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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (9/12/11) 11:21pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed over a month, as I continue to not have time for anything.]

Movies:  Waking Sleeping Beauty
TV:  Beverly Hills, 90210 [3x01-3x14]
Books: Under the Black Flag, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, How Risky Is It, Really?

Waking Sleeping Beauty
This is the 2004 Disney-approved documentary about the golden age of Disney animation -- the brief, improbable burst of creativity that brought us their four big late-period musicals:  The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, and The Lion King.

It's always seemed odd to me, how absolute the falloff of quality was after their first films.  I'm pretty sure I could recite the soundtrack of Alladin back-to-front when I was in college.  Lion King seemed like a bit of a fall-off -- the plot was shambolic and Elton John hasn't written anything I've loved since the 70s -- but it was still visually stunning, and it's still the highest-grossing traditionally animated film ever made.  But I couldn't even remember what movie came after that (it turns out it was Pocahontas), and two films later comes a movie I have yet to even bother seeing (Hercules).  Quick, anybody know a single song from their Hunchback of Notre Dame?


So as much as anything, this documentary gives us the nice-nice, hagiographic view of what went wrong.  The short answer:  two men -- Howard Ashman and Frank Wells -- died.

Howard Ashman was the lyricist behind The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and three songs from Aladdin:  "Arabian Nights", "Friend Like Me", and "Prince Ali".  I'm pretty sure those three, along with "A Whole New World", are the only bits of the soundtrack still rattling around in my head somewhere.  (I've slept many, many times since college.)  Keep Howard Ashman in the picture, and you get "I'm especially good at expectorating."[1]  Replace him with Tim Rice, and you get "Can you feel the love tonight?"

Nobody knows who Frank Wells is.  This is because Frank Wells was not particularly interested in pushing the brand of Frank Wells.  This made him an anomaly in Disney management:  a CEO that wasn't aggressive and self-aggrandizing.  Instead, he was the guy who kept Jeffery Katzenberg and Michael Eisner from slaughtering each other in a grisly, American Psycho-esque cage match.  He kept Disney management from turning on itself.  He kept the company working.  Take him out of the picture, Katzenberg and Eisner butt heads, and Katzenberg stomps away and founds Dreamworks.[2]

Ashman died of AIDS in 1992.  Wells died in a helicopter crash in 1994.

And with that, the dream was pretty much done.

For the grisly details of exactly how things fell apart, you'll have to track down the exhaustive, multi-part "The Rise and Fall of Disney Animation" from Merlin Jones.[3]  The basic notion I got is that big corporations are a bad system for creating great art, and if we get something like Warner Brothers churning out Casablanca, it's a tremendous stroke of luck.  In this case, Disney lucked into getting a songwriter who cared passionately about musicals and a President who wasn't a slave to his own ego.

Then all of that ended, and we got Home on the Range.  Sigh.

Beverly Hills, 90210 [3x01-3x14]
This was the rest of my research for Totally Improvised, 90210.  I skipped directly from season one to season three, and found the show improved in some ways.  They had more money behind the show, with a better credit sequence and nicer sets.  The actors had lived with their characters a couple of years, bringing some of them (but not, alas, Donna) into sharper relief.

For better or worse, the show had gotten most of the mileage it could out of "the decent midwesterners come to a city of luxury and decadence."  Instead of Brandon-as-Nick-Carraway, they've pretty much settled into standard teen-soap territory.  There's the famous Dylan/Brenda/Kelly love triangle.  They allude to Brandon's gambling addiction.  A French photographer tries to seduce Donna.

None of it really needs Beverly Hills as a backdrop.  Instead, the city gives the show an excuse to throw in fancy cars and high fashion.  (And since this is 1992, "high fashion" traslates to, "oh god my eyes the pain make it stop".)

In most ways, the show is still the same.  It's still very slow, with its lengthy establishing shots and its conversations that hammer home every point a few more times than necessary.  The show still thinks of 'wit' as 'repeating back a sentence with a slight variation'.  It makes cute, ham-fisted attempts at social relevance.

In the end, I can't help drawing a parallel between the kids and TV as a whole.  We see these teenagers, for whom every little problem is a massive, end-of-the-world crisis, for whom their whole world is that school, their circle of friends, and their one or two favorite hangouts.  And honestly, it feels like that's where TV was, too -- shows seemed so important to people, but really the world of television was limited.  There were just a few networks, and just a few formats.  The technology just wasn't there to do much of anything interesting, production-wise, on a TV schedule.  It seemed like so much at the time, but really it was just the first tentative steps into a larger world.

Under the Black Flag:  The Romance and Reality of Pirates
Like the title says, this is a book about pirates.

Honestly, I don't have much to say about this one.  Its author is a marine historian, not a writer, so the prose is unimpressive.  The long stretches where he recounts famous acts of pillage or important court cases often feel like wikipedia entries.

It gets more interesting when he talks about how we got from the reality of how pirates lived to the modern conception of pirates, complete with walking the plank (didn't happen), dissolute aristocrats taking to the high seas (rarely happened), and rich 'pirate kings' (they mostly blew all their doubloons on taverns and whores, and died penniless).  It was fun to trace the scant public understanding of pirates through the funhouse mirrors of early plays and novels.  Over time, we got the pirates that we wanted to believe in, and not the desperate criminals who were always one month from starvation and one bungled attack away from the hangman's noose.

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
This is a short collection of essays from actor/comedian Patton Oswalt.  He covers a variety of topics -- the title describes the three types of truly awful stories he and his friends would write.

The most poignant material talks about growing up in the suburbs of DC, and realizing he had to get out of there.  Maybe it spoke to me, since I grew up in the suburbs of Louisville, and had to leave for similar reasons.  But there's something tragic about how we see the teenage Patton, aimless and unhappy, *almost* coming to the realization that he'd have to move on... but just not quite getting it.  I suspect we've all been there.

I also liked the parts about his career in comedy.  He recounts working gigs in a small town in Canada in so much detail you almost want to recoil from the book, and the story's dumpy little club and its skeezy, sociopathic manager.  But you keep reading, partly because it's interesting to see how that line of work actually functions.  His writers' notes for a (fictionalized) brain-dead romantic comedy act in a similar way -- sure, it's funny on the surface, but you get the idea that this is how this aspect of show business actually works, and that gives it a train-wreck fascination.

In any case, it's a quick, fun read, and it has enough variety that there should be something for everybody.

How Risky Is It, Really?:  Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts
This is David Ropeik's book about why we are awful at risk assessment.  We are too afraid of things that will never happen to us, and not afraid enough of genuine threats.  We panic over BpA, and we talk on cell phones while driving.  We spend $50 on insurance against 'terrorists attacking our plane', and only $30 on insurance against 'anything going wrong with our plane'.[4]  Both as individuals and collectively, we're really, really stupid.

Ropeik opens with some basic information about how the brain (and, specifically, its fear response) works, and then most of the book is a rundown of all the biases that distort our perception of risk.  We feel more risk if we read a story about an individual afflicted by the problem.  We feel less risk if we feel like we have control over the threat.[5]  We feel more risk if we don't know much about the threat.  We feel less risk if it's a chronic threat, not punctuated by catastrophes.[6]

It's not very deep or surprising material, but it is neatly summarized and presented.  Roepik is a reporter by trade, so his prose is clear, serviceable, and unadorned apart from the occasional clunker of a joke.  And the book ends with some interesting arguments about how, when you see someone operating under these biases, you still need to acknowledge those biases if you want to change his or her mind.  "Yes, I know you're a better driver than average, [nearly everyone thinks this] but talking on your cell phone while you drive still impacts your ability to pay attention to the road."

All in all it's an interesting little book.

For next time:  I'll watch Spirited Away in preparation for the Hideout show.  I'll get back to listening to The Omnivore's Dilemma.  And hopefully, the copy of Your Money: The Missing Manual I reserved will show up at the library.

[1] If you didn't just follow that up by mentally singing "*ptui!* Ten points for Gastooon!", then I don't even know you.

[2] ... which has gone on to make Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and other money-printing films that nobody particularly cares about.

[3] It looks like Disney has stamped out the main links to it online (thanks, guys!), but it's got to be kicking around the Internets somewhere.  (ETA:  here's part two, at least; I think there are five parts total.)

[4] ... the joke here is that the former is a subset of the latter.

[5] My favorite (and by "favorite" I mean "most horrifying") example of this:  a college acquaintance who said, "I'm okay when I drive drunk, because when I know I'm drunk, that makes me more careful."

[6] And so, we stress out about the chances of plane crashes, while thousands upon thousands die in car crashes every year.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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Date:Monday (9/12/11) 11:06pm
Waking Sleeping Beauty


You know, if I had to guess what a film with this title was about? It, uh, wouldn't be nineties era Disney features.

Maybe I've just read too much Angela Carter, or am too aware of the plots of certain Anne Rice novels. Or maybe I just know how Sleeping Beauty wakes up in the original story, which is a thing that tends to stick in one's mind. But. *shudders*

...That said, this does sound like a movie I'd be interested in seeing. So thanks for reviewing it!
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Date:Tuesday (9/13/11) 9:33am
*looks up Sleeping Beauty on wikipedia*

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Date:Tuesday (9/13/11) 9:36am
Also, I finally found a link to one of the Merlin Jones articles.
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Date:Monday (9/12/11) 11:17pm
Carnegie Mellon Alum Stephen Schwartz wrote the lyrics for Hunchback of Notre Dame. This means that I, at some point, was in a revue which contained "Out There" from that show.

This is not really a counter-point to your argument.
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Date:Tuesday (9/13/11) 9:33am
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