Someone else could get shot when the gunman draws. Trouble here in my place.

I get it. The desire to protect yourself and to protect others is strong, even noble, and it's wrapped up with a lot of stuff we like to believe about masculinity, self-sufficiency, and competence. The world is full of real, actual threats and we want to take action against them. It's possible that you could own a gun and train carefully with that gun and keep it maintained and secure and that one day you will save the life of someone you love by shooting dead a very bad person. Here are some other, perhaps likelier outcomes: You could try to shoot the bad person and instead have the weapon turned against you. You could try to shoot the bad person and kill someone else, perhaps the person you were trying to defend. The bad person will see you have a gun and become much more dangerous.

Even more likely are the outcomes that don't involve self-defence: The weapon will remain unused, but you yourself will become more paranoid and hardened to the world. You could have a very bad day and reach for a convenient way out. You could have a very bad argument with someone you love and whom you would've forgiven if you'd only had the time. You could think that you were shooting a bad person and will instead kill a frightened teenager in a hoodie. You could be a responsible, safe, licensed owner and one day someone very close to you will kill you with your weapon and then kill many others, mostly children. 

This is why many of us are skeptical of the idea that we'd all be much safer if more of us were armed. We are all too aware of the possibilities. It's not even that we don't trust you—although really, we don't know you—it's that we can feel, instinctively, the way that the presence of one more weapon makes the situation that much more unstable. Trouble. Here in our place.