Friday, November 25, 2005

Sita Sings the Blues/The Sitayana

Artist Nina Paley
Sita Sings the Blues/The Sitayana; Viewable online

The Ramayana and the blues of the 20s (via vocalist Annette Hanshaw) get an exhilarating animation treatment from Nina Paley in this movie that's an accessible retelling of The Ramayana from Sita's perspective, and a fiery cross-cultural mash-up. Paley has been slowly building this work for years. When I first posted about it, Sita Sings the Blues was in progress and Paley was posting it to her website in chapter-sized chunks—now it's finished and collecting awards at festivals.

Here's a New York Times piece about it and how Paley developed the idea—a great story for people of any age about how creativity can be fueled by personal circumstance.

Despite Paley's difficulty in securing copyrights for some of the music in her animation, beginning February 26, 2009, Sita Sings the Blues will be viewable online through Channel 13, which is allowed to show it as a public broadcaster. This should be an active link to that.

For more of artist Nina Paley's work, including her graphic contributions to the Christmas Resistance Movement, visit

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Touch the Sound

Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2005
99 minutes, color documentary
All ages

Evelyn Glennie, a deaf percussionist, plays a variety of instruments with several collaborators in this portrait of her that focuses on the question of what is sound, exactly, and how do we hear? The body as a resonator, synaesthesia, the sheer joy of having a huge space to bang a gong in—like Rivers and Tides (see below), Riedelsheimer's portrait of this sound artist is an exploration of how humans play in the world, this time focused on the vibrations around us. Interview footage with Glennie is alternated with various performance pieces, including several lovely marimba duets with guitarist/musician Fred Frith. My eight year-old said, "I thought it was about different instruments—how you don't have to use an instrument for the thing it was made to do." In theaters as of this writing; waiting for DVD might be a good idea, as watching it in pieces will help restless viewers. Riedelsheimer does not rush his material.

Rivers and Tides

Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001
90 minutes, color documentary
All ages

This is Riedelsheimer's beautiful portrait of sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, who works outside with elements of nature as his media: leaves connected by their stems carefully graded by color and set loose on a river, stones piled in to a beehive shape, scraped ice.

The movement of the sun and changes in the weather figure into his work as well, and children will recognize in Goldsworthy's studious, ambitious play, aspects of their own earthworks (if not, they need to spend more time outside).

The langorous, meditative pace of this film may be hard for children used to sensory overload, but the sheer technical skill Goldsworthy brings to his work should hold anyone's attention, and if you rent it you can watch it in pieces.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Point

1971, Dir. Fred Wolf
74 min., color animation
Music by Harry Nilsson
Ages 5 and up

My generation saw it broadcast on TV; young ones now can rent it, and the message of accepting difference stays relevant. Most important, the music by Harry Nilsson will always be groovy. With voice performances by Ringo Starr as the father and Mike Lookinland (Bobby from The Brady Bunch) as the sweet wayfarer Oblio.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Love Is So Sweet

2004, Henry Lowengard and Nancy Graham—aka your host, red eft
Color digital animation
All ages

Here's one you can view online, in high- and low-bandwidth versions. My husband and I made it as an email Valentine; our daughter sings on the vocal track. Young children like to dance along with the animated characters with heart-shaped torsos; none are wearing any clothing, so consider this a naturalist cartoon.

Here's the link:

Love Is So Sweet

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Dancer

1994, Donya Feuer
96 min., color documentary
Swedish w/English Subtitles
All ages
The Dancer follows Katja Bjorner, a teenage ballet dancer through rehearsals at at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, competitions and stage performance. Directed by a dancer, this film allows for lengthy, generous close-ups on the feet and hands, but it is the face, sweating, composed, emitting short breaths, that speak most eloquently of the dancer's discipline. There are no bloody unwrapped feet here, no anorexia or moments dwelling on missed opportunities—this is a vision of ballet as hard work and a big dream come true.

Fleshing out the studio sequences is a trip to the ballet shoe factory, where men stand all day at lasts making custom-fit shoes for dancers. We get to see them apply layers of fabric and wheat paste, shape the block, nail and ply the shoe—an art and discipline in itself.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Not Independent, I just feel like writing about it and it's my blog after all

Tim Burton doesn’t need me to send people to the box office, but I’ve loved his recent work too much not to have a say about his latest alter-ego, and there’s no reason to leave things to film critics who work way too hard to be hip, ironic and smart all at once, like Anthony Lane ironizing in The New Yorker:

“The new Tim Burton movie stars Johnny Depp as an ageless weirdo, whose magical skills are matched only by his hangups about where he came from and how he is supposed to make friends with regular people. The film is called ‘Edward Scissorhands.’”

Sorry to pick on Anthony Lane but it’s too late to be reviewing CCF; maybe not too late to review a review of it.

Lane is right in seeing shades of Scissorhands in Willy Wonka, the latest of Tim Burton’s creative-genius-cum-social-misfit characters. Jack Skellington, Ed Wood, Batman and Beetlejuice are all here, but most of all Edward Scissorhands, who is referenced in everything from the production design of Charlie’s house, with its caving-in roof, to the grid-like orderliness of the town, to the scissors in Wonka’s hand when he cuts the ribbon to his factory, to the association of snow with love and creativity, to the tinkling incidental stylings of Danny Elfman.

With his continuing stories of outsider-artists, Burton has created something contradictory and, to use one of Wonka’s favorite words, “weird”—a series of personal blockbuster films. CCF, which is as surely about cinema as it is about candy, wrestles with this contradiction on the thematic level: how can someone so far-out be such a screaming financial success? Wonka, like Burton, is a wild, sometimes brooding talent making it in a bottom-line world, and while it isn’t cool anymore to talk about capitalism, it’s hard to keep from mentioning CCF’s many inconsistent messages about assembly-line production, wage slavery and machines/squirrels/Oompa Loompas vs. people. Burton and screenwriter John August are content at film’s end to leave most of Charlie’s town unemployed, supplanted by automation and “imported” workers from an undeveloped country willing to work for chocolate. (A chocolate Walmart Empire? Yes, you should be disturbed!)

But CCF is mostly about Wonka’s relationship to Burton’s other misfits and to Burton himself. Here, Edward Scissorhands has found success and fame, but something is still missing, that little thing called love, and whether, and how, it can co-exist with artistic flow. Finally, Edward has found his way out of isolation, if not out of his castle.

When Charlie leaves his crooked house and his endearing family (an only child with—count them!—six supportive parents to Wonka’s bitter single father) and enters the factory with his ticket-holding peers, the movie faithfully follows the book’s trail of cautionary disappearances, one misbehaving child after the next. The other kids are archetypal variations, children gone bad at the hands of distant parents. They all have some kind of exaggerated attachment disorder, and it will be up to Charlie and Grandpa Joe to show the worst case, Willie Wonka himself, out of his suffering. As in the book, children will be sucked into tubes, turned into blueberries and sent down garbage chutes, but the source of evil, and this is really elaborated in the movie, is an absence of appropriately nurturing parents: instead, they are rigid and distant, permissive and distant, controlling and distant. The failure of those who don’t “win” the Factory gambit is a failure of intimacy. (It's a failure of imagination too, of course: what does one do with a child all day? Park it in front of the TV, feed it, sign it up for competitive sports, give it presents.) The consequences suffered by those who don’t pay attention to Wonka, as Dahl wrote it and as underscored in this version, are not so much penalties exacted by him as the natural consequences of choices those families have made from the beginning.

Wonka knows this: we see him eye his charges shrewdly throughout the tour (one nice transition cuts from Wonka’s face to all the children and their guardians minus Wonka, seen from behind in the pink dragon boat; another shot lingers on Veruca Salt’s father, a nut factory owner, and Willy as they lock gazes). He pretends not to know their names and histories, although he obviously does his research and the film’s opening shows us how dysfunctionality takes only a quick newsclip to spot (of the ticket-holders, only Charlie is spared the pre-tour media blitz). Shying from Violet Beauregarde’s mother to sit by Charlie and Grandpa Joe (who unlike the other parents is roughly a contemporary of Wonka’s own father), Wonka offers Charlie a ladleful of chocolate, because he looks so hungry.

As for the other children, well, where they’re headed was a foregone conclusion when they opened their mouths on TV and told the world how they won, whether it mattered to them, and why. “There is no doubt that [Wonka] despises them,” writes Lane, “and that raises questions as to why he has lured them, with promises of candy, into his edible home.” In order to find just one like Charlie, is why. In order to befriend someone who knows that candy doesn’t have to have a point, but that there is a point to having a family.

It is Charlie who heals Willie’s rift with his father and gives him another try at having a family. And though Willie credits an Oompa Loompa with inspiring the psychoanalytic revelation that leads to his union with the Buckets (“I need a hair/heir!”), it’s Charlie who’s the real therapist, asking Willy leading questions throughout the tour: do you remember being a child, do you remember your first candy—finally giving his blessing to Willy’s genius (“It doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.”) What distinguishes Charlie from the other children is that he's treated like a person instead of a child; he's treated as a responsible member of his household. Burton himself has said Wonka hates children, but he flees from people of all ages; he's misanthropic. He likes Charlie, and Charlie is a child. Age is not the issue.

Like J.M. Barrie's gossipy friends in Finding Neverland, Lane has insinuations to make about Willy Wonka. (The Michael Jackson overtones imputed to Depp by so many viewers seem to me to lead nowhere, and distract from the story). True, Depp’s Wonka may be outlandish, androgynous, even foppish, but that doesn’t make him a sexual creep. One of the ways Burton won my trust was in the casting, through the relationship Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore carry over from Finding Neverland. Another way he won it was by first making Big Fish, another fable about father-son reconciliation, in which the threatening atmosphere ultimately has to do with unconsious fears and the demands of the tall tale. In Big Fish, Burton is not about creeping us out; the eeriness heightens the everyday, common love that turns the wheels of the story. You can’t move the audience without a little friction, some gray areas, some uncertainties. But does Wonka try to lure a child alone with him into the Whipped Cream room? No.

Not that Depp’s Wonka should appeal to everyone, he's twisted and subversive in the Roald Dahl tradition, but I don’t think Depp and Burton have a nasty or sadistic intent. I didn’t react that way, and neither did my highly-sensitive children. Lane, reminded by Depp’s performance of Oscar Wilde, Michael Jackson and Tootsie (I guess because Lane thinks Depp’s fake teeth make him enunciate like Dustin Hoffman in that film), asks, “Where does moral tutelage end and sadistic farce begin?” The answer is that, as usual in his work, Burton gives us more, a fable wrapped in a fairy tale. There are moral lessons but there is magic, darkness, beauty and transcendence, too.

Hollywood is woefully short of new fabulists; children’s animation is often stuck in the land of irony and allusion, and there isn’t much in the way of live-action fare for anyone under ten, so many of us are grateful for this story in which the two little boys—Charlie and Young Willy—possess gifts young people (girls half the time, but don’t look to Burton for that) bring into the world and then, too often, have crushed out of them: the power to heal and the power to create. People keep asking “Why the Wonka backstory?,” but I like how the boys communicate across the years, both of them heroic and resistant to dominant culture in their own ways, and in ways that are not stereotypically masculine.

As for their foils: Veruca Salt, Augustus Gloop, Mike Teavee and Violet Beauregarde are recast in this version of CCF as more than deadly sins, they are authoritarian party-poopers, parental stand-ins who heckle Willie Wonka mercilessly about the practicality of his inventions. If we're not sorry to see them go, maybe it's because we have no trouble signing on to Wonka's tests. Will they listen to his ground rules? That's one test. The other is uniquely an addition of the film's, and characterisically Burtonesque: will they tolerate Wonka's creative excesses, his impractical, even useless dreams? “That makes no sense,” Veruca says of a Wonka creation, and Mike Teavee pronounces everything at the factory “totally pointless,” dissolving, in image and voice, into Wonka’s rejecting father, who echoes from the past, “Candy is a waste of time.”

Candy is a waste of time. So is filmmaking, unless you can make “buckets” of money at it. One of the joys and vicissitudes of the creator, whether candymaker or filmmaker, is that the artist’s imagination gets a vigorous workout while the consumers—the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, the full-time spectator Mike Teavee—consume. One person’s exuberant play is someone else’s addiction. Although the Wonka-as-director theme plays out during the entire factory tour, it is in the TV room scene that Burton makes the association to visual confections and their passive spectators (us) most explicit. Can we all be Wonkas or must most of us just sit and watch all the fun? In Burton’s other films, there is room for only one Misunderstood Creator. This time he moves over and makes room for another, a boy whose imaginative fancies are fueled by happiness instead of torment. As he proved with the big-hearted, forgiving Big Fish, Burton has matured.

Wonka’s response to the stifling little girls and boys he mistakes for his p-p-par-unmentionables is a series of childish outbursts. “Mumbler!” he shouts at Mike Teavee. “Seriously, I cannot understand a single word you’re saying.” They don’t speak the same language, and it’s no wonder that Wonka, the boy who felt so misunderstood he ran away from home, grew up to conclude, “A family is not conducive to a creative atmosphere.” Or is it? That’s the transformation we see with this Willy Wonka, and that’s what makes it a family film.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

March of the Penguins

2005, Dir. Luc Jacquet
80 minutes, color documentary

The story of how the Emperor Penguin treks seventy or more miles across the ice to mate and create a rookery with fellow penguins is as compelling as any animal narrative could be. Penguins offer an example of animal fathers parenting equally, and watching the care with which both parents tend the egg and chick is profoundly moving. The best thing about this documentary is the photography; the camera that lingers over the birds in extreme close-up. It's a privilege to be able to observe them, in movement and in stillness, in a climate no blooded being should be able to call home.

There's a G rating, but parents of young children should know that some eggs and chicks don't make it—we watch an egg freeze on the ice, a father looking on helplessly; in another scene several fathers pass an egg on the ice and stop to eye it; there is a frozen chick. I left early with my six-year-old because that image made her so sad.

I'm going to write in more detail about this over on my other blog Oswegatchie, but I would very much prefer a different philosophy of scoring and narration in documentaries such as this one. There is way too much mainstream pressure on nature documentarians to 1) compare animals to humans; 2) score their "antics" to amuse us; 3) have a narrator blab at us in a not-particularly-enriching way.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Dark Crystal

1982, Dir. Jim Henson, Frank Oz
color, 93 minutes
Ages 6 or so and up

Henson and Oz pushed their muppetry to its mythic potential in this story of a world split into good and evil on the eve of its reintegration. The Dark Crystal gets extra credit points for two strong female characters, one an eccentric astronomer who can remove an eyeball and pop it back in again and the other a gifted animal communicator who (unlike her male counterpart) can unfold her wings and soar; also note the gender-neutral skeksis, creatures reminiscent of vultures. Inventive sets and lyrical interludes make this well worth watching even for any age. The skeksis can be frightening and there are some scenes my children find so suspenseful that they turn their heads away, but in general, they love this one. Bonus features include extensive interviews with the artists about the making of the sets and creatures. A must see for any child into the plastic arts, puppetry or fantasy stories.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Gumby Show at AMMI on until January 2006

My son and I journeyed south to Astoria yesterday to spend the day with Gumby at the American Museum of the Moving Image. I worked there for about five minutes in the mid-80s, ok a bit longer, but it was during the period of rapid change when I hopped jobs and apartments frequently, that is to say, I was a young, unattached, restless New Yorker.

I still have a friend working at AMMI and it was great fun to visit him and see some of the inner workings of the museum. But the Gumby exhibit was the main attraction. My son, a committed filmmaker, liked the Gumby claymation demo well enough, but adored the 2D animation station, where the two of us sat side by side for hours making 100-frame animations with the provided cut-outs, then watching them. We saw a bunch of Gumby episodes, but my favorite piece from the Art Clokey oeuvre was a short called "Mandala" from 1964, an Eastern-influenced eruption of plasticity that will make you wish for a studio full of clay and an animation stand. That's what Art had in the 1100-sq. ft. basement where he shot Mandala, and his whole family worked on it. Gumby was something of a family effort as well—many of the plot lines came from stories Art made up to read to his children at night. (Even the shape of Gumby's head was family-inspired, but I won't give that one away if you don't already know; go see the show and find out the source of the adorable bump). We may safely add the Clokey family to the collection of creative spirit guides that inspire our playwork around this house.

Anyway, if you can get to museum, look for "Mandala" and "Gumbasia," Clokey's less commercial works, as well as lots of Gumby episodes, going back to the 50s.

When we finally tore ourselves away from Clokey and Pokey there was plenty else to wonder at, from a moving sculpture by Gregory Barsamian that takes advantage of persistence of vision to the special effects section, where my son took to a documentary about the mixing of archival and original footage in Forrest Gump. At the gift shop, he picked out a director's slate, which he has already started putting to productive use. For my husband, who bears a striking resemblance to the little green fellow, especially when he's smiling, we got a Gumby t-shirt. While animating we had missed the program of silent shorts in King Tut's Movie Palace, but given the choice between spectating and creating, what could we do? The day flew by; we hated to leave, but time was edging toward the last bus departure from Port Authority.

And we hadn't even had time to contemplate seeing the Comix Ex Machina show at the nearby Flux Factory!

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller & Countrywoman

1993, Produced and directed by Cari Best, Paul Gagne and Judy Taylor
55 min., documentary
All ages

This documentary about the life of Beatrix Potter, the brilliant writer/artist behind Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tittlemouse, Squirrel Nutkin and a dozen other memorable animal characters, gives a great sense of how she became such a fine observer of animals, the role solitude played in her creative development, and the means by which her work was introduced to a wide audience that continues to grow. Includes archival photographs and drawings. Late in life Potter bought land in the Lake District of England and became a conservationist, leaving 4,000 acres to the National Trust when she died. A must-see and a great accompaniment to the Royal Ballet's Tales of Beatrix Potter.

The Tales of Beatrix Potter

1971. Reginald Mills
90 minutes
All ages

The pull quote on the DVD cover says "delightful" and there really is no better word for this series of dances by members of England's Royal Ballet, featuring Beatrix Potter's animal characters, from Miss Tiggywinkle to Jeremy Fisher. The sets, costumes and masks and choreography awe and enchant; the dancing is fine and the slow pace and quiet moments are welcome (especially in contrast to what we watched afterwards, Looney Toons Back in Action—an unremitting assault on the senses; sorry to be square but within a few years I think we'll be diagnosing a lot of five-year-olds with tinnitus).

Monday, May 30, 2005

Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread & Puppet

2002, Dir. Dee Dee Halleck & Tamar Schumann
84 minutes, color documentary
All ages

Plunge into the casual, creative community of the Bread & Puppet Theater in northeast Vermont, where people pilgrimage to take part in communal living and the creation of spectacles that advocate peace and decry greed. Children will enjoy seeing how the puppets are made and how people live at the Bread & Puppet farm; learn an important piece of our cultural history; and get an introduction to the work of Dee Dee Halleck, tireless advocate for democratic media. Possibly all ages; you be the judge.

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History

1988, Dir. Mark Lewis
48 minutes, color documentary
First Run Features

Who are the cane toads? Marvelously monstrous mega-toads imported to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 in an attempt to eradicate a beetle. The plan backfired bigtime, and this film tells why and shows how Australians, some of them anyway, took the poisonous, plaguey cane toads to heart. I spoke with a 10-year-old who really enjoyed the film, when I showed it to my children at ages 4 and 6 they were a little young; there are gruesome moments and mating habits are covered .

Radical Harmonies

2002, Dir. Dee Mosbacher
90 minutes, color documentary

The story of the Women's Music Cultural Movement includes interviews and performances of some of the great feminists who revolutionized the music industry with women's festivals, women-owned music labels and women sound engineers. Here is a positive tale of how women seized the means of production at a time and in a field dominated by men. This is also a chronicle of rising lesbian awareness and what it meant to women to attend women's music festivals during the years when they were just getting started. Check out the production company, WomanVision.

One complaint: the performances are interrupted; wish we got to hear full songs interspersed with the interviews.

Ages 5 and up, but as always, pre-screen to verify your comfort level with the material.

I'll Sing for You (Je Chanterai Pour Toi)

2004, Dir. Jacques Sarasin
77 minutes, color documentary
In French with English subtitles

A portrait of Boubacar Traoré, known as KarKar in his native Mali, where he was wildly poplular in the sixties, known as the voice of independence for his nation. Interviews shed light on his life, but unless your child is a facile reader of subtitles, the focus is the man who sings the story of his life and his country, accompanying himself on guitar (the child who sits improvising songs during his or her spare time will relate easily to KarKar). The music, architecture, faces and daily life of Mali give breath and breadth to this melancholy film. Check out this detailed review for more information.

The death of KarKar's wife, which occupies many of his songs, is discussed, guns go off briefly during a celebration, the word "sh*t" appears in subtitles. Recommended for ages 6 and up.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

We Pause for a Moment to Rail at Hollywood

"Which was your favorite character?" My daughter asked me of the film Madagascar, which we saw today. Huh. A favorite. Well, there was basically one female character, a hippopatamus whose job as a character was to support the friendship of the male leads, a lion and a zebra. The zebra's conflict was that he needed some adventure and the lion's conflict was that he was hungry. At the risk of sounding like a humorless feminist, which I often am, I'm just a wee bit bored-to-death with male leads, their male sidekicks, and the females who get a corner of the screen to use staring at the dudes.

My son had been counting down the days until the opening of Madagascar. We had arranged to see it with a friend my children, his mother and his three-year-old brother. Much excitement leading up to it.

My spirits sank as I noticed, while checking showtimes and arranging to meet our friends, the PG rating "for crude humor." "Uh oh," I said into the phone to the other mother without thinking. "Here come the fart jokes. Or worse, if the script is really bad." When I hung up I turned to my son, who had tears in his eyes.

"I'm not going," he said with a choked voice. He really hates "juvenile humor," the provenance of adults with creative limitations who somehow managed, when history named this branch of comedy, to get juveniles blamed for things vulgar. For an hour he argued for staying home. "I won't like it."

"Look," I said. "There are websites for parents where they detail all the things about a movie that might be a problem for parents or kids. I can go read one of their reviews."

"I don't want to know what the problems are."

"That's ok, I'll read and report back to you without the details."

So I read the review on Kids-in-Mind, a site with a numbered rating system for sex and nudity, violence and gore, and profanity that intends to "enable concerned adults to determine whether a film is appropriate for them and their children according to their own criteria and values."

From their review it sounded like Madagascar would have the usual male-dominated cast, with one female in a principal role, the cliché mild-elder-woman-who-beats-up-a-ferocious animal...and we wouldn't be getting away without a fart joke or two. The only value of mine it seemed to support was that the giraffe gets an acupuncture treatment. All right!

And there would be some "name-calling," Kids-in-Mind noted, including "pansies."

The "profanity glossary" on the site says "Words or expressions that are used to denigrate and insult one's racial or ethnic background, gender or sexual orientation: Examples include the N-word, various anti-Semitic terms, and anti-homosexual terms like fa**ot."

In my book, "pansies" is anti-homosexual, so I wrote and told them so (nonsensically, it's also pejorative for "nonviolent").

To my surprise Kids-In-Mind wrote right back, said 'right you are,' and changed their designation of pansies to "derogatory." Which is why I'm plugging their site, which has been helpful to me on other occasions with the Highly Sensitive Viewers at my house. (Who until today, by the way, had never said "that sucks." Thank you so very much, whoever thinks a kid's movie can't do well without a PG rating.)

Hollywood should have purged itself of the anti-gay thing long ago, so why does it persist? And, aside from: 1) the occasionally-enlightened Pixar, which throws girls crumbs like Dory (Finding Nemo) and Jessie (Toy Story 2) and 2) the women's liberaton allegory Chicken Run, which in any case had to cross the Atlantic to be screened in the land where women's suffrage was first won (1869, in Wyoming Territory), why are female cartoon personalities nearly always one-dimensional, often ruled by sex jokes or shunted to the side?

If a female buddy movie starred a zebra and a lion, would they have to drive themselves off a cliff at the end so audiences wouldn't be too threatened by the awesome power of female buddyship? Please!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Alice in Wonderland

1999, Dir. Nick Willing
150 min., live action (made for TV)

This is not the version of Alice in Wonderland I'd most like to recommend, but it's the only one I've seen recently, and my eight-year-old son insists I include it here. I could say 'get your own blog' but this activity is bad for posture and eyesight, I only do it as a public service. Favorite elements for my kids are Whoopi Goldberg's Cheshire Cat, Martin Short as the Mad Hatter and Robert Tygner as the March Hare.

Other versions worth checking out are stop-motion master Jan Svankmajer's (though I remember it as too disturbing for young children) and the puppet version directed by Lou Bunin (1951, 80 min.), and I'm sure there are plenty of worthy live-action versions, too.

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast

1946, Dir. Jean Cocteau
93 minutes, black and white

There is no reason to show your children any other version of Beauty and the Beast but this one, unless your idea of "cultural literacy" means "fluency in the full catalogue of the Disney Studio."

Cocteau's exquisite mystery spellbinds. This is a fairy tale in which the transforming power of love performs the magic, and if Belle is not a bookworm, she is a grown woman ready to separate from her family and make a garden flourish in the woods. The beast's living house will spark a child's imagination.

Suspenseful situations and, of course, a beast. Ages 5 or 6 and up.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Magic Flute

1975 / Dir. Ingmar Bergman
135 minutes, color live action
In Swedish with English subtitles

Introduce your child(ren) to Bergman and Mozart at the same time with The Magic Flute! The winsome birdcatcher Papageno, fantastic sets and Bergman's daughter as a member of the audience will draw children into this fairy tale in which a young couple's love matures as it is tested. Could be enjoyed by children as young as four, maybe younger.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

1990 / Dir. Francis Vose
60 minutes, color animation

A Russian folktale told with charming stop-motion animation about a boy who wins the hand of a princess with help from friends with special talents. All ages.

The Films of Charles and Ray Eames

Five-Volume Set
Years various, genres various

Those who admire Charles and Ray Eames for their industrial design, art, or architecture but don't know their films should rush right out for this DVD collection. The jewel of the bunch is Powers of Ten, a 1977 short that starts with the aerial view of a man sleeping on a picnic blanket and travels out into the universe and back, then into the man's hand toward the reaches of the infinitely small, all by powers of ten.

The Eames team made dozens of films, and your kids will find their own favorites. Check out Blacktop, a meditation on the beauty of water splashing across asphalt, or Toccata for Toy Trains (both from vol. 2) or the antique spinning tops of Tops (vol. 5), scored by Elmer Bernstein.

All ages.

The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka

1951, Dir. Milos Makovec , Jirí Trnka ,
156 min., color animation

Every child should be raised on honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned stop-motion animation, and Trnka, who died in 1969 at the age of 57, was an innovator whose films create rich settings for moving, delightfully playful stories. This DVD collection includes The Emperor's Nightingale (1951, 67 min.), based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale and narrated by Boris Karloff. Short Subjects: Story of the Bass Cello (13 min.), The Song of the Prairie (21 min.), The Merry Circus (11 min.), A Drop Too Much (14 min.), The Hand (18 min.), Jiri Trnka: Puppet Animation Master (Documentary, 12 min.)

My children's favorite is The Hand, a political story of an artist whose studio is invaded by a giant hand that directs him to make a statue of it and abandon the clay pots he's been making for his plant. To an adult this piece has frightening resonance, and it does end with the artist's death, so your mileage may vary with respect to the kids' reaction. The Emperor's Nightingale is beautiful and effective. The Merry Circus uses stop-motion mixed with flat posable characters that cast shadows. My favorite, Story of the Bass Cello, has chiaroscuro lighting and a contemplative atmosphere. My only complaint about the bonus feature, a documentary about Jiri Trnka, is that it's much too short.

Potentially for all ages; but note that A Drop Too Much is about drinking and driving, and The Song of the Prairie, a hilarious send-up of westerns, involves gun play amid much Nelson Eddy-style singing.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

My Neighbor Totoro / Kiki's Delivery Service

My Neighbor Totoro
Japan / Dir Hayao Miyazaki
86 min, color animation

Kiki's Delivery Service
1989 / Dir Hayao Miyazaki
102 minutes, color animation

His movies are pure magic. Miyazaki may be too big to call 'alternative' at this point, but his films for younger children deserve inclusion here for their gentleness, their fascination with the unfolding details of daily life, their strong girls and tender boys, and the kinetic joy of flying viewers experience when characters go airborne.

Totoro is a magical forest being that comes into the life of two young girls when their mother is hospitalized. The family life at the core of the story gets a dose of whimsy from Totoro and other spirits of the forest, including a Cat Bus.

Kiki's Delivery Service is one of my daughter's favorite witch stories. A young girl coming of age as a witch and leaving home (at the age of thirteen!) befriends interesting women of all ages, who mentor her toward discovering what makes her special.

Recommended for ages 3 and older.

The Cosmic Eye / The Hubley Collection

1986 / Hubley Studio
70 min., color animation

Three musicians from outer space observe Earth and offer a message of peace to our planet. Pioneer animators Faith and John Hubley collaborated often, but this one is Faith Hubley's only feature-length animated work. Our family loves their animations; the drawings seem to flow from the unconscious right to the pen in this work.

Many of their shorts, such as Star Lore, Sky Dance and Cockaboody, and Moonbird have been assembled in The Hubley Collection, a must-see. Daughter Emily Hubley is also an animator with some work posted on her website.

Recommended for all ages.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Global Gardener—Permaculture with Bill Mollison

112 minutes, documentary
home video version of Australian TV series

I don't know about your kids, but my kids love anything having to do with gardening. This one is so fun because Bill Mollison, who coined the term 'permaculture' and is perhaps its chief advocate, goes bouncing around the globe and we get to see people in India, Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere coaxing crops from a variety of soils. Images of seed-sowing, cut to profuse growth a few weeks later, gives us a very satisfied feeling. "I hate bad news," Bill says, folding up his newspaper and putting it under a couple of potatoes, covering it with some straw. "Now that's good news." Yes: roots and shoots through every newspaper!

Hey, ever notice how it's easy to find Toy Story at the library, and maybe hard to find the lesser-known stuff, like this one, that you might expect to see at a public library? Sometimes librarians just need a little education. This one is distributed by Bullfrog Films. Their link is to the left of this page, and they specialize in environmental media, much of it directed at children. Tell your librarian.

Recommended for all ages.


2001 / Dir Nicole Hahn
75 minutes, documentary

Women's athleticism is celebrated in this film about mountain bikers that features several lesbians. The grueling practice and racing scenes kept my children engaged. The strength and endurance of the women, and the way they defy narrow gender roles, dominate in this rugged little movie that you should pre-screen with your 5+ child in mind.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

1926, Dir Lotte Reiniger
65 minutes, black + white silhouette animation

I am so sorry it took me so long to see The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger. The exquisite silhouettes and the tints of the restored print now available on DVD captivated my family, my kids stayed up past their bedtime to see the whole thing. My daughter fell asleep during the little biopic about Reiniger that follows, but the rest of us were rapt at the story of this woman who single-handedly (literally—she did all the silhouette cutting) pioneered the animated film and invented the silhouette film, supported enthusiastically by her husband, Carl Koch and three other men who formed her production team. Their collaboration and their vibrant cultural life led to friendships with Jean Renoir and Bertolt Brecht. Racial stereotyping of the villains necessitates some discussion.

Recommended for all ages.


2003 / Prod. Joshua M. Greene
54 min., color animation

Based on a picture book by Peter Spier, here is the story of a girl and her grandfather on an imaginative journey exploring what makes people fight: is it difference? If we were all the exactly same, would we get along? Some of the animation here is stunning, especially a claymation sequence featuring eerie clone-people. Features the voices of Hume Cronyn and James Earl Jones, and music by Peabo Bryson, Al Jarreau, Vanessa Williams and Chaka Khan. Recommended by my 8-year-old for all ages.

Grocery Store Wars & The Meatrix

Here are two you can watch online! From FreeRange Studios come two Quicktime movies that satirize Hollywood movies and introduce organic farming, monocropping, pesticides and other "true costs" of food. Meet Obiwan Cannoli and Cuke Skywalker in Grocery Store Wars. (Vegetables shoot laser weapons and a melon explodes; some other violence.) See if you can escape The Meatrix! (Note: factory farming is at best disturbing. My motto: Before little eyes have seen, a loving guide should pre-screen!) These videos are being used by the Sierra Club in its new campaign to raise awareness of the politics of food.

The Meatrix Action Page: Ten things you can do to stop factory farms.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

2003 / Dir Judy Irving
Documentary, 83 minutes

Mark Bittner became the unlikely field expert on a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco when he decided to take advice from the writings of Gary Snider to heart: "If you want to study nature, start right where you are." The engaging film Judy Irving made about him and the birds lets us get to know several parrots and their personality quirks intimately. My children were saddened by the death of a few of the birds, and scenes involving hawks are suspenseful, but I would recommend this one for anyone aged 5 or older.

The Story of the Weeping Camel

2003 / Dir Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni

A Mongolian fairy tale based in legend and grounded in cultural tradition, The Story of the Weeping Camel tells an exquisite tale in poetic images. In Spring, camels give birth, and when one mother rejects her baby, refusing to nurse, the family of nomads who tends the herd sends two boys to bring them a musician who can perform a healing ritual. Children love the camels and baby sheep in the film, and the pace is refreshingly slow but visually rich. In Mongolian without subtitles; none needed. All ages.

Kirikou and the Sorceress

France 2000 / Dir Michel Ocelot
74 mins. Color animation, dubbed into English
Original soundtrack by Youssou N'Dour

Kirikou climbs out of his mother's womb and begins to question the tyranny of a sorceress in his African village. A strong child hero, a female villain whose evil is born of pain, and a traditional setting in which characters are frankly and unembarrassedly naked are among the many pleasures of this animated film.

The sorceress can be creepy for children under six, so pre-screen it and use your discretion.