Archive for Freud

A Throat in his Frog

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2016 by dcairns

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Chuck Jones (director) and Michael Maltese’ (writer) ONE FROGGY EVENING has one of the lamest titles ever stickered to the front end of a cartoon, but it’s an undying masterpiece just the same. Of its many striking qualities, its uniqueness is a major one — it isn’t like anything else Jones, or Warner Bros, ever attempted. Since I learned in school that you can’t have levels of uniqueness — something is either unique or it isn’t — the peculiar feel of this film must be attributed to its being unique in multiple ways, surely?

It’s wordless. While Hanna & Barbera at MGM were happy to go mute with their Tom & Jerries, but Warners cartoons enjoyed the verbal element, even if the scripts depended less on wit than on speech impediments and abrasive accents. But Jones also made FEED THE KITTY, in which both main animal characters are non-verbal, and the Roadrunner/Coyote series, wordless save for the infinite supply of labelled crates and instruction manuals from the Acme Corporation, and the equally infinite supply of hand-written placards, suited to every occasion, which Wile E. can produce from the limitless expanse behind his slender back, as required. So wordlessness can’t be part of OFE’s individual spark, can it?

But there is a particular quality to the silent-movie approach in this one. The frog sings — the humans make no sound. This inverts the pattern of FEED THE KITTY which, with unusual realism, featured a talking housewife and a bulldog and kitten without the gift of language. The fact that the many words heard in OFE are lyrics, sublimely irrelevant to whatever situation they’re sung in, adds a further absurdity.

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Jones began his cartooning career with an obsessive quest for cuteness and sweetness, which the raucous atmosphere of Termite Terrace eventually exorcised from him. He could still access it when appropriate, but it would now be leavened with more abrasive elements — FEED THE KITTY is very sweet-natured, on one level, but scores its biggest laughing sequence with the cruel jape that the big dog thinks his feline friend has been diced up and baked into cookies. It’s maybe the one film that can make me laugh and cry at the same time.

But OFE is set in a world without sweetness. A seemingly contented demolition worker discovers, sealed within the cornerstone of a building he’s razing, a singing frog. He’s convinced this will make his fortune. But the frog sings only to him. All his attempts to monetize the amphibian result in his gradual destruction — humiliation, bankruptcy, homelessness, incarceration. Finally he deposits the frog within a fresh cornerstone, all set to ruin some poor workman of the future.

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Like Polanski’s TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE, OFE revolves around a central conceit which refuses to define itself. Neither symbol nor allegory, Michigan J. Frog, as he was eventually christened, remains his own man. It’s interesting to enumerate things he might represent, but his dumb, croaking face stares blankly at us (like Hypnotoad!) as if to dumbly insist that he’s just a frog. When he sings, a Jekyll/Hyde transformation overtakes him, and he is 100% singing! 100% dancing! No thought creases his green brow, the music just pours out of him. I Am A Singing Frog, is his statement during these transformations/performances. He is possessed by some slimy Muse. At other times, not.

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One explanation occurs to me and rather appeals: the frog as metaphor for Jones’ own talent. Perhaps he felt saddled with a gift which, though special and, to him, important, was not fully appreciated by the rest of the world. Let’s face it, any society where men like Jones, Avery and Clampett are paid less than the president has got its priorities badly wrong. Cartooning was a somewhat low-status job at Warners, though Jones earned a living rather than being rendered destitute by it. But he may have had moments of wondering what good it was to have this talent, when the world may have seemed largely indifferent to it. The nameless demolition man is cursed by his gift as surely as Llewyn Davis in the Coen Bros film. Frog or albatross?

Of course, there’s the Freudian angle, and you know I’m going there. Michigan J. Frog as performance anxiety. The damn thing works fine when I’m alone, springing to its full height and putting on a show. As soon as I try to demonstrate it to an interested party, it crumples up. I manipulate it by hand, trying to show what I know it’s capable of, but it remains defiantly limp, hanging boneless and shrivelled. I think I’m correct in saying Freud would immediately have diagnosed such a nightmare as having something to do with a body part, perhaps the liver.

(The society of OFE is almost exclusively male, apart from some switchboard operators used as scenery in a theatrical agency, a starlet’s portrait on the wall, and a couple of matrons trudging indifferently past the theatre where Michigan is intended to debut. When the show starts, the audience is all beer-swilling men.)

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When I first saw the film, I thrilled to its savagery — the relentless cruelty of the film’s one joke, directed at a character who may, it is true, have absconded with a musical animal which did not strictly belong to him, but who otherwise seems blameless (finders keepers being a well-established legal principle). The point seemed to me simply that the universe was hostile, and would reach out, for no reason, to crush an entirely insignificant man using insanely unnecessary force, for no reason. I felt Jones had stumbled upon a large and important and previously almost unrecognized truth. If there’s a slight flavour of Kafka here, that may be why. Finding a singing frog that, with inexplicable non-malice, destroys your life, is as likely and as irreversible as awakening as a giant cockroach: on the one hand, not likely at all. On the other, inescapable. It always happens and it always will happen. It has already happened to you and to me.

The Sunday Intertitle: Chaplin and Comic Suspense

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by dcairns

Weird online copy of Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT with subtitles in place of intertitles. The thing is, most of Chaplin is out of copyright — ALL American films made before 1920 are public domain — but the good restorations are all copyright the people who made them. If you have this on DVD, watch that instead.

Synopsis: economic migrant Charlie comes to America in search of a better standard of living. Damn him! How dare he?

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Though the first half of this nakedly two-part movie has some strong stuff, especially Charlie looking twice at the Stature of Liberty, the second section, kicking in at the ten-minute mark, builds to a striking crescendo of comic terror, all based around wannabe Scotsman Eric Campbell’s murderous head waiter. Comedy and fear really go together well, but I don’t see much today that really exploits anxiety on behalf of a sympathetic character in order to get shriller laughs. For instance, just enjoyed the first episode of the lumberingly-titled but fleet-footed Ash Vs Evil Dead, and it’s alternately suspenseful and hilarious, but there’s almost a firewall between the laughs and scares, and character sympathy was never a big part of the first three movies. I’ll definitely be watching more, though, and Ash’s new buddies are likable so who knows?

I vividly remember watching THE IMMIGRANT with my mum, who gets very excited during suspenseful bits (her mother was even more fun to view with — scenes of high tension would cause her arms and legs to rise in the air as if on strings. My dream as filmmaker is to make a packed house of five hundred people all do this at once). Chaplin, struggling into the story by his usual method of rehearsing and filming until things found the right form, devised a clear menace, plausibly put his hero in its path, and then let him squirm. “Comedy is a man in trouble,” as the saying goes. It’s not certain if his companion, Edna Purviance, is also in danger, or if she will merely be a witness to his punitive drubbing, but either way her presence amplifies the menace.

Freud announced, with typical fatuity but unusual accuracy, that Chaplin was “a very simple case” — compelled to relive the humiliation of poverty in his art. Like the traumatic slap endlessly replayed in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, Chaplin’s career was a reenactment of his childhood. No wonder the role of the Tramp came to oppress him.

The Primal Scene

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2012 by dcairns

Freud’s primal scene beautifully captured in this surviving fragment of an early ALICE cartoon by Walt Disney. Seemed appropriate as we’d just seen Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD. Disney, of course, is even spankier than Keira Knightley’s character in the latter film, probably as a result of his German-American background.

As for FREUD VS JUNG IN THE WORLD SERIES OF LOVE, I need to see it again, but I enjoyed it — an intelligent, even intellectual love story. You might expect Cronenberg, the rationalist, to side more with Freud than with the mystic Jung, and in that one respect, maybe he does, but on the whole, Jung emerges far more sympathetically that his master — and Sabina Spielrein more sympatetically that either.

Glenn Kenny, in this illuminating interview with Cronenberg, makes the point that the film relates back to RABID, with its vision of female libido running amok and threatening society. I was reminded of SHIVERS too (THEY CAME FROM WITHIN, that film’s alternative title, might make a good alternative for ADM too) — the clean, sharp-edged world of Control and Civilization disrupted by wild, animalistic behaviour. It’s interesting that in Cronenberg’s early films he seemed to suffer from the problem of The Hero With Nothing To Do — since the aberrant, monstrous characters were the ones that really interested him, his straight protagonists were left to run around and always arrive too late, and to hear about the climax via a telephone call. Only in SCANNERS, when he located the monstrous within the person of the hero, did this problem find a solution (and even then, Stephen Lack’s, well, lack as leading man kept the film from fully realizing this radical solution).

It’s interesting that Cronenberg has never made a film truly about a female protagonist  — Geena Davis is a major POV character in THE FLY, arguably the lead, but not quite — Cronenberg has too much love for his evolving monster. Jennifer Jason Leigh in EXISTENZ has to share all her screen time with Jude Law. And here, Sabina is a catalyst for Jung’s voyage of discovery.

Yet, as Fiona reminds me from time to time, if you want to talk about body horror, women have FAR more experience of that than men — you only have to look at childbirth, but you don’t have to look that far.

Maybe, Cronenberg is relocating body horror into his male characters because THAT’S his phobia — so there’s the latex umbilicus connecting the two Jeremy Irons brothers in DEAD RINGERS, the squishy bits of raw liver that go into and out of the orifices of various characters in SHIVERS, and Jude Law’s lumbar-region penetration by Willem Dafoe in EXISTENZ  — this stuff is, in the real world, natural enough, but by transmogrifying it and masculinizing it, Cronenberg is exploring its capacity to disturb. And from his own, male, viewpoint.

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