Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cartoon: The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942, Friz Freleng)

The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942)
USA, 7 min
Directed by: Friz Freleng
Written by: Michael Maltese (story)
Starring: Mel Blanc (voice), Arthur Q. Bryan (voice)

When dim-witted Elmer Fudd gets his hands on a book about hypnotism, we just know that it won't take long for his plan to backfire… what we didn't anticipate, however, is that it would subsequently backfire again in his favour. The Hare-Brained Hypnotist (1942) was directed by Friz Freleng, and was released October 31, 1942. The cartoon is notable in that the animators have reverted back to the Elmer Fudd we're all accustomed to, after retiring the experimental rotund version that was last featured in Fresh Hare (1942). It is also interesting in that, unlike the majority of Bugs' encounters with Fudd, the humiliation isn't all one-way traffic, and the pair actually find their traditional comedic roles to have been reversed due to the influence of the powerful hypnotism. The film ends with arrogant Bugs as the fall-guy, having been duped into the belief that he is a Douglas XB-19 experimental bomber aircraft ("I'm the B-19!"), promptly due at the airport to make his flight.

The characteristically-dim Fudd opens the cartoon on his usual hunting trip through the forest, though he's also found it necessary to read a new book at the same time. When he happens upon the secret to hypnotism, Fudd tests the technique on a ferocious bear, which is soon fluttering in the stratosphere with the presupposition of being a canary. Here, he decides, is his real opportunity to bamboozle the "pesky wabbit" once and for all. But, of course, Bugs proves himself to be more troublesome than his opponent had anticipated, and it isn't long before Fudd finds himself at the receiving end of a hypnotist's powerful glare. This is when director Friz Freleng turns the tables: after Fudd is ordered to act like a rabbit, he immediately hijacks Bugs' usual comedic niche, and the hapless rabbit, despite thinking himself the winner in this particular spate, is consistently out-witted by the stealthy wabbit known as Elmer Fudd. The cleverest Merrie Melodies are those that recognise the series' clichés and actively subvert them – The Hare-Brained Hypnotist does this very well.

Drama: For His Son (1912, D.W. Griffith)

For His Son (1912)
USA, 15 min
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
Written by: Emmett C. Hall

For His Son (1912) is one of D.W. Griffith's most unusual Biograph shorts. At first, I thought that he was aiming to produce an ironic farce: a distinguished physician (Charles Hill Mailes), in order to satisfy his leeching son's (Charles West) demands for cash, invents a carbonated drink laced with cocaine, and he calls it "Dopokoke." Well, I certainly laughed. But Griffith carries forth with a solemn face, ultimately punishing the "criminal selfishness" of the devoted father with extreme prejudice. Oddly enough, the story isn't even far-fetched: I was startled to learn that the original Coca-Cola formulation (for that is undoubtedly the beverage under trial here) did, in fact, contain substantial amounts of cocaine, but that was before the drug's health risks became widely known, and certainly before its sale was prohibited in the United States in 1914. Griffith's main motivation behind this film appears to be one of public service, in the same manner with which he condemned corporate greed in A Corner in Wheat (1909) and inadequate policies for the elderly in What Shall We Do with Our Old? (1911).

The one thing I found most interesting about For His Son is how ruthlessly Griffith condemns the physician. Financially crippled by his son's constant demands for money, the loyal father only then turns to commercial enterprise to provide for his family. But then, I suppose, vanity and selfishness soon intrude upon his fatherly devotion. The physician is later introduced by the banner "Blind to the effects of his greed," and is shown mugging directly into the camera, fists clenched and cigar in mouth: a classic Griffith image of corporate gluttony. Until this moment, I had fully expected the son to be branded the selfish villain, but instead he is portrayed as a victim, controlled and later destroyed by his cocaine addiction. Despite approaching the subject matter with a straight-faced obstinacy that simply demands ridicule, Griffith shows a strong command of the developing cinematic language. Particularly impressive is a series of cross-cuts designed, not to provoke suspense as in The Lonedale Operator (1911), but to emphasise the widespread scourge of the Copokoke beverage, as both main characters and nameless extras fall victim to its evils.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Comedy: Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914, Henry Lehrman & Mack Sennett)

Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914)
USA, 17 min
Directed by: Henry Lehrman, Mack Sennett
Written by: Henry Lehrman
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Harry McCoy, Hank Mann, Al St. John

Walt Disney stated that his prime inspiration for creating Mickey Mouse was Chaplin's Tramp character. However, the Mickey seen in Plane Crazy (1928) and Steamboat Willie (1928) bears little resemblance to the gallant hopeless-romantic whom Chaplin made famous in The Kid (1921) and other classic features. Instead, the early "evil" Mickey Mouse probably took a few leaves from the book of Chaplin's early "evil" tramp, who is here portrayed as a drunken scumbag who tries to take advantage of a pajama-clad Mabel Normand. Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914) was, in fact, the birth of Chaplin's Little Tramp character, though Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) was released two days earlier. As the title suggests, the star of the film is actually Normand, who was a leading comedienne in her day, and this was the first film in a series of collaborations for the pair.

In a hotel lobby, an intoxicated tramp sloppily flirts with Mabel, somehow deciding that yanking on her dog's tail is a surefire way of attracting the girl's attention. Mabel huffily storms off to her room, but later runs into Chaplin in the hallway, after having locked herself out of her room wearing only pajamas. What follows is an amusing farce that resembles something the Marx Brothers would have cooked up, as Mabel evades the Tramp by taking cover under the bed of another man, whose wife arrives home and comes to the natural conclusion. This isn't high-class comedy, but Chaplin is clearly the shining light of the film: he staggers drunkenly from room to room, with an exasperated sneer beneath his moustache, and every time he falls down it is actually uproariously funny. Don't ask me how he did it, but nobody (except maybe Buster Keaton) could ever take a tumble like Chaplin could.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Avant-Garde: Night Music (1986, Stan Brakhage)

Night Music (1986)
USA, 30 sec
Directed by: Stan Brakhage

One can't critique a Stan Brakhage work the way one does an ordinary film. I'm not entirely convinced that the director had anything specific in mind when he created Night Music (1986), but, whatever he was going for, it was something subliminal. Though running for a mere thirty seconds (making this, I believe, the shortest film I've ever seen), the eye is greeted with dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of individual hand-painted images, each shimmering from the frame like searing patches of napalm. What Brakhage is showing us is unclear, but probably irrelevant – more important is what we actually see. Me? I saw the vastness of outer space, glittering with blazing nebulae of dust and flame. I saw a frantic oceanic battle, with ships floundering in the waves. I saw a village disappear in an explosion of fire. Then I watched Night Music again, and again, and saw something different every time. The human brain is a brilliant if peculiar interpretor of visual information, and Brakhage taps into the mind's inherent subjectivity. With this goal in mind, he produced a series of silent hand-painted short films, the most impressive of which is The Dante Quartet (1987), a six-minute adaptation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy."