Saturday, December 21, 2013

Moving Pictures: Fred Astaire in "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"

One of the aspects of the Rankin Bass specials that I have always appreciated is the wonderful caricatures they employ for their famous narrators. For an old movie fan, it's gratify to recognize "faces" like that. My favorite instance, and indeed, the most famous one, has to be the Fred Astaire caricature in "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (1970).
In "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," Fred Astaire served as the celebrity narrator for the story. He "plays" S.D. Kluger, the North Pole mailman who delivers the children's letters to Santa. He is, by far, the nicest expert on Santa in the world, besides being the most musically talented one. As a quick aside, Astaire was in his 70s when he lent his voice to Rankin-Bass and it sounds brilliant. Of course, I love Fred's abilities as a hoofer, but I also admire his singing voice. Fred famously introduced many of the most iconic songs of the Great American Songbook in his films with Ginger. In "Santa Claus," Fred's iconic voice is not dimmed at all by age. In fact, his rendition of the titular song, "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" is one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs.

I've said it before, Fred is certainly an easy subject for a caricature. With his brilliant eyes, and his long face and chin, he makes an easy cartoon figure, albeit it, an adorably charming one. Rankin-Bass certainly did not have much work to do to bring Fred to life. But I am so glad that they did bring him to life like that. It's a beautiful character, a fun caricature, and certainly, a moving portrait of sorts.
I hope this little, semi-random post, helps you appreciate the Rankin-Bass specials a little more, if you don't already love them. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Santa Claus Painting in the Rankin-Bass Christmas Specials

For me, the Christmas season is not complete unless I've seen my favorite Christmas specials on TV. I don't think I'm alone in my admiration and love of the Rankin-Bass specials. What holiday season is complete without watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus is Comin' to Town or one of the myriad of others? Perhaps they are a little cheesy and overly sentimental- but isn't that what you want to enjoy during this, the most wonderful time of the year. And thanks to technology, they are more readily available than ever. Gone are the days when if you missed it on TV, you missed it for good. And thank the Lord for that!
The Year without a Santa Claus (1974)
Of course, I consider the wonderful animation in those little specials an art of their own: officially known as "animagic." But I'm going to concentrate on art within the art. The art within the art of film, if you know what I mean. Because, if you are intimately familiar with these specials as I am, you will know that art, of course, inhabits these little, miniature, moving worlds. In particular, because it is Christmas, I'm going to focus on two very similar paintings of Santa that I saw in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town and The Year without a Santa Claus. At first, I thought they were the same painting, but close observation has proved otherwise.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)

Towards the end of  Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970), a painting of the Burgermeister Meisterburger falls down, only to be replaced with a wonderful painting of Santa. Why some kid's decision to hang a painting of Santa in the center of this provincial German town's hall of government is neither questioned or disputed by the audience or townspeople. But, as Santa represents the forces of good in the film (and in all things, for that matter), it only seems right that he should triumph in the end.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)

The painting shows Santa in his sleigh being pulled by his eight tiny flying reindeer. In the painting, Santa looks absolutely thrilled, as you or I would look if we were in a flying sleigh. Now, I am assuming (pretty rationally), that as Rankin-Bass animates little miniature figures, this painting must be absolutely tiny. Which makes it so impressive. Sure, it's no Monet, but at least it is a clear picture.
The Year without a Santa Claus (1974)
Now, four years later, a very similar painting is seen hanging in the North Pole in A Year without a Santa Claus. In this film, Santa wanders over to the painting when fretting over his one day of work in the whole year. While similar in subject matter, the painting is somewhat different. The angle of the sleigh and the coloring are all a little difference. I guess this works for continuity. After all, the painting in the Somber town City Hall couldn't also hang in Santa's bedroom.
The Year without a Santa Claus (1974)

My guess, and this is pure conjecture, is that when they were making A Year without a Santa Claus, an animator thought of the other little painting. Everyone probably thought it would look nice in the room but couldn't find the original. So another very talented miniaturist went to work and voila!
Just to appreciate the scale of the Christmas specials-
here's a behind the scene look

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)
Either way, they are rather delightful little paintings.  Simple, perhaps, and not overly advanced, but they are something that I've always noticed in the films and thought I'd share with the world. Of course, I'm not sure about their artistic merit or thematic importance, but, really, that's not was this post was about.  If anyone has any more knowledge about them- let me know! Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Architecture of the Capitol from "The Hunger Games": Echoes of Rome, Echoes of Totalitarianism

Like almost everyone else, I'm enamored by the fabulous new film in the Hunger Games franchise. If you haven't seen Catching Fire yet- I highly encourage you to see it. Jennifer Lawrence reminds you that the future of film is very promising.
But while I would love to sing the praises of Jennifer Lawrence- her wit, humor, and beauty- I'd like to turn to a more serious aspect of the film I noticed when I watched the film last week. As you know, I watch film with a critical eye towards the elements that build up a scene, besides the actors of course. Usually, it takes more than one viewing, but in the case of the Hunger Games, I noticed one particular aspect right away: the architecture. To this, I dedicate my post.
It's been well documented that the filmmakers pay special attention to detail in creating the dystopic world of Panem, and their efforts are clearly present in the scenes in the Capitol, the center of Panem's totalitarian government. Sprawling, larger than life, and magnificent, the Capitol on film is every bit as exotic and imposing as Suzanne Collins described it in her wonderful novels. But the architecture struck me in a different way because I was looking at it through a slightly different lens. For me, I saw it as a reincarnated and computer generated (and I don't think there is anything wrong with that) view of the totalitarian government's architectural tendencies of the 1930s.
The Hunger Games, the story about young kids being forced to fight to the death on television, is, of course, a very grim picture of the future, so it is no surprise that the terrible totalitarian reigns of the '30s should feature so prominently in the inspiration of the creative forces behind the Capitol's design. Leaders like Hitler and Stalin challenged the viability of the free world and held the potential to drastically shape humanity in much different and unquestionably worse ways. And a vital part of their ideas (which were, of course, separate ideologies) was a much different looking world dominated by their own particular styles of architecture.

As a quick side note, I'd like to mention Mussolini briefly. As one of the earliest fascist leaders in Europe, he began developing an architectural style for his reincarnation of the Roman Empire long before Hitler or Stalin were even major contenders. Evidence of his efforts and plans are still evident in some areas around Rome. In the recent Shakespeare adaptation, Titus Andronicus, which sets some of the drama in fascist Italy, this architecture is present. However, I'm specifically going to concentrate on the Nazis and the Soviets.
Computer Animation of the never-built Palace of the Soviets
The Capitol Building from the Hunger Games
In all honesty, I was first struck by the fact that it seems that some of the buildings in the Capitol are direct homages of Stalin's distinct Soviet style. Many of the buildings in the Districts (such as 12's government building) are reminscient of that heavy Soviet style of Communist Bureaucratic architecture which is panned as dull and awful by almost everyone. In particular, the main building of the Capitol, which President Snow always stands at when the tributes march in at the beginning, reminds me vaguely of the Palace of the Soviets. In case you don't know anything about it, I'll fill you in.

A plan for Moscow, centered around the Palace.
Notice the similarities to the Capitol.
A large avenue centered on a main, imposing, classically inspired building. 

In the 1930s, Stalin planned on building an enormous tower as a tribute to the "success" of the Soviet system. Inspired by the Neoclassic designs that featured so prominently earlier in Russia's history, the Palace would have been a towering edifice of Soviet strength. However, World War II happened and plans for the tower were scrapped. Only the plans exist for it, but even they are impressive.
President Snow's Mansion
Even President Snow's neoclassic mansion in Catching Fire reminds me of Russian architecture. Perhaps its the traces of the Neoclassic Influence. More likely, it was the bright colors lit on the sides that reminded me, ever so vaguely, of the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg. After all, even the vestiges of the czars are reminiscent of absolute government and oppression. (As a quick note, President Snow's mansion is actually the Swan House in Atlanta, Georgia).
A rough sketch of the potential plans for Stalin's Moscow
(Never Built)
Notice the similarities to the Capitol
A similar (colored) view with an emphasis on the Palace
Notice the similarities between the Capitol's main building (I assume) and the Palace of the Soviets. Its obvious that the filmmakers had a certain idea in mind when they started designing what the Capitol would look like. Indeed, if you examine plans of Stalin's planned expansion of Moscow, you'll notice striking similarities to the Capitol. Notice that main triumphal avenue. It's a common thread- take a vision people are familiar with already to convey the ideas that such a vision holds.
The Capitol 
After I got over the similarities between the Palace of the Soviets, I started fixating on that Triumphal Avenue of the Capitol. After all, it plays a large part in both films. It's a magnificent tribute to the size and wealth of the Capitol. Most of all it is incredible imposing. Which is, of course, the point of all Totalitarian architecture. If you see vestiges of Fascist, Nazi, or Soviet Architecture, you are struck by its heavy-handedness, its brute size, and its incredible dimensions, all which were meant to dwarf the viewer.
Speer and Hitler
(Below: Speer's New Reich Chancellery)
Notice the stripped and imposing classical influence

No totalitarian style embodied that more than Hitler's unique Nazi architecture. Dominated by the (maybe) brilliant German architect and Nazi collaborator Albert Speer, Hitler's architectural style emphasized size, straight lines, and uniformity. Pictures of Speer's New Reich Chancellery, which was actually built, unlike many of his plans, screams oppressive architecture. The size and dimensions of the place dwarf even the modern viewer. And I'm talking about viewers of photographs (it was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin).
The "Cathedral of Light"
A Terrifying Mass Experience of Nazism
Obviously you can see Speer's love of bold straight lines and
Hitler's belief in their power to impress
Hitler stressed the importance of what he called the "mass experience"- giant political rallies unifying the people around his perverted ideals. Speer designed a magnificent rallying grounds at Nuremberg where giant lights would create the impression of giant, straight columns in the night sky. Even the arenas for the Olympic Games were supposed to convey this idea. The idea of using mass public events to unify the people should sound familiar to anyone thinking of the Hunger Games (as you should be if you're reading this).
One of Speer's models for Germania: The New Berlin
A horrific vision of the future which Speer and Hitler
plotted and planned over. Built by slave labor to impress the
world, it was designed to last 1000 years- the length of the Reich.
But, back to that avenue. One of the scarier things that Hitler planned was his vision of the New World Order, of a Reich that would last one thousand years. He planned on redesigning cities, built using slave labor, to show the glory of himself and his system. When you think about it, the thought is actually quite disgusting, but I digress. In particular, Hitler and Speer redesigned Berlin and Munich. I'm going to concentrate on Berlin (or Germania, as Hitler planned on renaming it after the war) because it feature more prominently into my discussion.

Hitler planned on completely rebuilding Berlin after the War was over. Renamed Germania, it would focus as the center of the Third Reich and stand as a concrete monument to the glory of Nazism. Obviously it was never built. Only the plans survive, and, even to the hater of Nazism (i.e. rational person), they are both disgusting and somewhat... astounding. Berlin would be dominated by a giant triumphal avenue down the center. On one side, a large triumphal arch would sing his praises. On the other side, the enormous Meeting Hall of the People (Volkshalle) would stand. Composed of an incredibly large dome, it is estimated that if it were ever built, it would have its own weather inside. The triumphal avenue would be used for victory parades and more "mass experiences" to impress the people. Experiences like say... brutal bloodbaths for public entertainment. Fortunately, we'll never know.
Speer and Hitler topping out a building with a Nazi Eagle
Literally architects of evil
If you combine the visions of both Hitler and Stalin, you have a dead ringer for what the Capitol looks like in the films. Dominated by its main avenue and imposing buildings on either ends, it exists to impress those under its oppressive control with its incredible size. And certainly, it succeeds.
Roman Parade along Triumphal Avenue
Ben Hur
Seems like the march of the tributes in The Hunger Games
I would be remiss, of course, if I failed to mention a final and extremely important influence to both the Hunger Games and Totalitarian leaders. Of course, I'm thinking of the Roman Empire. The Romans were the original propagators of an enormous empire united under a single world view and dominated, visibly, by incredibly large buildings. Most totalitarian architecture, and indeed, buildings, take heed from the Roman influence. Hitler's distinct Nazi style was a stripped version of Classical Roman architecture. Even Stalin was inspired by the Neoclassical designs of the czars, which of course, were inspired by the Classical Romans.
Pollice Verso
Jean-Leon Gerome
The influence of Rome on the Hunger Games is obvious. The series tells of a collapse of an Empire, and no empire collapsed more loudly than Rome. The absolute leader, Snow, is simply a reincarnation of the famous Roman imperial tyrants. Even the name of the country, Panem, come from the old Latin phrase for "bread and circuses," a policy adapted by the Emperors to appease the masses. And while bloody games exist only in the realms of fiction today, the gladiator games were, of course, the precursor to the Hunger Games.

Look at the names of the characters in the Capitol. Many of them are classical Roman names. Plutarch Heavensbee. Caesar Flickerman, Seneca Crane, Coriolanus (a Roman General) Snow, just to name a few. Even the seal of the Capitol, the outstretched Eagle, is a new version of the old Roman Eagle standard. Which inspired the Eagle-topped swastika of the Nazis. Which inspired the Capitol.

The point that I'm trying to make, for over the last year, is that the influence of art cannot be under-emphasized. I concentrate on film, which is a fairly innocent subject on its own. But the history of art is one intrinsically connected to the history of the world- good and bad. Anyone vaguely familiar with the history of Western Civilization will be aware of the influence the Romans and other Classical Cultures have had on art and thought throughout the centuries. I've pointed to an influence- politically and architecturally- that is less than one hundred years old, during one of the darker times in humanity's history. And yet the influence continues to this day and age, when influenced art influences the art of film.

The Hunger Games may seem like an innocent series, and perhaps in some respects, it is. But to those looking for a lesson, the Hunger provides it. Totalitarianism and oppression has a unique architectural style, which I hope I've been able to prove to you.  Because the world of the Hunger Games looks a certain way, the viewer knows intrinsically that it is a certain way. And that is a testament to both the brilliance of the filmmakers and the power of art.

•"Art Under Fascism: Architecture." Web. 05 Apr. 2011. <>.
•"The Fascinating World of Fascist Architecture." Rome Guest House – “Casa Romana. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. <>.
•"Stalinist Architecture." New York Architecture. Web. 5 Apr. 2011. <>.
•"Totalitarian Architecture of the Third Reich." Dark Roasted Blend. 17 Feb. 2009. Web. 05 Apr. 2011. <>.
•Zinovieva, Olga. "A Journey into Stalinist Moscow of the 1930s – 1950s." Passport: Moscow. Web. 5 Apr. 2011. <>.

Watch Catching Fire at a theater near you!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sandra Bullock as Grace Kelly: Entertainment Weekly Cover

I'm a loyal reader of Entertainment Weekly, and last week, who but the gorgeous and elegant Sandra Bullock graced the front cover looking more gorgeous and elegant than ever. She stood, boldly and beautifully, looking at the camera while parting two white curtains. Sound familiar?
Well it should. That's because its an homage to Howell Conant's famous shot of Grace Kelly in a similar pose (though Grace was wearing black not white). Check out my post on Howell Conant's artistic relationship with Grace Kelly here. I have to be honest, while it looked vaguely familiar, I didn't recognize it on my own. EW paid credit to its source, as is right and just. But still, I thought it was a simply great photo and such a great statement for Sandra to make. It really shows how classy she is. If you have a chance, check out the issue, she looks simply amazing in it. Apparently, they made a distinct effort to make her look ultra-sophisticated and... classic. And they certainly succeeded.
I promise- I hefty post is following this shortly. I just thought this would be a neat story to get out... and it was quick to put together!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Sorry for the Silence: Christmas and Finals!!

I don't know how many readers follow very devotedly, but I have been pretty silent lately. I'm in the midst of finals week at school, so I've been really swamped with a lot of real school work. But as soon as I'm finished, I have a whole bevvy of Christmas-movie related posts for you! You better watch out!
by Norman Rockwell

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Stuff Dreams are Made Of: Maltese Falcon Update

I thought that I'd provide an update to all my fellow Maltese Falcon fans. In case an original Maltese Falcon prop statuette used in the film was on the top of your Christmas list, well, hate to break it to you, but you better take it off. I know, it's a tragedy (what will I ask for Christmas now?). But last week, in a classic film memorabilia auction sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, one of the two original Falcons was up for bid. It was sold at a winning price of over 4 MILLION DOLLARS.
In case you were wondering, I think that amount is more than the "unbelievable value" that Gutman placed on the real Maltese Falcon in 1941. You know, the golden statuette encrusted with jewels. It seems that owning the Falcon is, indeed, the stuff dreams are made of.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The St. Sebastian Icon in "Wit" (HBO, 2001)

Recently I read an absolutely fantastic play. As a quick disclaimer, to describing it as depressing is both an understatement and an injustice. I’m referring to Margaret Edson’s 1999 one-act drama, Wit, which deals with an English professor who has been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer and is forced to face her life and her death. As an expert in the poetry of the metaphysical poet, John Donne (whose Holy Sonnets dealt with his fears and anxieties over death and salvation), she ironically finds herself in the position of so many of the Sonnets. The play is heartbreaking, but profound, and I highly encourage it.
Of course, while I love reading plays, there’s nothing like watching a play be performed as it was meant to be. Or, even, watch a film adaptation of it. Which is what I ended up doing. As it so happens, HBO adapted Edson’s play into a critically acclaimed film starring the wonderfully talented Emma Thompson as Vivian Bearing, the English professor. I believe the adaptation did the play great justice and aptly used the magic of film (opposed to some logistic elements and problems of live theater) to their advantage. Thompson’s portrayal is incredible: she manages to pull off Vivian’s sarcasm (or should I say, wit) and occasional arrogance, while managing to quickly change to despair and anxiety. It is a monumental performance from one of the great (and in my opinion, underrated) actresses of our day.
One of the advantages of film, is the ability to change sets with ease. On stage, a classroom or a hospital room are imitated. On the screen, they are real. I watched Wit with a very critical eye, not because I was looking for art per se, but because I was curious to see how the film balanced out against the play, which, as I said, I just recently read. But of course, art never escapes me, especially when it has purpose. Because, very shortly, I noticed a small icon in Vivian’s bare hospital room. It stood out against the sterile, nakedness of the room, and it caught my attention immediately.
As I said, the icon first shows up in a miniature form on Vivian’s bedside table. Even in its miniature from, with my very basic knowledge of Catholic iconography, I recognized it as an Italian Renaissance painting of the famous martyr, St. Sebastian (more on him later). At first I thought this was curious. After all, one usually expects to find pictures of family or friends in a hospital room, not of a martyred saint. Within a few minutes it made slightly more sense. Vivian flashes back to a meeting with her own professor and mentor, E. M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins). E.M.’s office is dominated by this giant painting (in a wonderful setting) of the same icon that Vivian has in miniature. While certainly impressive and beautiful, it still seemed strange.
Did Vivian keep the icon as a reminder of her great teacher and friend? At first, I thought that this was the likely case. But still, it seemed strange to keep an icon of a brutally killed saint as a reminder of one’s dearest friend. I believe that this was only part of it. I came up with two reasons why the filmmakers chose to include the icon.
The first, and equally impressive (in my opinion) reason, is to show E.M’s influence and presence over Vivian. Remember those ghostly portraits of old that I love to talk about. It’s a similar idea, the painting represents the person. And I would go one step further. The person, represents another person. In this case, E.M. represents John Donne. She first introduced Vivian to Donne. And Donne’s importance in Wit cannot be understated. Vivian constantly compares her moral and mental struggles with Donne’s poems. “Death be not proud” she quotes over and over again. She does not want to submit to the pain of defeat and ultimate loss. St. Sebastian, a saint, whose death is essential in his importance a constant reminder of that as well. The icon, representing Donne, shows that she is constantly pondering Donne’s message of life and death and struggle. This is a classic instance of a painting representing repressed emotions. Vivian may not say it, but she is thinking of these problems all the time. The painting reminds the audience of this.

Just as a quick aside, this painting was not included in the play. It was completely original to the film.
Secondly, I believe that the fact that it is St. Sebastian is very important. I believe that while the painting represents E.M. which represents Donne, is very important to its presence in the room, it is not the only or main reason. For all those familiar with the Lives of the Saints, I’ll give you a quick refresher course. Sebastian was a Roman who was a Christian and he decided to destroy the pagan idols. The Roman Army was not happy about this, and they stripped him down, tied him to a tree, and shot him full of arrows. Yet, he did not die. Eventually, St. Irene came and took him down and ripped out all the arrows. Later, Sebastian was captured again, beaten up and finally died, still a faithful believer in the end.

If you couldn’t get it from my brief description, St. Sebastian’s death was an extremely gruesome, bloody, and most of all painful one. His presence in the room is not only a reminder of Donne. It is a reminder of pain. The painting after all, shows him shot full of arrows. This is an extremely painful moment. Vivian may be considering life and death (ala Donne), but more importantly, despite her witty demeanor at times, the treatment has her constantly in physical and mental pain. This, I believe, is the most important reason, why Sebastian serves as the lone decoration in her room.

If you are curious, Saint Sebastian Bound to a Column by Pietro Perugino, an Italian Renaissance artist from the late 15th century. Perugino painted St. Sebastian many times, and I believe this painting is from around 1490, maybe later. I also believe that the copy that was reproduced for the film was based on an original in the Louvre. But then again, I'm not positive. Still, a marvelous painting used marvelously in an impressive film. 
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