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Chuck Jones (#110 of 6)

Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

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Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein
Avant-Garde Traveler: Jean Epstein

Jean Epstein is one of the great filmmakers cinephiles discover after deciding there are no more worlds left to conquer—and the effect is blinding and humbling. Like many such revelations, his work throws the map of cinema into disarray, knocking over the mile markers and headstones set up long ago by the official canon: surrealists over here, expressionism over there, social realism way over there. He was a little bit of each—none exclusively—and more. He associated with the surrealists, but the oneiric qualities of The Fall of the House of Usher (adapted by Luis Buñuel, who also served as assistant director on the film), like much of his work, are found in some unquantifiable space between special effects and elementary moods. Work that seemed to foretell the neorealist, social-realist, or magical-realist subdivisions just as often turned into daydreams, or intricate music boxes that deflated the heaviness of their own narrative concerns. A common sight—or sensation—in an Epstein film is the vast, oscillating sea, indifferent, unimpressed, a law unto itself, governing the internal physics of a given work, as well as the hearts of men and women.

Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!

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Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!
Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!

Dear Ryan Murphy:

Be crazy.

By crazy, I mean unhinged, unpredictable and inspired. Think Bob Clampett going full-tilt surreal in Porky in Wackyland. Or Chuck Jones starting out spoofing opera in What’s Opera, Doc?, then building to a climax of thunderous spectacle and heartfelt emotion that wipes the smile off your face (until Bugs Bunny restores it with, “Well, what did you expect in an opera…a happy ending?”) Think Frank Tashlin building a live-action cartoon around his already-cartoony leading man, Jerry Lewis. Or Bob Fosse directing an autobiographical musical fantasia while he was still alive, and structuring the entire thing as a deathbed flashback, and devoting the film’s final third to musical hospital staff and equipment as bits of mise-en-scène. Think Alfred Hitchcock staging entire feature films in single locations (Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Widow), ending The Birds with an eerie, almost European-art-film-like anticlimax, and killing off his leading lady in Psycho 40 minutes into the film and turning his focus to her killer, and making you think he’d killed his leading lady in Vertigo only to have her show up again during the film’s second half, by way of setting up an even darker, sicker, more moving story than the one you were already watching.

Short Film Week: “What’s Opera, Doc?”

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Short Film Week: “What’s Opera, Doc?”
Short Film Week: “What’s Opera, Doc?”

It starts with an overture and ends with a quip; it is a short and an epic, a spoof and a heartfelt exemplar of the mode that it mocks; it is a seven-minute Warner Bros. cartoon by director Chuck Jones called “What’s Opera Doc,” and once you’ve seen it—as every person with a television set is likely to have done at some point—it becomes difficult to hear the melody of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkryies” (or watch the chopper attack sequence from Apocalypse Now or the introduction to the mineral spring in 8 1/2) without wailing, hoarse-voiced, “Kill da wab-bit…”

The Sopranos Recap: Season 6, Episode 17, “Walk Like a Man”

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<em>The Sopranos</em> Recap: Season 6, Episode 17, “Walk Like a Man”
<em>The Sopranos</em> Recap: Season 6, Episode 17, “Walk Like a Man”

Written and directed by Terence Winter, “Walk Like a Man” came close to being all things to all Sopranos viewers. For the “less yakkin’, more whackin’” segment of the audience, it offered tits and blood aplenty, and it zipped through its densely packed narrative with a breathless sureness reminiscent of the show’s more conspicuously plot-driven first season (which makes sense, considering that there are only four episodes left; the show might as well circle around to where it started). But beneath its surface pleasures (and surface nastiness) was one of the most complicated structures of any single Sopranos episode—so dense, in fact, that I felt obligated to watch it twice before writing this, and had intended to watch it a third time until the 24-hours-in-a-day rule kicked in until it became clear that if I didn’t write something soon, I’d have to title the column “Sopranos Tuesday.” So I won’t attempt to be as comprehensive here as in previous posts; if I gloss over anything, hopefully we’ll get to it in the comments section.

5 for the Day: Looney Tunes

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5 for the Day: Looney Tunes
5 for the Day: Looney Tunes

1. “I Love to Singa” (1936). In which jazz crooner Owl Jolson (voiced by Our Gang bully Tommy Bond) runs afoul of his classical musician father and performs on Jack Bunny’s amateur radio show. The characters’ eyes are profoundly expressive—the little triangles of white light that reflect in their pupils rotate a full 360 degrees and add to these deceptively cheery protagonists a sobering touch of the manic-depressive. “I Love to Singa” is about stalwart determination, not to mention the simultaneous insanity and importance of artistic pursuit (and Owl returns as a genius sight gag in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.”)

2. “Russian Rhapsody” (1944). In which Adolf Hitler, after spewing his way through a fiery Reichstag speech about deli condiments, sets out to bomb Moscow and comes face to face with musically inclined “Gremlins from the Kremlin,” not to mention a very stern-looking mask of Josef Stalin. That the cartoon manages to both viciously lampoon Hitler (whose portrayal here complicated my childhood perception of him as a demonic historical bogeyman) and also make him something of a sympathetic protagonist is a tribute to the oft-unsung talents of director Bob Clampett, whose every hand-drawn frame is a virtuoso, stand-alone grotesque.

3. “Rabbit of Seville” (1950). Jean-Luc Godard described Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar as “life in 90 minutes.” Chuck Jones’s “Rabbit of Seville” (in which Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd square off to a brilliantly mangled Rossini libretto/accompaniment) is life in seven.

Squirrels and Devils

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Squirrels and Devils
Squirrels and Devils

In this week’s New York Press, I rave about Ice Age 2: The Meltdown. This cartoon fable offers one comic-epic splendor after another; at its best, it recalls the Chuck Jones classic What’s Opera, Doc? in its ability to both mock and satisfy the conventions of its source material—in this case, the symbolically charged epic journey movie. “This is not just a decent sequel, it’s a cartoon animal comedy about fear of annihilation; in essence, War of the Worlds for kids.”

The biographical documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston unnecessarily hypes its mentally ill musician-artist hero as a genius, but director Jeff Feuerzeig still delivers a penetrating and often stylistically striking nonfiction feature. “Bending the very structure of the film to reflect Johnston’s worldview—which was fractured over time by schizophrenia and assorted drugs—’The Devil’ feels like something a brilliant schizophrenic might produce during a rare period of clarity,” I write. “Johnston’s signature image, a bloody eyeball pulled free of its socket, describes the filmmaker’s aesthetic: a hellishly funny vision, unmoored from reason’s shell.”