Between the rush of excitement and that Japanese language course you took to help dissect the nuances of the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer, you might have missed The Walt Disney Company sliding another film in under your noses. The Pixar collaboration titled The Good Dinosaur has been brewing in the background for some time. Now, with the kinks worked out of its bones, it will hit theaters, on November 25, 2015, as a sweet Thanksgiving dessert for your youngsters.
We’ll Make Great Pets…
The film follows the adventures of a young Apatosaurus named Arlo, in an alternate history of Earth where the dinosaurs were never wiped out by that pesky meteor. In this universe humankind is evolving alongside the dinosaurs. Tiny cave-ling, Spot, becomes Arlo’s sidekick and puppyish companion. I’m partial to the feral kid, who apparently would give his cinematic progenitor Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (Victor of Aveyron) a run for his choppers.
Production art reveals that the Pixar design team juxtaposes incredible natural vistas of a prehistoric Wyoming, with the cartoonish style of their characters to great effect. Those natural wonders, for better or worse, become a driving force the plot line.
Infusing the dinosaurs with anthropomorphic characteristics allowed the filmmakers to create a ‘little boy lost” scenario that the young target audience should identify with. There’s a whole new generation – or three – to assimilate this tried and true coming of age, quest for home, story motif. I’m thinking they’ll be a heaping helping of Bambi style pathos, which we also saw in the original The Land Before Time from Don Bluth Studios. Moms and Dads bring extra hankies – for yourselves.
I had an instant affinity for the characters. Maybe it’s just me, but the look of the animated cast reminds me of the style of artist Paul Coker Jr.. He’s one of my favorite illustrators and his work in Mad Magazine, especially his illustrations for the recurring Horrifying Cliches, I still cherish and laugh out loud at. His character designs for the beloved series of stop motion holiday specials produced by Rankin and Bass (Santa Claus is Coming To Town, Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer) continue to entertain every season. In addition Butch the T-Rex (voiced by Sam Elliot) reminds me of the chunky, jut-jawed Tyrannosaurus painted by dinosaur artist Charles Knight, famous for his early depictions of saurians in Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History.
TOMY Toys’ Good Dino Gifts…
At the recent Holiday of Play event, Toy Insider and Woman’s Day magazines kicked off the 2015 gifting season with a look at the newest and best toys hitting the shelves. The folks from TOMY Toys were on hand to show off their really fun line of The Good Dinosaur items.
The well crafted products range in size from the tiny animals you can perch in Styracosaurus Forrest Woodbush‘s horns, to a big galloping and roaring Butch T-Rex.
In the spirit of The Good Dinosaur‘s Thanksgiving Day release The Disney Company has partnered with Feeding America to help those in need. Visit Disney’s Citizenship Site. “Be Inspired” to see how you can help others in very simple ways.
Please consider putting one of the very current TOMY goodies into your local toy drive. A plush “Spot” might be just the companion to help a child “be brave” in circumstances beyond their control.
Though I normally end a post with the “SkeletonPete Says” section I think it appropriate to preface this particular blog entry with some introduction to its genesis.
This piece is only one small part of the Criterion Blog-A-Thon that officially began yesterday. The Criterion Collection is noted for its restoration of aging film elements, and attention to detail in its bonus features, often producing what most consider definitive DVD and BluRay releases.
Thanks and kudos to Aaron (Criterion Blues) Ruth (Silver Screenings) and Kristina (Speakeasy) who created and are administering this massive, 200 plus post, Blog-a-geddon. It is unlikely I would have endeavored to revisit Vampyr or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ethos had it not been for the impetus of this online event. Film buffs who trawl the Criterion Blog-A-Thon should have enough to read until December 2020. Please send the blog posts you like some social media (#CriterionBlogathon) and comment love, and follow the ones that you think will float your boat in the long run.
I will be handling this subject on two levels and in two installments. This first rumination on the film and overview of the Criterion DVD package will be followed later in the month by an artistic response to Vampyr, an outgrowth of this writing project that I did not expect to arise but would like to share.
On a personal level, Vampyr has been a long term tantalizing mystery that was only solved satisfactorily with the release of Criterion’s DVD package in 2013. I was first exposed to the film as a set of still images found in the pages of Carlos Clarens’ book The Illustrated History of the Horror Film. I purchased that book in 1967 upon its release in paperback form. It was heady stuff. Though I had been a “monster book” fan for some time by then – diligently collecting copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Castle of Frankenstein and others off the newsstand – this was something different. I’m not sure I can claim to have fully understood the scholarly nature of Clarens’ work at the time, but it certainly was different from the “Horrorwood, Karloffornia” style puns of FMoF mag, and it set me on a path to ferret out (and obsess over) more arcane information about my favorite genre.
Around the same time, penny saving yielded me the wherewithal to purchase 8mm copies of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922,) The Lost World, and Lon Chaney Sr.’s Phantom of the Opera (both 1925,) which I ran endlessly through my family’s home movie projector, but Vampyr was elusive. When I finally got to view it for the first time it was on a pre-cable TV UHF broadcast. UHF was that other – enigmatic – bandwidth that came in via the circular antenna supplied with your TV. At best I could pull in a dodgy, shaky and snowy image, but this was the frequency where John Zacherle’s Disco-O-Teen Party lived so I’d put up with anything.
I watched intently through the static but unfortunately that first encounter was unfulfilling for a teenage “monster kid” living on a diet of Chiller Theater screenings. Where were the monsters? I was perplexed and archived it away in the brain cells, nearly forgotten until I was reintroduced to Dreyer in a college film 101 course via The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Passion, Turn to the Left…
The Passion of Joan of Arc is renown for its reflection of the human psyche through the director’s use of intense close-ups. The inner mind of the characters is reflected through their facial gestures filling the screen to the displacement of all else. Vampyr on the other hand appears to bring us directly to the source, inside the id of our protagonist, to experience dreamlike, sometimes multiple, views of reality. The film plays less as a narrative than as a series of separate images. Though a sound film, it plays like a silent. Working almost exclusively with non professionals, Dreyer reduces the acting requirements to a limited palette of movement that distills the viewing experience to what seems a series of still moments.
Vampyr does not progress so much as it… drifts. It follows its own tidal flow. In fact the meager bits of actual exposition afforded the audience become obtrusive amidst the surreal core of the film. DVD Commentator Tony Rayns makes a point of noting that Vampyr has more in common with Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou than it does with Universal’s Dracula. I’d call Vampyr a visual tone poem.
I’m On the Outside Looking In…
Lead character David/Allen Grey (Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg) is presented as a cipher of the supernatural. His experiences are often viewed through windows or doorways suggesting that he is seeing events taking place on another plane. This reaches its zenith as Grey witnesses his own interment and trip to the cemetery through the coffin transom. The vampire peering into the coffin from Grey’s point of view has become one of the film’s most memorable and printed images.
Although director Dreyer set out to create a financially successful film utilizing popular gothic tropes, art ultimately trumped box office. The film rebukes the “heavy” old dark house chiaroscuro of its genre mates for a stylized look that Dreyer described as a “muddle of grey and white.” That look has become Vampyr‘s historical hallmark but the groundbreaking style clearly bewildered its target audiences. The tempo of Vampyr makes Tod Browning’s Dracula seem like part of the Fast and Furious franchise. At least one group of early viewers nearly rioted, demanding their money back.
The film was ultimately a commercial failure and likely contributed to Dreyer’s following nervous breakdown. This is not surprising based on the director’s model of filmmaking. It’s what André Bazin and Francois Truffaut later coined as autuer theory in the French film magazine Cahiers Du Cinéma. While recognizing collaboration as a necessity of filmmaking, Dreyer saw the director’s vision as the prime goal of the production team, which had to be fully understood before individual efforts could begin. A failure leaves no one else to blame. He didn’t make another film until 1943.
Criterion Collection Inspection…
Now to the actual artifact that drives this Blog-A-Thon. For clarification I’m writing specifically about The Criterion Collection’s Vampyr box set. That is the first edition released in 2008, which is out of print and has been superseded by the March 2015 release. My understanding is that the 2015 package DOES NOT include the printed materials I mention here, though all DVD supplements appear to be the same.
Included in the first edition slip case are a nicely designed foldout for the two DVD’s that also houses an illustrated 42 page essay booklet, and Writing Vampyr a chunky digest that contains the original script and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu‘s “Carmilla.” The inclusion of Le Fanu’s novella is a nice touch, it’s an important seminal work every fan of vampire lore must read, but Vampyr has only a tenuous connection to its plot. Check Project Gutenberg for Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly that includes another influence on the film, the short story “A Room At the Dragon Volant.”
Disc One presents the film in two renditions sourced from a high definition digital transfer of Martin Koerber and Cineteca di Bologna’s 1998 restoration of the original German version. Koerber’s printed essay relates some of the tribulations of the process. He points out that Vampyr was filmed silently, with separate takes of the actors mouthing their lines in German, French and English. Audio was added later at UFA Studios in Germany. Many extant copies of the film are cobbled together from different language takes. A second version with English text and “new and improved” subtitle translation is also included. Tony Rayns, who you will usually find giving context to asian cinema discs, handles the audio commentary with solid insights on both the film and the director.
Disc Two gives us three valuable extras. To me, it’s where this package truly shines, and it is worth noting that there is very little overlap of materials across all of these supplements. Joreen Roos‘s 1966 documentary Carl Th. Dreyer features a lengthy, career spanning, interview with the director and includes snippets of praise from Truffaut, historian Henri Langlois, and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diaboliques) filmed at the premiere of Gertrude in 1964. Dreyer discusses how his use of mise en scene forms a statement about the personalities of the people who inhabit those spaces. In Vampyr the cluttered interiors of the family mansion can be seen to represent the earthly attachments of the living, while the white washed walls of the vampire’s lair are a blank slate to reveal the projections of cavorting phantoms. These shadows often have a life of their own, disconnected from their corporeal hosts, a still startling effect Francis Coppola repeated in his Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).
The German censors’ deleted scenes become part of Caspar Tybjerg‘s Visual Essay also on Disc Two. Those scenes could not be reintegrated into the film because of Dreyer’s subsequent edits. The overview also points out the artistic influences on Vampyr and Dreyer’s other films. Henry Fuselli’s Nightmare, Corot’s Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, Jean de La Fontaine’s Death and the Woodcutter are all compared to their cinematic heir.
Dreyer’s 1958 radio broadcast cannot be beaten… think of it as a TEDtalk from the beyond
For pure doctrine, the 1958 WBAI radio broadcast of Gideon Bachmann‘s The Film Art series cannot be bested. There is no outsider interpretation. It is solely the director explaining his prescribed methodology for expanding cinema beyond its technical adherence to nature. Hearing these theories of art and style directly from the man – what they are and what they are not – and on how filmmaking should evolve is priceless. Think of it as a TEDtalk from the beyond.
Dreyer’s main goal was always simplification, breaking a scene, a set, or a performance down to its essence. In his own words he strove for a “cleansing of the motif of all the elements that do not support the idea.” It is not so much minimalism as it is aiming towards an abstraction that ultimately leads to symbolism. He professes that a filmmaker’s goal must be “master” to the inherent realism of the photographic medium to create a poetic and stylized (not mannered) “psychological reality.” An artistic transformation based on the disregard for physical reality.
SkeletonPete Says, Again…
Preparing this blog has been an enjoyable exercise in the style of research and critique that made me want to write in the first place. The aforementioned Illustrated History of the Horror Film did not just fuel my desire to view the films assayed, (many of which, by the way, have been released by Criterion) but also to journalize the experience. By the early 1970’s I was producing a stapled together mimeo fanzine (the blog of its time) called Tempest, and doing my best to report and expand on my favorite genre films. It was a great learning experience.
I hope I’ve made you curious enough to screen Vampyr for yourselves and formulate your own opinions. Comments are welcome.
Below is a sneak peek at the Dreyer inspired art I’m currently working on.
Getting Kramped in Here…
Hey, whaddaya call a group of shepherds in Brooklyn? …Ewes guys. Ok – umm, how ‘bout a ram wearing galoshes? …A goat in Totes. “Hey Pete,” you say, “who’s got your goat?” In a word… Krampus, and it ain’t no joke. The nordic/germanic folk character acts as the malevolent sidekick to Ol’ Saint Nicholas and is more than happy to beat the bejesus outta ya with a batch of birch branches.
A likely remnant of the old world veneration of the Great God Pan, American audiences may be largely unaware of Krampus. The admonishment to “be good” lest you find a lump of coal in your stocking appears to be the closest kids in the US get to the dark-side of yule tide. That will soon be remedied as Santa’s satanic enforcer gets his due this coming holiday season. Yep, things get heavier than a little coal as the real nightmare before Christmas is the focus of an upcoming film and a brand new book.
Ya Gotta Believe (or Not)…
While the monstrous goat-god’s celebrations take place throughout Alpine countries on December 5 each year, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Times Square New York will give him his due during their Second Annual Halloween Party, to be held on Saturday October 31, 2015. Ripley’s will up the ante on “odd” in the already bursting at the seams Odditorium with 50 rarely seen items from their vaults especially for the party.
The grown-up’s only (21 +) festivities will be punctuated by Psychic readings, hypnotic demonstrations, close-up magic, twisted game shows, “poison punch,” a Day of the Dead Candy celebration at midnight, and one lucky winner will go home with a life-sized version of Krampus himself.
Tickets are being sold online only and can be purchased here.
Book ’em, Krampo…
Author, artist, and curator Mike Drake will be on hand at the Ripley’s Halloween Party to sign copies of his just released book Contemporary Krampus: A Modern Look at an Ancient Legend. The glossy 124 page 8.5” x 11” volume is loaded with interpretations of the cloven hoofed, scourge wielding, kiddie stealing creature rendered by more than 60 artists from around the world. We’ll be giving you an in depth review of the book a little later in the season.
WETA Way to Go…
While at New York Comic Con this month I was able to peruse the wonderful WETA Workshop displays which, along with a wealth of paraphernalia from the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit epics, included a window loaded with their handiwork for the upcoming Universal/Legendary film titled – you guessed it – Krampus. Coming down the chimney of a theater near you with bad intentions on December 4, 2015.
Toy Insider’s Got Game…
Between the recent New York City Comic Convention and Halloween approaching, Andy and I have plenty of information and photographs to share with you, and miles to go before we sleep.
We’re going to start off with an overview of Toy Insider and Woman’s Day magazines 4th Annual Holiday of Play event. Holiday of Play brings together over 100 reporters from the press and blogger communities to peruse the magazines’ top choices for the coming gifting season first hand and cull information directly from the vendors.
Toys, from STEM to Stern…
Toy Insider co-publisher Laurie Schacht and her team introduced us to picks in three categories; this year’s Hot 20, Top Tech 12, and new addition the STEM 10 list. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math and is the current buzz-line of the educational world. Laurie called the Toy Insider STEM choices “stealthy,” and indeed many of the items are for an age group too young to realize they’re being prepped for a career in quantum physics.
The TI annual lists include a Toy Skill Key for each item that gives parents and gifters a quick guide to the scope of the product’s potential. Skill areas include: development of large and small motors skills, social interaction, emotional and social intelligence, school readiness and tech smarts.
Over the next couple of days we’ll be posting galleries to show off the products in the individual categories, and link them here as they go live.
As part of her presentation Laurie brought up two brave souls to demonstrate Hasbro’s Pie Face game. Pie Face turns a can of Reddi-Whip whipped cream and an unpredictable trigger mechanism into a fun competitive scenario that’s sure to generate innumerable aftermath selfies. Clearly a great party game that while aimed at a young audience will have inestimable value in college dormitories. Just bring an intrepid constitution and a sense of self deprecating humor. Oh, and buy stock in Handi-Wipes now.
I was particularly excited to see that Lego is jumping into the collector figure video game market. Activision pretty much invented this niche with the original Skylanders. They continue with a strong fifth iteration called TurboChargers, which focuses on land, sea and air vehicles. They’ve also added exclusive Donkey Kong characters to the mix in a switchable crossover with Nintendo’s AmiiBo line.
On the eve of The Force Awakens, Disney is introducing its Infinity 3.0 starter kit, which brings us a Stars Wars scenario. As in the past all previous game pieces can be used in the new games. The battle ready Yoda is very cool.
Lego ’s brand, called Dimensions, adds construction to the mix. It’s a multi-platform, multi-license experience that not only encourages you to build your own Stargate style portal but allows for up to seven game – yep 7 – figures to enter play at one time.
Lego will wrap up many of the missing franchise licenses not owned by Disney. Look for DC Comics characters, Dr. Who, Scooby Doo, The Wizard of Oz, The Simpsons, Ghostbusters, The Lord of the Rings, and of course the company’s own The Lego Movie figures to rumble around in one heck of a mashed up multiverse.
The starter kit includes parts to build the portal, which you can customize with your own existing stash of pieces, and three characters; Batman, Gandalf and Wildstyle. It also comes packed with one sweet Batmobile to tool around in.
No surprise each of these new starter packs made the Hot Top 20 for 2015.
Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree remains my favorite autumn tome since I first purchased the Ballantine paperback edition back in 1972 and read it in one sitting. It is a wonderful rumination on the origins of the witching season wrapped in a quintessential Bradbury “boy’s tale” (or what we now call young adult fiction). Originally conceived as a screen treatment for an un-produced Chuck Jones cartoon, each of its characters learns the history and significance of their respective costume as they travel through the Samhain night on a quest to save a friend.
So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I awaited the arrival the 2015 edition from Alfred A. Knopf publishing, newly illustrated by artist Gris Grimley. Those who have previously encountered Grimly’s illustrations know his style is a perfect match for this Bradbury story. Yet Grimley’s task was no easy one because since it’s first release the book as been associated with the interior art of regular Bradbury collaborator Joseph Mugnaini (1912 – 1992). Mugnaini supplied the illustrations for the likes of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and The October Country. Two of my favorites appear in Golden Apples of the Sun as embellishments for the short stories “The Sound of Thunder” and “April Witch.”
Mugnaini’s pen and ink drawings for The Halloween Tree are notable for their crosshatch work, texture, and stark areas of black, in many cases giving the effect of scratchboard rendering. Mugnaini adopted this style based on the limitations of the print process. It’s a keep-it-simple method that worked well no matter the quality of paper or print job.
Grim & Grimmer…
While Gris Grimly’s new Halloween Tree art sits firmly in the tradition of fanciful and cartoon like, his use of tints and washes for shading lends his characters a more corporeal sense on the page and his full color wrap around dust jacket imparts an air of pure midwestern hallows eve as described in the book’s opening paragraphs. I believe the late Mr. Bradbury would approve.
As in his graphic novel spin on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Grimly’s use of squashy ochres and greens-going-brown perfectly effect the feeling of autumn. In addition to the dust jacket art, the 9.5 x 6.5 inch hardcover book offers a profuse selection of full and half page illustrations, punctuated by 3 color plates. I’m not sure if Grimly rendered all of the pieces in color, but if so they would make an amazing portfolio.
Whereas Mugnaini separated the chapter headers with unique mask drawings, Grimly chooses an array of grimacing, grinning, and giggling jack-o-lanterns to be his dividing images. Copies ordered from his website during September came autographed with the edict “Be Grim,” and a wonderful little color pumpkin sketch on the title page.
You may also want to collect Gris’s other illustrated works including Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and a couple of volumes of Edgar Allan Poe tales.