The Decalist and Daffy.

I’ve spent a great many words in an out of the classroom talking about film.  In every discussion, my own tastes and biases cannot help but color the kinds of movies that are talked about.  Countless films and filmmakers are worthy of discourse.  Even James Cameron merits mentioning, if only as a counterpoint to Katheryn Bigelow’s next film (reportedly about a group of Navy SEALS trying to kill Osama Bin Laden).

A Hollywood promo shot of Frank Capra.

Many film critics and artists take time to cite the things that have influenced them.  They pick them apart in order to celebrate, understand and appreciate.  Eisenstein and others praised Griffith, Bazin lauded Wells and deSica, and Baz Lurhmann has cited David Lean, John Ford, and George Stevens as directors who “shouldn’t be overlooked.”  Film makers and film lovers are products of what they love, and what has touched them.

So, for what it’s worth, I’m going to spend the next ten posts examining films that have had a major impact on my personal life and my approach to storytelling.  Each film will be unpacked by examining how both story and filmic storytelling caught attention, changed point of view, expressed an ideal, embodied the inexpressible, and made me both love and want to make a good movie.  For those of you who have heard me discuss any of these films in class, this may be slightly redundant, or may be all the things I didn’t say while trying to make sure the teaching objectives were met.

Cutting down the list to 10 was not easy.  Sometimes only one of a group of related films had to be picked in order to give a bit more breadth.  However, the two double bills below are films of similar ilk with similar impact, both of which were worth noting (and I couldn’t choose).  Reminder: these are not my top favorites, these are films that have had great personal and artistic impression.  Many of them, however, can’t help but make the favorites list as well.

Jen’s Decalist: the Top 10 Influential Films

1. The Empire Strikes Back

2. The Philadelphia Story/Bringing up Baby

3. It’s a Wonderful Life

4. Return to Me /Sleepless in Seattle

5. The Sound of Music

6. Ben Hur (1925, silent)

7. The Color Purple

8. The Trouble With Angels

9. Thelma and Louise

10. Sweetland

One of Herzog's many impactful films

An initial observation yields my penchant for comedy and good dialog, as well as a nicely constructed script.  Even though they’ll come up in the discussions of the above films anyway, here are some runners up: Top Hat, Steel Magnolias, A League of Their Own, and a special shout out to Werner Herzog, whom I will always love. I cannot choose one of his films, though. I’ve more been impacted by his filmmaking approach, by the way he observes with a camera and takes care of his subject matter.

Maya Deren's "At Land"

Also worth citing are Jane Campion and Maya Deren, whose short films Passionless Moments and At Land made a definitive difference in my early film work.

One last influence must here be noted:

I spent the vast majoring of my Saturday morning childhood watching Looney Toons.  What I learned from them was everything you need to know about timing, sight gags, physical comedy, and short form stories.  I also learned about iconography, dialog, and fantasy.

Still from "Rabbit Season." Notice the glances and the visual joke. Looney Toons combine dialog with visual gag in very filmic ways.

The Warner Brothers “Termite Terrace” animation department was a creative primordial soup from which sprang countless ideas, characters, bits, and lines that have become a part of our culture.  I can no longer tell if some things that I say started as dialog in a cartoon, or if they just sound like something an animated cat once said.  I even have some of the shorts completely memorized. Really.  Once while a niece sat watching as I cleaned, I recited all the words written on signs at the opening of “Rabbit Season” (the line “Aha, pronoun trouble” is an example of Michael Maltese’s dialog, now ingrained in my language) without being able to see the screen.  She looked at me in disbelief.  “How did you know that?”  Aunt Jen is a nerd, that’s how.

Michael Maltes wrote most of the story scripts as well as the Looney dialog.  Each cartoon’s premise is very simple.  Often, it’s a chase (Will Sylvester catch Tweety? Will Wile E. Coyote catch the Roadrunner?) or a simple situation (Will Bugs Bunny beat an entire baseball team? Will Daffy Duck rid the town of the Western bad guy?).   So the major dramatic question is obvious, and the storytelling is in each situation, attempt, and sight gag.  Our enjoyment comes from seeing the setup (Wile E. tries to balance a rock and pull a string to make it fall on the Roadrunner) and then toying with our expectation (the rock instead, of course, lands on Wile E.  Or it goes through three iterations of action and lands on him in a future scenario).

Still from "Drip Along Daffy." Notice the posturing as well as humor in the way the character is shaped. The villain, by the way, is named Nasty Canasta.

Along with the dialog and story construction, a key to Looney Tunes is the ability animation affords to, yes, anthropomorphize pigs, chickens, rabbits, ducks, and the like, but also to truly play with the notion of reality.  Some great examples are the iconic “Duck Amuck”  or “The Hole Idea.”  Tex Avery (who was only at the studio a short time) explored the possibilities inherent in animation.  Chuck Jones, Fritz Freiling, and Robert McKimson refined them into devices well used in storytelling.  There’s also a lot of art in the way the cartoons were drawn and animated, from color to clarity to the shape of each line.

Of the directors, my favorite has always been Chuck Jones for style as well as content.  His Bugs is less devious and more witty.  His Daffy is less looney and more foolish.  Both are physically very funny.  Their posturing in the frame, takes to the camera, timing, and expression are like Lucille Ball meets Carol Burnett with extra caffiene.  It’s Jones who is responsible for the notables “What’s Opera, Doc?” and  “Drip Along Daffy” as well as “Rabbit Season.”

Still from "What's Opera, Doc?" Director Jones uses light and style in expressionistic ways, but notice also that Elmer's horns are "sad." The music is Wagner's "Tannhauser."

One last note, exposure to Looney Toons at a formative age may also be partly responsible for my (and many others’) appreciation of classical music.  The Warner Brother’s Orchestra, under the direction and arrangement of Carl Stalling, laid classic works over comedy, mixing popular music and sound gags.  Some DVDs allow this, and if possible I recommend trying to watch one of the cartoons without music.  Will you be sadly disappointed, but learn a great deal? Well…you might, rabbit, you might.*

*an oft used quote from “Bugs and Thugs.”

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About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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