Friday, July 15, 2011

Oh Bother! Yet Another Pooh (NO SPOILERS)

Around the time Winnie the Pooh (2011) was released last spring, someone asked me whether Disney’s many Pooh films always told the same story and I had to admit that I’ve lost track of which element popped up in which featurette. Having more recent memories of the Russian version that also follows Milne’s chapters very closely I found it was time to take another look at both The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1966-77) and Fyodor Khitruk’s Vinni Pukh (1969-72) to clarify the situation.

While I’m not interested in meticulously relating the Milne chapters to the many film versions here, I like to share a few thoughts about the new Pooh today (its US release date) and have a closer look at the way Disney/Reitherman and Khitruk tell their stories, respectively, in a future post.

It was probably the first time ever that an animated Disney feature was released in Switzerland months before its American release date (on April 14, to be precise). Although it wasn’t eclipsed by Harry Potter it understandably went under the radar of most moviegoers and wasn’t perceived as the major Disney release of 2011. After numerous direct-to-video features and an omnipresent TV-show the prospects of yet another return of the (meanwhile trademarked) Disney-fied Winnie the Pooh were not especially exciting, to put it mildly.

Apart from my intention to see every theatrically released hand drawn Disney feature at least once (consciously avoiding upgraded direct-to-video releases like Bambi 2), there was another – wholly unexpected – reason to see it: the poster.

Although this is one of those familiar promotional group pictures where the characters are not really interacting or aren’t even arranged in an overall pose, it told me very clearly what to expect. All the characters are on the lookout for something to fight against except for Eeyore who is missing his tail and Pooh at the center who is looking for honey. There’s not much overlapping and we see the silhouettes very clearly so the animals appear as individuals rather than a tight-knit group.

But what intrigued me was the horned silhouette that gives us a hint of what the animals’ opponent might look like. It also reminds us that they might be once again chasing a figment of their imagination because they see things differently than they are – after all, it’s just a tree-top, anything else is interpretation at this point.

Mildly enjoyable, but really more of the same
The film itself is not bad measured by the three Pooh shorts that made up The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). Closely inspired by some of A.A. Milne’s original Pooh stories the 2011 edition is able to capture the spirit of chasing one’s own shadow that made the early shorts so charming to me. All the familiar elements are intact and feel more of a piece but less inspired than before. It seems only consistent that the main feature is accompanied by a narrator-driven short that has “retro” and “hommage” written all over it.

Paul Felix (with Patrick Sullivan and his team) has to be credited for translating the 1960s water color background style to the computer era. As expected, the pencil clean-up is a lot less charming (with fake construction lines that are sometimes not even in the right place).

At first, I resented the redesign of Christopher Robin who now looks even blander than ever with his newly white eyes instead of the charming buttons. But considering the logic of having white eyes for real forest animals and button eyes for stuffed animals it is only appropriate. Eeyore seems to be an exception to the rule, but then maybe sad eyes aren't possible with buttons and he really isn't made of fluff inside his head... who knows...

Story less episodic, characters still simplified
The biggest difference is that this time the supposedly three Milne stories are interwoven rather than told as separate episodes, so despite a running time of only about an hour the new movie feels more like a feature than the 1977 film. Combining the elements of several chapters into one long episode has the advantage that the story arcs can be expanded without having to come up with more complex information within each narrative thread and the plot points can be dispersed more evenly across the film.

Familiar diversions such as song- and dream-sequences in different drawing styles and tongue-in-cheek elements try to mask the fact that Pooh and his friends are still serial characters who therefore can’t have a real character arc, i.e. undergo real changes.

Pooh himself is maybe telling us one too many times that he’s a “bear of very little brain” (as opposed to just being a “silly old bear”) which reminded me of Kung-Fu Panda’s Po. Piglet is acting less timidly than outright stupidly, which is a pity. All things considered the characters are coherent within the Disney-Pooh universe. Given the simple story and the amount of dialogue scenes I believe the opportunity to write (and animate) more complex characters without losing their established personality would have been there.

As always the book and narrator are part of the story with the letters probably more emphasized than in previous versions. Although the story contains many elements of Chapter Five in which Rabbit has a busy day, and we learn what Christopher Robin does in the mornings from Milne’s “House at Pooh Corner” with its many references to reading and spelling, the most interesting part of that chapter unfortunately didn’t make it into the film, although it would have contained the potential to explore Eeyore’s character beyond the “everything happens to me” attitude:

Eeyore had three sticks on the ground, and was looking at them. Two of the sticks were touching at one end, but not at the other, and the third stick was laid across them. Piglet thought that perhaps it was a Trap of some kind.
‘Oh, Eeyore,’ he began again, ‘I just –‘
‘Is that little Piglet?’ said Eeyore, still looking hard at his sticks.
‘Yes, Eeyore, and I –‘
(original colour illustration by E.H.Shepard)
‘Do you know what this is?’
‘No’ said Piglet.
‘It’s an A.’
‘Oh,’ said Piglet.
‘Not O – A,’ said Eeyore severely. ‘Can’t you hear, or do you think you have more education than Christopher Robin?’
‘Yes,’ said Piglet. ‘No,’ said Piglet very quickly. And he came closer still.
‘Christopher Robin said it was an A, and an A it is – until somebody treads on it,’ Eeyore added sternly.
Piglet jumped backwards hurriedly, and smelt at his violets.
‘Do you know what A means, little Piglet?’
‘No, Eeyore, I don’t.’
‘It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.’
‘Oh,’ said Piglet again. ‘I mean, does it?’ he explained quickly.
‘I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, “It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.” They walk to and fro saying “Ha-ha!” But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated – mark this, little Piglet – to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A. Not,’ he added, ‘just something that anybody can come and breathe on.’

So while the opportunity to further explore the well-known characters is ignored throughout, the story focuses on the “storm in a teapot” elements (like chasing a Backson and finding Eeyore's tail) decorated with mandatory, uplifting messages about friendship. A storm in a teapot, little more, is what this gentle imitation of – rather than a sequel to – The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh really feels like.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Scorsese vs. Hitchcock: Camera as Character

Travis is introduced through his eyes and his reflection in rear-view-mirrors.
One of my favorite fields of interest in films of any kind is narrative point-of-view. This post may be about live-action films exclusively, but since animation artists are essentially film makers we can learn a great deal from analyzing the thinking behind two very controlled directors’ decisions. There are mild spoilers ahead, as always when classics are debated, so if you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Scrosese’s Taxi Driver (1975) yet, go see them, they are great examples of what night-time cab-driver Travis calls “morbid self-attention”. And hey, they both are masterfully scored by Bernard Herrmann and are available in stellar image quality on Bluray!

Film history provides us with a wide range of psychological studies that are essentially told from a character’s subjective perspective. With the exception of Robert Montgomery’s Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake (1947) the camera doesn’t usually limit itself to the literal point-of-view of the first person narrator.
Lady in the Lake: a whole movie composed of point-of-view shots.

In fact, we are accustomed to the convention of seeing a character within the image and still accept it as his personal vision of reality. Yet in many subjective movies – particularly the ones dealing with voyeurism – there are moments when the director intentionally breaks the concept and either shifts the narrative’s point of view to another character (Brian de Palma’s Sisters, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo) or – more interesting – has the camera see things that no character inside the movie could see. 

Voyeurism and self-reflection
The principal visual leitmotif of Taxi Driver is the mirror. We are introduced to protagonist Travis Bickle by seeing his eyes and their reflections in the rear-view-mirrors of his taxi before we see anything else of him. There’s no doubt that self-reflection is the central theme that is perhaps most obviously illustrated in the famous mirror-scene (“you talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.”).

But Travis is also a voyeuristic substitute of ourselves as movie spectators – observing what goes on around him rather than being part of it – and he more disturbing, this leads him to become a murderer. Even without being aware that composer Herrmann cites his own Psycho motif just before Travis kills for the first time, the connection to Hitchcock’s “peeping tom” Norman Bates can be easily seen.

While Scorsese – with the exception of one and a half scenes – confines the narrative to Travis’ point of view, Hitchcock radically changes our perspective from a thief (Janet Leigh) to an obsessive murderer (Anthony Perkins). From that point on we also share the knowledge of his pursuers which is the basis of Hitchcock’s suspense technique. 

Manipulation vs. distancing effect 
Taxi Driver however is not a crime thriller since no one is really paying enough attention to Travis to pursue him – or at least we don’t see them. Furthermore, the two directors have fundamentally different agendas. Hitchcock uses subjective narration to manipulate our emotions so that we are as thrilled that we don’t question the logic as long as we are watching his films.

Scorsese on the other hand is constantly trying to disorient us with subtle jumpcuts and other Nouvelle Vague techniques to slightly distance us from morally ambivalent Travis. Even though he gets us interested in Travis’ life (the sentiments might be fascination as well as pity), he encourages us to reflect on what we see. He does so most obviously in some shots that are held longer than the information they give us needs to sink in, so that we become aware that we are watching a movie which would clearly break the suspense of a Hitchcock movie.

He also gives us moments of rest after something emotionally excruciating happened. In Taxi Driver the longest “pause scene” is the song that plays after Travis’ first murder. There is also a brief scene after he tried to kill the senator and Travis sits even down in the middle of his “roaring rampage” right after he killed Sport. Of course, in a Scorsese picture the distancing effect is never as dominant as in a Brecht play or a Godard film. 

Borrowing from horror movies
In the Criterion director’s commentary, Scorsese reveals that he applied techniques of classical Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur horror movies to suggest Travis’ paranoia. One of the examples I found is when Travis first enters the brothel with Iris.

In the following video we first see a classic suspense situation from Psycho and then the analogous scene from Taxi Driver. It’s interesting to see how much of Psycho is composed of simple shot-reverse shot scenes (the basic cinematic difference to theater) with extreme control over what is revealed at what time.

The Taxi Driver ends on a jump cut to De Niro in the room, which might not be noticed consciously but adds to the sense of uneasiness. More interesting, at the beginning of the excerpt, we believe that the camera shows us Travis’ point of view while the reverse-shot shows us that he hasn’t yet entered the room. 

Camera as additional character
We don’t normally perceive camera moves as long as they are reframings in order not to lose the actors from sight. We also accept camera moves along a character’s personal stuff inside his apartment, especially if the move ends on the person who lives there.

Hitchcock however likes to use his camera as an additional character who moves independently from the actors and points towards what he wants the audience to see. He always uses this device to give us additional information and heighten the suspense (while emphasizing a red herring once in a while, too).

In his British comeback film Frenzy (1972) we already know that a red-haired neck-tie murderer strangles women after telling them “you’re my type of woman”. Like in many scenes of Psycho and Taxi Driver the camera is positioned in a staircase while we see the murderer and his victim ascend the stairs. Once we heard the crucial sentence, we don’t have to see the murder to know what’s going on. Instead, the camera character tracks down the stairs and out of the house where we learn that no one will notice the murder because of the noise outside.

Both of Hitchcock’s observing cameras are clearly intended to transport information to the audience.

In Taxi Driver, however, there’s a scene where Travis is talking to Betsy on the phone one last time. According to Scorsese this is the key shot of the film and first that came fully formed to his mind when starting work on the film.
Here the camera, like in an Antonioni or Huillet/Straub film, moves independently away from Travis, but we only see a corridor. Scorsese repeatedly said that this conversation was too painful to watch, so he wanted to pan away from it. At the same time, this gives us one of those shots that outlast our expectations. From our subconscious movie knowledge we either expect someone coming through the corridor or out of one of the doors. The non-existing moment of suspense fizzling out, though, once we see Travis enter the frame from the left. 

Camera as transcendent observer
The last video starts with a scene from Psycho that pretends to reveal the long-awaited visual information about Norman’s mother. Ultimately, Hitchcock manages to deceive us once again, though, by having the camera perform a move that suggests a free floating agent who can assume any perspective, even one that is usually attributed to god alone.

typical Scorsese rostrum shot for rituals.
Scorsese (like his apt pupil Wes Anderson) likes these top shots a lot. Especially his 1990s films like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) are rife with god’s-eye-views that have been said to represent not only the point-of-view of a not-so-goodnatured divine being but also the point-of-view of a priest during consecration (looking down on the communion table). Therefore he often uses such rostrum type shots for ritualistic moments. In Taxi Driver we see it when Travis applies for the job, when he asks Betsy out on a date and when he purchases and handles the guns for his ritualistic killing.

He comes back to that perspective in the end, when the camera slowly observes Travis’ trail of blood and finally leads into a homage to the Frenzy scene described above.

There are also some more explicit intertextual references as in all of Martin Scorsese's works. A good account of many of those not documented on the imdb can be found in this essay by John Thurman.

Recommendation: Sony’s new Taxi Driver BD is among the best restorations of a 1970s film so far. Contrary to current practice the picture is not enhanced or “fixed” but just restored to what it looked (and sounded) like in 1976. The heavy involvement of Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman made sure that even the overly grainy Columbia logo used during the 1970s was kept intact.

The main difference to most of the earlier DVDs is that they were “color corrected” towards a colder white/blue whereas the film was always intentionally more yellow/dingy. Even the altered colors of Travis’ bloodbath are still in the grainy sepia look that made the artificial blood look much better than in other violent movies of the time. In short, it looks rather like film than like a super-enhanced DVD.
all comparison images lifted from
For DVD comparison see DVD Beaver's review. Don't be fooled by the relatively small difference in sharpness of the stills. Seen in motion this Bluray really looks like film rather than video and vastly superior to all previous editions. 

For more information about the restoration process: Digital Bits interview with Sony's Grover Crisp.