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

Friday (11/14/14) 1:56am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  SuperFreakonomics
Movies:  The Last Unicorn
TV:  <none>

SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
This is the 2009 sequel to Freakonomics; in it, the journalist/economist duo present another set of essays about the counterintuitive fringes of modern economic research.  It was entertaining enough, and the chapter that basically debunks the Kitty Genovese story was fascinating, what with all the weird incentives to misrepresent what actually happened in Kew Gardens that night.

I don't think I learned anything useful from it.  And its chapter on global warming -- they were arguing for "just pump a bunch of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and we'll be fine" -- contradicts the scientific consensus to such an extent that it made it hard to trust the authors.

Still, it was a pleasant little read.

The Last Unicorn
This is the 1982 Rankin/Bass adaptation of the classic Peter S. Beagle fantasy novel.

I'll open this with a question: does anybody actually *like* the America songs on the soundtrack of this movie?  If so, you may just want to skip the next paragraph or two, because I have to get this out of the way: I hated that music.  And it was a sort of baffled hatred, like if you were watching a great live-action movie, and every so often you saw a boom mic drop into the shot.  "What?  Why is this happening?  How can they be screwing this up this badly?"  It's a great movie, and it has stunningly bad pop songs.

Don't get me wrong: I see how this happened.  Rankin and Bass were never massive mainstream successes, and I'm sure their adaptation of a beloved cult fantasy novel was a hard thing to get financed.  And while the band America was on the wane in 1982 -- they hadn't had a number-one single since 1975, and apart from one fluke single that year[1] they would never see chart success again -- America was still a popular band.  I'm sure getting them on-board was key to getting the movie made.  Even now, the film's cover art proudly proclaims "Featuring songs by America!", as if that isn't a dire warning along the lines of "Known to cause metastatic throat cancer".

What they needed were songs with a female singer that were simple, stripped-down, derived from English folk music, and strongly emotive.  What they got were songs with a male singer that were over-produced, over-orchestrated American muzak that never conveyed a single emotion.  Just for fun, I tried taking this scene and re-scoring it with a song from the Staves, and even that wild stab in the dark feels like a vast improvement.  You can argue that I'm cheating because the Staves are a current band -- but that sort of girl-in-the-English-countryside pop music was even more prevalent back then.  England hadn't completely forgotten about its thriving folk scene from the 60s and 70s.

As I said, it's a weird mis-step in a very good movie.  This may be the best animation Rankin and Bass ever did.  Yes, it's not as slick as current animation, and lord knows there are some tricky perspective shots where the deft assistance of CGI is sorely wanted, but the character designs are phenomenal (no bland, default "Dreamworks smirk" here) and the backgrounds are just one medieval-tapestry-inspired marvel after another.  I'm the first to admit it's a product of its time -- I'm sure there are frames of this that could double as early-80s blacklight posters -- but within that style it does good things.

On top of that, it's a good story.  The Last Unicorn may be exactly what George R. R. Martin is pushing back against when he writes about how really, everybody shits themselves in battle.  But for Peter S. Beagle, realism is something untidy and clumsy that gets in the way of a good story -- be realistic about your characters' feelings; be simple about everything else.

Instead, Mr. Beagle leans hard *into* the conventions of fairy tales and ancient adventure stories.  He's being subversive with the material, but he's being subversive in a different way.  To be reductive about it: Beagle is drawing on stories from Christendom, stories which often boil down to "and then the knight did a very good thing and the blessed lord smiled on him and gave him a cookie."[2]

But with The Last Unicorn, he's created a medieval world without religion.  This is a story where, in the climax, Lír goes to fight the Red Bull with no weapons, no advantage, no hope of doing anything but losing.  And he loses.  And that feels like what true nobility is, in this world: doing the right thing, even when there's no reward for it, not in this world, not in the next -- even when, or especially when, your effort is ultimately meaningless.  This still resonates with the medieval source material -- nobility and chivalry and the like -- but it's taking it in a different, secular-humanist direction.

I'm talking kind of ponderously about ideas here, but this is a story that lends itself to that.  By clearing away all the cruft and logistics of realism, Beagle can simplify things, make the story feel more universal, and tell his little story of melancholy and loss.

No one lives happily ever after.  The unicorn is condemned to an eternity of regret.  Molly Grue will never get those long, unicorn-free decades of her life back.  Haggard perishes, Lír loses the love of his life, and Schmendrick will presumably carry on being an itinerant magician, never seeing the unicorn again.  These are melancholy, ambivalent endings, but you sense that these characters wouldn't have it any other way.  It's a depth that belies the story's "once upon a time" simplicity.

It's not flawless, of course, and that's fine.  The movie has a cheeky randomness that occasionally plays very well ("Have a taco!", pirate cat) but occasionally goes far into the weeds ("I'm engaged to a Douglas Fir!").  Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges do fine voice acting, but bless their hearts, they can't really sing.[3]  And honestly, the movie strives so hard to make the unicorn (and her later human personification) so conventionally beautiful that, compared to the striking designs for the rest of the cast, she seems kind of bland, the dictionary image for "pretty 80s animé girl".

But these are quibbles.  It's just a damn good story with damn good animation, and don't even get me started on Christopher Lee's voice acting here.  It's a beautiful movie.  And it has horrible, horrible songs by America.

For next week: I'm watching that meteorology course again (and taking notes this time) to see if I can follow it properly the second time through.  I've switched over to a rewatch of The Tick for my "watch while exercising" show.  I'm still reading that Meteor book, and I've started listening to an audiobook of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, AKA "Agatha Christie's first mystery novel" (no spoilers please).

[1] Called, appropriately enough,
"You Can Do Magic".
[2] And to be clear, I'm not saying Christianity is like that -- just that the classic medieval adventure stories were like that.
[3] Not at this point anyway.  Jeff Bridges would go on to sing the Oscar-winning "The Weary Kind" in 2009, by which point either his voice or corrective postproduction had significantly improved.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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