Monday, 30 May 2011

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Animation is something I quite enjoy and I probably should have included something here sometime ago. The Disney 50 season that the BFI is showing throughout the year was meant to act as a catalyst and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was meant to be the first post back. Unfortunately, time and motivation (and even subject matter) have been lacking in the last few months, often all at the same time and thus the blog has been a bit less active that it should have. So, instead of having the first animated feature film, I decided to have one of my favourites, “Sleeping Beauty”.

I am perfectly aware that this film is dismissed by some as inferior to “Snow White…” and “Cinderella” or simply described as an honourable failure. I have always disagreed and after watching all three in a short period of time, I still prefer it. The gender politics of “Snow White…” are a bit too 1930s for my taste and “Cinderella”, despite a certain amount of sarcasm from the heroine, drags a bit too much at times, particularly in the ball sequence, or those with the king. "Sleeping Beauty" on the other hand has a much better pace, particularly in the second half, from the moment where the fairies and the princess return to the castle - people talk about Bambi's mother, but my biggest childhood Disney-induced trauma was probably Malificent's movement of the robe to reveal the sleeping Aurora. The battle sequences are great cinema and still very effective, even if they used the rotoscope a tad too obviously, and I am also a bit partial to the stylized look of the film, inspired by medieaval art.

Of course, "Sleeping Beauty" doesn't appear out of nowhere in the Disney cannon - the fairies are indeed not so distant relatives to the dwarfs in "Snow White..." and like them work wonderfully as comic reliefs; there are a lot of irritating dancing animals (who ever found these cute?); Aurora is not exactly a feminist role model and although not as bad as Snow White, Cinderella had more personality. And then there's Malificent - that astonishing character that runs away with the film. It is this character that beats both films - she's both deadlier and sharper than the Evil Queen or Lady Tremaine (the same actress voices Malificent). She oozes sarcasm throughout the film - my favourite is the description of what she'll do to Prince Phillip and how she'll release him... eventually...
But it's interesting as well, that while drawing from both these films, it was to "Sleeping Beauty" that the Disney animators paid homage in the late 1980s, early 1990s when of the Disney renaissance: in "The Little Mermaid", the final confrontation between Ursula and Eric and Ariel has some echos of the battle and the final sequence in "Beauty and the Beast" is clearly inspired by the ending of this film.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

One more thing that shouldn't happen in a cinema

Showing a Technicolor cartoon (a Disney Silly Symphony, to be more precise) in a black and white copy. I wonder who made that decision... ("Birds in the Spring" shown before "Sleeping Beauty", last night at the BFI)

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

While I am mildly curious about propaganda films, I confess I never really went out of my way to watch them – the exceptions being some animations produced during WWII, particularly the “Private Snafu” cartoons and Disney’s superb “Education for Death”. If they are done properly, as the latter is, they become powerful tools, but they can still hold on their own merits. I have shown it to several people, who, slightly expecting something Disney-esque were truly surprised and shocked. On the other hand, if they are badly done, and often they are, they become clunky - independently if you agree or disagree with its politics.
Fortunately for me, Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” fell in the first category. And of course, not just for me. It is one of the most influential films of all time – not only the incredible amount of homages and parodies of prams going down long magestic stairs, but also the editing style of the whole sequence of the Odessa steps, the film’s most powerful and celebrated sequence: the faceless soldiers, the horror of the faces, the cuts, the masses, all used incredibly effective to recreate, in the most emotional possible way, the panic and oppression of tsarist Russia. And by the way, that is a fictional event, although I have no doubt inspired by many other real ones.

The film recalls the events of the mutiny of the crew of the Potemkin, ignited by the poor conditions on board and the brutality of the officers, while stationed nearby the port of Odessa. At only 70 minutes, the film commands your attention from the start. There aren’t many superfluous moments – it’s not just because of the Odessa steps sequence this is considered one of the great examples of the art of film editing. The build-up to the ending is a good example too – especially if, as I, you have (had) absolutely no knowledge how the whole episode ended.

Contrary to what I was expecting, the cast isn’t full of demonic looking actors to play the antagonists. Most officers look either the same or more human than some of the sailors – or the people in the steps, for that matter. This makes them harder to hate them at first, but then the hate becomes almost rational – you can justify it: it’s purely their actions that condemn them. (There is one exception, the ship’s priest, who clearly looks insanely evil). Thus, whether you believe in communism or not, you side with the sailors, as our empathy will automatic go to those unfairly oppressed and in the most communist element of the whole film – while you don’t care for a particular character, as they are very much anonymous (with one or two exceptions), you do care for them as whole.