Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bowlered Over

Listening to "A Bowler Hat" on the original Broadway cast recording of "Pacific Overtures". And I'm completely obsessed with two notes that the flute plays. (Actually, it's probably not a flute. A piccolo? Some Japanese instrument?) Anyway, it happens at precisely 1:27 in the track. The flute is carrying the melody in an instrumental passage, and it's lovely, rather wistful and sad. And just when you think the melody is going to conclude with the notes C#-G#-F-G, Sondheim instead gives us D-A-F-G. The D and A are shocking, they're so completely out of the tonality of the passage. But it's over so fast you don't realize what hit you. It's like a short sharp little stab of unease, just enough to keep you on edge about the changes that are happening to Kayama during the song. Brilliant.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

And ANOTHER thing...

Back in 2009 I wrote a couple of posts about "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood", the "officially sanctioned sequel" to A.A. Milne's Pooh books. I have since read the book (yes, I did check it out from the library) and visited Ashdown Forest myself, the real-life setting of Milne's books.

I just want to make one more point, and it's this: As a reading of Milne's books makes quite clear, Pooh and his friends do not live in the Hundred Acre Wood. Only Owl does, until his tree is blown over. Throughout "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood", author David Benedictus seems unaware of this most basic fact about the world Milne created.

Just as the real-life Five Hundred Acre Wood is a discrete part of Ashdown Forest, the Hundred Acre Wood is only one area of "the Forest" where Pooh and his friends live. I suppose it's the Disney song ("Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, where Christopher Robin plays...") that muddied this distinction in the minds of Pooh fans. But you'd think the "official sequel" to Milne's books would at least have bothered to get the facts right.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Boris's Words

In 2007 I had the great pleasure of co-directing (with my friend and colleague Jerry Hunt) an animated adaptation of Kate Banks's and Boris Kulikov's book Max's Words. In the book, Max's older brothers Benjamin and Karl collect stamps and coins, but they won't share their collections with Max. So Max decides to start a collection of his own: words. He cuts words out of magazines and newspapers. Stamp and coin collections can only grow bigger, but with a word collection Max soon finds he can make sentences and stories. Benjamin and Karl become interested, and all three brothers eventually find a way to share and get along. It's a lovely story, and Kulikov's illustrations greatly expand upon Banks's text.

The first time Max takes scissors to paper, Kulikov pictures him cutting into what is clearly a copy of The New York Times Book Review. The cover of the Book Review has a striking image of a face on a nail, the nail having been driven into the pavement. Kulikov also painted in some text: "Martin Amis's War On...". Curious, I Googled this phrase, and found the actual cover here. The featured review is of Martin Amis's book on Stalin, Koba the Dread. A trip to the library verified that this was a Book Review cover that Kulikov had painted himself, and Stalin's was the face on the nail. So it seemed a nice little self-referential joke: Kulikov painted Max hacking into one of his own illustrations.

But Kulikov returns to this cover once more at the very end of the book. The creativity and artistic expression that Max's word collection inspires have brought the brothers together, and as a final "The End" image Kulikov pictures them peering together through a massive round hole in the Book Review cover, the image of Stalin having been completely eradicated. It didn't seem too much of a stretch to think that the Russian-born Kulikov was making a statement about art (whether it be writing or drawing) being a liberating force against oppression. It's a theme that's certainly in the book's text, but it's made much richer through the illustrations. And I couldn't help but feel I had uncovered a little mystery, and a personal statement that had been hidden beneath the surface of the book. We did nothing in particular to emphasize this in our animated adaptation...but it was nice to know it was there.

A few years later I emailed Kulikov and asked him about it, and received a lovely reply:

It is so cool that you noticed that small detail with Stalin...Not so long before I started working on the book, I had done that cover for the paper, and I could not resist to add something funny and personal to the story. So, I decided to make fun of Koba and you felt it the right way, maybe even deeper than my intention was, and that is what makes art so special: a viewer can see and think it further than the artist.
Sometimes I include similar things to my other books, when I feel it fits. I know that only a few people could pay attention to or understand such details, but even if just one person, like you, could notice it -- it's worthy.
So, mystery solved! And in a highly gratifying way. It's always been one of my personal goals as an artist to "reward a second viewing" by putting in details that the audience probably won't notice the first time around. If nothing else, it creates a richer world for the characters to live in. It seems to be a running thread in my last few posts here, so take a deep breath and say it with me: God is in the details!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

If you see only one piano tuning movie this year...

...make it Pianomania.

I saw it at The Belcourt last night, and really enjoyed it. The documentary focuses on Stefan Knüpfer, but to call him a "piano tuner" is like saying Walt Kelly "liked to draw funny animals". Knüpfer is the chief technician for Steinway in Vienna, and the film follows him as he prepares various pianos for the specialized needs of several top rank pianists.

I came away feeling that Knüpfer, in his vocation, was just as worthy of being called "genius" and "artist" as any of the pianists he labored to please. And it made me really question any distinction that might be drawn between "artists" and "craftsmen". Like vocal categories (bass, baritone, tenor, etc.), such labels are helpful for classifying people (and thus limiting them), but are in truth arbitrary distinctions that don't really exist. I think Knüpfer is an artist, pure and simple.

It was also reassuring to see the level of obsessiveness with which he and the pianists regarded the finest shadings of sound and tuning. And was I kidding myself when I began to feel that I could sense the differences, if not exactly "hear" them? Helpful to remember that the little details we obsess over do make a difference in the final work! As Stephen Sondheim was not the first to say, "God is in the details".

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Elmost Famous

The Belcourt (our excellent local "art house" cinema) just screened Being Elmo. Now they have scheduled We Need to Talk About Kevin and Clash by Night. Are those sequels?

Pogo, Fantastigrafically

I'm really enjoying Volume 1 of Fantagraphics' Complete Pogo. Walt Kelly was a natural born, brown-eyed boy genius. Every strip has so much to take in; poring over the lush art and deciphering the southern-speak takes a while, but is such a rewarding effort. It's breathtaking to see an artist like Kelly putting everything he had into each panel.

I also loved R.C. Harvey's "Swamp Talk" in the back of the book, where he explains some of the more obscure cultural and political happenings that Kelly alludes to in the strip. But it's quite easy to miss the fact that there is a much longer, unexpurgated version of Harvey's "Swamp Talk" online here. And I love that he gives a shout out to my former Mame tour cast member Jim Bernhard! Scroll down to the entry for 8/20/50 to see.

It's a great reprinting, and I'll get every volume...but I must say I'm a little worried about how it's all gonna end. Fantagraphics is releasing 12 volumes, each with two years' worth of strips. Volume 1 has the last part of 1949, when Pogo was nationally syndicated, plus all of 1950. So the 12th volume should take us through 1972. Kelly died on 10/18/73, and his widow Selby kept the strip running, one way or another, through 7/20/75. Apparently even before Kelly died, assistants like Don Morgan had basically taken over the strip. But there are some strips from late 1972 reprinted in Phi Beta Pogo that, while apparently drawn by Kelly, are pretty painful to look at. Pogo and Co. are drawn tiny, in stiff poses, with absolutely no backgrounds whatsoever. It's going to be interesting to see exactly where Fantagraphics decides Walt Kelly's Pogo "ended".

Kelly started the cast of Pogo in comic books in 1942, and even had a dry run at a newspaper strip in the New York Star in 1948-49, so when syndication happened in late 1949 he was able to hit the ground running with his characters. Pogo is great from Day One. But if Kelly started with a bang, I'm afraid it's inevitable that Fantagraphics' reprinting is going to end with a bit of a whimper. Of course, Kelly's whimper is another cartoonist's roar. And at least, in comparison to some strips, it'll be a relatively quick fade to black.

Monday, January 16, 2012

5/14/50 Pogo

Walt Kelly would occasionally use "self-aware" jokes in Pogo, where the characters were clearly aware that they were in a comic strip. I found a hilarious example last night in the Sunday strip from May 14, 1950.

In a Sundays-only sequence that spanned several weeks, Pogo and Albert are trying to find the Fountain of Youth. On 4/30, as they are packing for the expedition, one of Albert's gator nephews stows away inside the mandolin (where Albert has of course packed the lunch). On 5/7, having set sail in "The Fort Mudge Flyer", Pogo and Albert have a misadventure where they mistakenly think they are under attack. The mandolin is not in the boat.

Then on 5/14, the top tier of the strip contains this exchange:

POGO: If we gone find the Fountain of Youth, we'll have to explore these li'l' islands.

ALBERT: Lookie! Here's the mandolin with the lunch and my li'l' boy nephew inside.

POGO: Last week it wasn't in the boat.

ALBERT: If you ask me, this is a sloppy comic strip.....Imagine leavin' out the mandolin!

POGO: Relax, son...we din't need the mandolin last week.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Love Note to a Playwright

If you're like me, you've been enjoying Stephen Sondheim's new book Look, I Made a Hat. If you're even more like me, you skipped ahead to the end and read his Epilogue. If you're uncannily like me, you really wanted to read Phyllis McGinley's poem "Love Note to a Playwright", because Sondheim recommends it in the Epilogue "to every hat maker" (i.e. creative person). If you're more like me than can possibly be healthy, after searching for the poem online in vain, you ordered a copy of The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley from Amazon, figuring that it would probably be in there.

It is. And so, for all of you who aren't quite exactly like's the poem. I'm posting it here under the reasoning that the book is out of print, so there's no way for McGinley's estate to make money off it anyway. Here it is:

Love Note to a Playwright

Perhaps the literary man
I most admire among my betters
Is Richard Brinsley Sheridan,
Who, viewing life as more than letters,
Persisted, like a stubborn Gael,
In not acknowledging his mail.

They say he hardly ever penned
A proper "Yrs. received & noted,"
But spent what time he had to spend
Shaping the law that England voted,
Or calling, on his comic flute,
The tune for Captain Absolute.

Though chief of the prodigious wits
That Georgian taverns set to bubblin',
He did not answer Please Remits
Or scoldings from his aunts in Dublin
Or birthday messages or half
The notes that begged an autograph.

I hear it sent his household wild—
Became a sort of parlor fable—
The way that correspondence piled,
Mountainous, on his writing table,
While he ignored the double ring
And wouldn't answer anything;

Not scrawls from friends or screeds from foes
Or scribble from the quibble-lover
Or chits beginning "I enclose
Manuscript under separate cover,"
Or cards from people off on journeys,
Or formal statements from attorneys.

The post came in. He let it lie.
(All this biographers agree on.)
Especially he did not reply
To things that had R.S.V.P. on.
Sometimes for months he dropped no lines
To dear ones, or sent Valentines;

But, polishing a second act
Or coaxing kings to license Freedom,
Let his epistles wait. In fact,
They say he didn't even read'm.
The which, some mornings, seems to me
A glorious blow for Liberty.

Brave Celt! Although one must deplore
His manners, and with reason ample,
How bright from duty's other shore,
This moment, seems his bold example!
And would I owned in equal balance
His courage (and, of course, his talents),

Who, using up his mail to start
An autumn fire or chink a crevice,
Cried, "Letters longer are than art,
But vita is extremely brevis!"
Then, choosing what was worth the candle,
Sat down and wrote The School for Scandal.

—Phyllis McGinley

Monday, January 2, 2012

Look, I Made a Mistake

Time, I suppose, for my yearly post.

In Stephen Sondheim's excellent new book Look, I Made a Hat, he seems to be saying that he was going to be working with Jim Henson himself on the aborted "Into the Woods" film. He writes: "In 1995 Columbia Pictures and Jim Henson approached James and me with a plan to make a movie of the show, using Henson creatures as the animals." He concludes this section with a list of the actors who participated in the second "star-studded" reading, adding wistfully at the end "All that and Jim Henson, too."

The problem is, Henson died in 1990. Also, the New York Times reported on a Columbia/Henson "Into the Woods" film in September of 1991. So clearly Sondheim's memory is muddled about this. It makes me wonder though if Jim did indeed approach Sondheim about it in the late 80s, even if things didn't really get rolling on it until after Jim's death. ("Into the Woods" opened on Broadway in 1987.) Sondheim is quite good with the details ("God is in" them, after all), and it seems unlikely he would misremember talking with Henson himself about the project, even though he obviously got the dates wrong.

2/27/12: UPDATE here!