Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hollywood Surreal

Mentioning Dali and Disney yesterday reminded me that they did actually collaborate once. The two met at a Hollywood party while Dali was working with Hitchcock on the dream sequences for Spellbound (1945). Dali was a huge Disney fan, considering him one of America's great surrealists along with Cecil B. De Mille and Harpo Marx. (He'd clearly never seen a Fleischer cartoon). In fact Dali's first links with Hollywood went back to 1936 when he'd met Harpo at a party in Paris. (Someone really should do a thesis on the importance of parties to the development of 20th century art).

After sending him a present of a barbed-wire harp Dali came to Hollywood the following year to paint Harpo and wrote a typically bonkers screenplay while he was there for a proposed Marx Brothers film to be called Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Not surprisingly it was never made. There was also a sadly-aborted project with Fritz Lang around 1940 before he teamed up with Hitchcock four years later and finally got something on screen.

And then he met Disney. By January 1946 he was working under contract with studio artist John Hench on storyboarding a six-minute sequence for the film Destino. Every morning he'd go to work at Disney's studio (on Dopey Avenue!) just like a regular employee. Can you imagine Dali turning up at your work place every day? Eating his melty cheese in the canteen, waxing his moustache in the tiolets? This unlikely scenario must have seemed pretty surreal in itself. But Dali really was there to work. He produced paintings, sketches and guide images on lined paper. Unfortunately, like many of his Hollywood ventures, it never came to fruition. Disney's financial problems at the time meant the film was mothballed indefinately.

But in 1999, during work on Fantasia 2000, Disney rediscovered the lost project and decided to bring it back to life using the original storyboards. Finished in 2003 (and given a limited theatrical release with, of all things, Calendar Girls - now that's surreal) it tells the story of the Greek god of time, Chronos, and his love for a mortal woman who dances through a virtual compendium of classic DalĂ­ images. The song, by composer Armando Dominguez, sung by his Mexican compatriot Dora Luz, casts a moodily romantic spell. 'This heart of mine is thrilled now, my empty arms are filled now, as they were meant to be' she sings as if in a reverie. 'For you came along, out of a dream I answer my call, I know now that you are my destino.' The dream of love triumphs then, in classic Hollywood style, over surrealism's Freudian nightmares, over time itself. Destiny, it seems to say, is time's DNA, forever with us, ready to spring from our dreams and save us, if only we can decipher it.

Dali's stock may have fallen greatly in his latter years, and his Hollywood ventures may well have been the start of his decline, but they were also a genuine, if star-struck, engagement with the dream factory, an attempt to bring his surreal ethos to a mass audience. In Destino, though, it feels like the opposite happened, that nearly a decade after he first followed Harpo to Hollywood, it was Dali who was being taken over by its ethos, undone by the high romance of popular song, the heady power of princess dresses and wild hair.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Swing You Sinners!

More wonderful Fleischer madness, this time from 1930. Swing You Sinners is based around a reworking of a popular gospel song of the time called Sing You Sinners, which it jazzifies and scats to great effect. Once again an ordinary situation, dog tries to steal chicken, quickly evolves into a surreal, nightmarish tour de force like nothing you've ever seen before. The Fleischer world is alive with the mutability of forms, booby-trapped with malevolent or mischievous intent, everything in danger of changing at a moment's notice. It's like what would've happened if Salvador Dali had secretly replaced Walt Disney, except it has a primitive power closer to the superstitions of folk art or the medieval biomorphic weirdness of Hieronymus Bosch than to Dali's arid dreamscapes. In fact the latter stages of Swing You Sinners are Bosch-like in spirit, with all the demented Dutch master's hellish glee in the damnation of sinners. Unlike Bosch though, it also has gallows humour, slapstick charm and the swinging rhythm of the music. A strange little masterpiece.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Minnie The Moocher

Before Disney annexed it to colonise the imagination of children forever more animation was a place of anarchic possibility. Take that troubling minx Betty Boop. Always cavorting half-dressed through life, Betty was the 1930s most unlikely sex symbol. Originally Bimbo the dog was the star with Betty only making cameo appearances, unnamed and not even really human. Before she was a woman, Betty was a dog, a cat and even a fish. It was evolution cartoon-style and the man responsible was Max Fleischer, the greatest rival to the early Disney empire, an audacious pioneer also responsible for the first Popeye and Superman cartoons.
As film archivist Dennis Nyback explains, Max and his brothers, Dave and Leonard, had a unique way of making their films, working backwards from music to drawings in exactly the opposite way most other animation outfits work. Jazz fan Leonard would bring in the latest hot records from black artists and the animators essentially improvised to the music. The results were often surreal and revelatory. Take Minnie The Moocher from 1932. It starts off with real footage of Cab Calloway and his orchestra performing the song, Calloway doing his super-cool (and much-imitated) dance moves. Dennis Nyback explains the reason for this live-action footage:

...the head of the New York musician’s union...didn’t like the use of records without paying royalties. Max invited him to the studio and made him a deal. He offered to have the musicians come to the studio and be paid for performing. He would then film and record them. The filmed images of the jazz performers would appear in a Fleischer cartoon based on their record, exposing them to wider audiences...As a result we can see Cab Calloway...and other jazz greats of the early thirties in Fleischer cartoons. (This did not sit well with bigots. The appearance of black performers with white Betty Boop elicited threats from the Ku Klux Klan.)
The film starts with Betty getting into a fight with her parents. Upset, she decides to run away. She calls Bimbo, they meet up and begin their escape. Soon though it gets dark and the strains of Minnie The Moocher begin. Frightened, they duck into a cave where a strange walrus creature appears and sings the song to them. This is clearly Calloway. The Fleischers used their own invention, rotoscope, to animate his movements by tracing frames of the live action film. (It was one of the many innovations they were responsible for. They also pioneered the use of synchronised sound three years before The Jazz Singer). What follows is a nightmare vision of skeletons, ghosts, dead-eyed cats and the scariest witch to ever fly towards a camera from out of nowhere. Even the Calloway-infused walrus is disturbing, with its weirdly distended and fleshy body. Soon a terrified Betty is running home to hide under her bed covers. As would any of us if confronted by this night of the dead. It's creepy enough as a cartoon. Hi-dee-hi-dee-ho indeed.