Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1966

Well, we're closing in at the end of the year, and now we're entering the time of year when all of the Best Picture hopefuls are coming out in theaters. Today is a pretty significant day where no less than two films with Best Picture aspirations are opening wide. The first is Life of Pi, the film based on the highly symbolic novel from Yann Martel. While the film deals a lot with Indians, it was actually helmed by Taiwanese director 李安 (Ang Lee), the man behind such classics as 臥虎藏龍 (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Brokeback Mountain, and my personal favorites 喜宴 (The Wedding Banquet) and 色,戒 (Lust, Caution). He has a special skill of mixing art and symbolism and would be a perfect choice for a film like this. Of course, the one that I'm more curious in is Silver Linings Playbook. The trailer caught my attention with its portrayal of a guy that's clearly in a manic state, and then showed Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's characters swapping lists of mood stabilizers and benzodiazepines that they took. I have no idea how accurate the portrayal of psychiatric illnesses will be, but as an aspiring psychiatrists I am very curious. All of the Oscar buzz doesn't hurt either. Unfortunately my life will be rather turbulent for the next month what with interviews and traveling to Conshohocken, Pennsylvania for the COMLEX Physical Exam test, but hopefully I'll find some time to watch it. And work on more reviews.

Meanwhile, the films competing in the 1966 Oscars had a healthy dose of psychiatric issues. They are led by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the film about an unhappily married couple whose issues get the best of them in an emotionally charged night. That was nominated for 13 Oscars, one in every technical, writing, and acting category that it qualified for. The Sand Pebbles, the Steve McQueen film where he played a sailor with emotional issues that alienate him from the rest of the crew (and was filmed in Taiwan), was nominated for eight Oscars, including McQueen's only Oscar nomination. A Man for All Seasons didn't have much in terms of psychiatric issues, except the ones King Henry VIII probably had, but that was nominated for seven Oscars. Alfie, the film about a hedonistic young man with emotional issues, was nominated for five, including the first nomination for a young Michael Caine. And The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming rounds out the Best Picture contenders.

1966 was the last year that there were separate color and black and white categories for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? swept the three black and white categories, while A Man for All Seasons won two of the three color categories. It was not nominated in Best Color Art Direction. Fantastic Voyage won instead. It also won the Oscar for Best Special Visual Effects. However, it lost in the Best Editing and Best Sound Effects category to the racecar epic Grand Prix, which also took home the Best Sound Oscar. Born Free won both Best Original Score and Best Original Song while the film adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum won Best Score, Adaptation or Treatment. A Man for All Seasons took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, while A Man and a Woman took home Best Original Score. It was one of the few foreign films to take home a screenplay Oscar, and also won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? swept the actress acting categories, with Sandy Dennis winning Best Supporting Actress and Elizabeth Taylor winning for Best Actress. However, George Segal and Richard Burton were not able to have the same success as the women. Walter Matthau won an Oscar playing a conniving lawyer in the Matthau/Lemmon vehicle The Fortune Cookie. And then Best Actor, a category where each of the nominees were in line with the Best Picture nominees, went to Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons. Still, Virginia Woolf had to be feeling good going into the last two categories, as it led the awards count 5-4. However, its dreams were dashed when Fred Zinnemann won Best Director in a race where only two of the nominees were also Best Picture nominees (Zinnemann and Virginia Woolf's Mike Nichols. The others went to Michelangelo Antonioni for Blow-Up, Richard Brooks for The Professionals, and Claude Lelouch for A Man and a Woman.) With the Best Director win in hand, A Man for All Seasons was able to take Best Picture.

And then amidst all the action, there was Best Animated Short. Which is why I'm doing this in the first place.

The Drag
A despondent man shows up at his therapist in emotional distress (uh oh, there's that psych theme again). He tells his therapist his life story in order to provide some perspective. He tells how he was exposed to peer pressure as a child to indulge in something he hated. This continued into his adolescence where he was drawn into the lifestyle through exposure to the media. He confidently went about in his lifestyle, but soon came to realize his dependence on the habit. What was the habit that was giving him such a difficult time? Why, it was none other than the bane of our modern society: cigarette smoking. It is one of the major health hazards today. The World Health Organization report that millions of people die every year from tobacco smoking. It has been heavily implicated in increased rates of cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, chronic lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cancer. Basically, the top killers in the country. People keep demanding a cure for cancer, but the number one cure is prevention. When you consider the fact that tobacco smoke is a major risk factor in the number one cancer killer in number (lung) and mortality rate (pancreatic), the cigarette's "cancer stick" moniker is well deserved. And yet despite all of the health risks, the tobacco industry is still thriving on an international level, boasted by heavy levels of smoking in the two most populated countries in the world in China and India. There is a little bit more crackdown in the United States. Gone are the glamour shots of celebrities smoking or prevalent cigarette ads (including a famous one that starred Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble...very different from Fruity/Choco Pebbles), having been replaced by health risk warnings on cigarette cartons and bans on public smoking of varying strengths in varying states. Still, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 45 million adults in the US smoke. That's fewer than the estimated 350 million smokers in China and 120 million smokers in India, but that's still a considerable amount. Unfortunately, tobacco cessation is one of the hardest things to achieve. Many of the additives are addictive, and like all addictions one becomes physically and psychologically dependent on the drug. Most people try to quit cold turkey, but with limited success. Drugs like Nicotine Replacement Therapy (patches, gums), varenicline (Chantix) and wellbutrin (Zyban) have shown to be somewhat more efficacious, but there are still significant side effect profiles and a stigmata against the use of drugs. Alternative methods such as acupuncture have popped up to try to help people quit. Even with all of the methods, the success rate is still incredibly low, and many people require many efforts to quit before they are successful. Sadly many may not try that often, falling into the trap of learned helplessness before they are ultimately successful. Tobacco smoking is an unfortunate epidemic in our modern society. 

The Drag was one of the early films to take a look at the issue of tobacco smoking. It was commissioned by the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare and produced by the National Film Board of Canada. It used the method of speaking out against a topic, in this case smoking, by inundating the film with images of the topic of concern to highlight its absurdity. It's very much like how films with an anti-war message are filled with battle images. And the film can be incredibly absurd at times. People are seen smoking or exhaling for it seems like 75% of the film. There are images of glamorous celebrities smoking, which the main character tries to emulate. There are faux advertisements of cigarettes that actually seem very much like real cigarette adverts. The effect even comes down to the film's design, which features animated characters done over mixed media images Frank Film style. The backgrounds in certain scenes are a hodgepodge of text or pictures, presumably from cigarette ads. There is one shot where the main character is dancing with a girl he picked up over an ad that says "they smoke terrrrrific" above one that says "for the kids." Now if that's not absurd I don't know what is. Still, it wouldn't be an effective anti-smoking campaign if it was just scenes of people smoking, but thankfully there is a scene with the cigarette ads are replaced by 10 seconds of warnings about cancer playing over scary music, followed by a nightmare of the man getting trapped by his cigarettes. It's all fine and dandy, but does the film work? Or is this one of those public service announcements that actually do more harm than good. That's more difficult to quantify. Statistics from Health Canada does show that the percentage of current smokers in the population is about 17%, which isn't significantly lower than the US's 19%, but it is a drop from statistics from 1999. We're making some progress, but there is still room for improvement. As for the film, it does have an interesting design, but I originally found the film to be quite boring. It wasn't until I got into medical school and learned about the hazards of smoking that the film began appealing to me for its message. It's not often that we get films that speak out against cigarette smoking, especially one from back in the 1960s, so The Drag has that going for it.
Where Can I Watch It?

A Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature
Come and enjoy the stylistic tunes of Herb Alpert and his amazing Tijuana Brass, brilliantly set to animation by former Disney animator John Hubley and his wife Faith. In "Mexican Shuffle" as a bull with anger issues attack words that he created. In "Spanish Flea" a flea watches as his natural wonderland gets demolished by a businessman to build his paradise. What is a flea to do? And in "Tijuana Taxi" the band must get to the airport before their flight leaves, but their only hope is with an unconventional taxi driver. Herb Alpert was an American bandleader who gained his most fame in his collaboration with the Tijuana Brass, a band that plays many Latin theme music despite not having a single Hispanic member. (It was, however, inspired by a mariachi band Alpert saw in Mexico.) Their fame had hit such epic proportions that they collaborated with the Oscar winning animators John and Faith Hubley to produce what IMDb considers "a prototype of modern music videos." And that is pretty much what it is: music augmented by the presence of moving images. This is thematically very different from what the Hubleys normally produce, but it allows them to create something that is more fun. The animation is pretty standard Hubley fare, with virtually no background to speak of (in fact virtually the entire film is played against a white background), simple character design and sparing use of colors. Not that it's a bad thing. The design is quite appealing, and there are plenty of visual gags. However, the real thing that makes the film a delight is the catchy tunes by Alpert and his band. I wasn't sure if I knew about the band before watching the film, but "Spanish Flea" was instantly familiar to me, having heard it in various other places before. I hadn't heard "Tijuana Taxi" or "Mexican Shuffle" before, but I really enjoyed their catchy beats and infectious tunes. Those songs are the real star of the film, and the animation is just an added bonus.
Where Can I Watch It?
The film was incredibly difficult to find for the longest time, since the Hubleys never included it in any of their other collections, but in 2009 an animation historian unearthed  the film and posted it on YouTube, so now it is readily available for everybody to see.

The Pink Blueprint
The rascally rascal Pink Panther is back at it again. This time the Little Man is trying to build a standard house. He consults a blueprint, but when the Panther finds it, he is aghast at either the design or the color (or both) and replaces the blueprint with a pinkprint featuring a more futuristic design. The Little Man rejects this, but this only begins a war of wills in which there can only be one victor. Is the Little Man ever going to build his standard house? The Pink Panther was a popular character that originated in the animated credits of the Pink Panther movies. He made his spectacular debut in the world of animated short films two years earlier with The Pink Phink, which will be reviewed here in two weeks time. The Pink Blueprint is in many ways very similar to The Pink Phink. The earlier film featured a conflict between the Panther and the Little Man (supposedly a caricature of the director, longtime Warner Bros. director Friz Freleng) involving painting. The Pink Blueprint kept the same formula, only this time the gags are focused around construction. The gags are primarily visual but usually quite funny, even if they do end up being painful for the hapless Little Man. There is a good sense of timing about them, and there are a few which clearly exploit the animation medium. Freleng's training at the Warner Bros. Termite Terrace is clearly visible. I actually preferred the gags here over the ones in The Pink Phink, but I guess it's unfair comparing this film to one we haven't reviewed yet. The soundtrack is good, but then again you can't go wrong with Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme, which plays throughout. There is, unfortunately, the addition of a laugh track. The laugh track is the bane of any comedian's existence, as it implies something is funny when it is not, a fact that Woody Allen alluded to in his classic Annie Hall. Having it in a cartoon series is even worse. While the gags in The Pink Blueprint are pretty funny, it doesn't make the laugh track any better. The animation is more limited than the earlier Freleng Warner Bros. film, but it serves its purpose. The Pink Blueprint may not make any marks in the animation world, but it is a pretty funny film and for that it reaches it objective.
Where Can I Watch It?

Okay, so I never expected this review to be a public service announcement against the dangers of smoking, but then again I never really plan out any of these reviews. I just watch the films and write down my thoughts. The Drag just happened to elicit everything I've been thinking about tobacco smoking and smoking cessation that I had bottled up in me for my three and a half years of med school. Seriously, it's just wrong to see COPD patients struggling to breathe and make ends meet that still smoke a pack or two a day. I always thought The Drag was boring, but it did have an important message and was much more bold on the design aspects than Double Feature and The Pink Blueprint. In that way it may be best of the three nominees this year, but I think I'd much rather watch the other two. The smoking message must not have rubbed the Academy the right way, and they awarded the Oscar to the Hubleys for Double Feature instead, which I can't disagree with because Double Feature was a much more enjoyable film. Still, The Drag resonates much more today, at least in terms of health care.

My rankings (by quality)
The Drag > A Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature > The Pink Blueprint

My rankings (by preference)
A Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Double Feature > The Pink Blueprint > The Drag


    "And yet despite all of the health risks, the tobacco industry is still thriving on an international level, boasted by heavy levels of smoking in the two most populated countries in the world in China and India."

    No doubt the tabacco companies sees this as "The Final Frontier" so to speak (much of it being a cultual issue too).

    "As for the film, it does have an interesting design, but I originally found the film to be quite boring. It wasn't until I got into medical school and learned about the hazards of smoking that the film began appealing to me for its message"

    No doubt when you get older, you come to know what's good or bad about a film like this. I enjoy the jazzy score heard in it personally, and perhaps giggled at the cheap cliche at the end.

    Still impresses me Paramount released this one at all, but then, by this point, several Hollywood studios had started releaseing indie shorts here or there when they became possible despite the shorts divisions just about dried up after the cartoons, newsreels and other films went on the wayside. Columbia Pictures for example would release "The Critic" a few years before. Paramount, while maintaining it's own cartoon studio for a short time (at this point, supervised by veteran animator Shamus Culhane), also released films by Rembrandt Films of a character Gene Deitch created known as "Nudnik". Paramount would also release "Windy Day" for the Hubleys as well.

    A few others I can point out with links if anyone cares to watch are the following!

    THE SHOOTING OF DAN McGREW (Ed Graham Productions/Universal, 1965):
    FUNNY IS FUNNY (Ed Graham Productions/Univesal, 1966):
    THE DOOR (Campbell, Silver, Crosby Corporation/Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, 1967):

    "There is, unfortunately, the addition of a laugh track. The laugh track is the bane of any comedian's existence, as it implies something is funny when it is not, a fact that Woody Allen alluded to in his classic Annie Hall. Having it in a cartoon series is even worse."

    Please don't judge this cartoon because of the laugh track, that was never there before, but was added in the 70's when the Pink Panther cartoons started running on TV.

    1. Yeah. I kind of figured that out, which is why I ranked it quite highly in my rankings of the nominated films from 1962-71.