Friday, June 29, 2007

Too many rats in the kitchen

I like Pixar. I’m not what you’d call a huge fan. Although all of their movies have been good, Cars is the only one I consider great. But I’m not a kid. Kids love them all.

It had to happen eventually. Ratatouille is a bomb, at least from a kid's perspective. It reminded me of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Disney had a run of great kids movies starting with Little Mermaid on through Beauty and the Beast and Lion King. But then I took my daughter to Hunchback on opening weekend and I’ll never forget the sounds in the theater when the film ended. Children were crying. Literally. They were crying. Very bad sign for a kid's movie.

It wasn’t that bad for Ratatouille, but my kid had trouble staying awake, which is bad enough. Children yawning is not as bad as children crying, but still, not a good sign.

As an adult, I liked Ratatouille, but then I liked Hunchback as well. Some of the animation in Hunchback was some of the best ever. In that case the animation drew its strength from its source. The problem with Hunchback was that the oafs at Disney tried to graft their trademarked silly sidekicks onto a powerful story about religious hypocrisy and repressed, along with a bit of the old raw, sexuality. Ratatouille, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from the Disney sidekick syndrome. Of course its provenance is hardly Victor Hugo, but it's still a good story.

Adults, for the most part, will like Ratatouille so I trust it will do okay at the box office even though the kids won't be dying to see it again and again. But it has a few things working against it. The thought of rats in the kitchen -- and touching food -- causes a visceral disgust and actually seeing it so well-depicted on screen is much worse, even shocking at first. And the culture nannies and demagogues will be upset that people -- gasp -- drink wine and even get drunk in front of the kiddies and that it is set in France and that the French are not mercilessly ridiculed. In these ridiculous times, I'm surprised it pulled off a G rating. Disney must have bribed the Guardians of Our Morals, or at least key Republicans. It probably doesn't cost that much. Chump change in every sense of the phrase.

More on the positive side, the technical aspects of the film, both visual and as storytelling, are flawless. Just about every frame is a marvel. The story arc is classic. The voice acting is very well done (you don't really notice the "acting"). The emotional denouement satisfying.

The character arc, however, is a bit out-of-the-ordinary for a well-told story, particularly in a kids tale. In a normal story, the main character has a flaw which he or she recognizes and corrects throughout the course of the narrative. Cars, is a perfect example of this classic character arc. In Ratatouille the main character has a trait that is perceived as a flaw by those around him, but proves to be a special gift. It is the secondary characters who change. The main character essentially stays the same. His only discovery, if you can call it that, is that yes, he really is special. That's about all the secondary characters discover as well. That plus the fact that they are merely ordinary.

The Incredibles told the exact same story as Ratatouille, which is not surprising since the same person, Brad Bird, wrote them both. Everyone is not created equal. Some people are more special than others. Each Bird movie has its own catchphrase to drive home the point. For The Incredibles, it was "If everyone is special, then no one is." For Ratatouille, the catchphrase is "Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere," which at least makes sense. I thought The Incredibles came off with a whiff of Libertarian propaganda since the catchphrase was pretty much lifted from Ayn Rand and stood out as such in the movie. The "message" was handled much better in Ratatouille. It worked well within the context of the story.

Still, what was essentially the same story was handled much better in Cars, which managed to tell a far more nuanced version without the show stopping (in a bad way) effect of a catchphrase.

Cars, too, is about someone with special talents and grand ambitions and the ways in which he and those around him come to terms with those talents and ambitions. The closest thing to a catchphrase in Cars it is that the MacGuffin (the thing that everyone is after) is just an empty cup. Just the opposite of Bird's message that everyone can't be special.

Take another look at the illustration above. Take a long look. Go ahead, the last three paragraphs can wait.

See what I mean?

Again, I enjoyed Ratatouille. Sure, it could have been better, but it's a good story well-told as is. There's nothing inherently wrong with a story in which the individual triumphs over the community. Real life, as we know, is often like that. I just don't think it works that well for children.

All of the reviews I've seen, excepting my own, are incredibly positive. I thought A.O. Scott in the Times did the best job. His review made me like Ratatouille even more than I did after seeing it, but when you examine his reasoning, the review just reinforces my point that it’s not a good kids movie, not a great one anyway.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mermaid Day 2007

Yesterday was the 25th annual Mermaid Day Parade in Coney Island. The weather was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky, temperature in the seventies. The crowds were the largest I’ve seen.

Given the impending development/destruction of Coney Island as we now know it, I couldn’t help but see this year’s Mermaid parade through the prism of its impending doom.

The Mermaid Parade is one of America’s last great bacchanals. Hundreds of people dress up like sea creatures, often with little more than body paint or glitter, and parade down the boardwalk, around the amusement park and carnival games, past the freak show and shoot-the-freak, and all the cotton candy, candy apples and other assorted attractions.

You see a lot of tits and ass, bare skin and the odd simulated sex act or swinging dildo. One of this year’s sea creatures sported a six foot green penis. But there’s a family element as well, though I imagine it’s mostly ultra-liberal artsy types that bring their kids or dress them up and put them on a float. I brought my boy (we’ll call him John Bob) this year. I’ve brought the girl (Jane Bob) in the past. Do I worry that they will see some T&A or a fake green penis? Not in the least. I think it’s healthy for them to see people having a good time and expressing themselves artistically. Television is far worse in every way. Television bad. Mermaid Day Parade good.

But how long can such a parade go on into the fast approaching era of pseudo-Disneyfication? Not long is my guess. Coney Island will become a family destination. Of course it is already is a family destination, but in the new and shiny future it won’t be just any old families who go there. It’ll be the right kind of families. The middle class. Mostly white, though hardly exclusive. People who go to church and salute the flag. Traditional values. More money. Lots more money. That’s the family spirit. No more semi-naked art shit. We might keep the tits but we’ll definitely lose the penis. Those people should be arrested. They can at least be banned.

* * * * * * *

The first time I experienced the Mermaid Day parade was by accident. I had taken the kids to the beach on a hot summer day. We were sitting innocently on our beach blanket. John Bob was playing with his sand bucket. Jane Bob was reading Nancy Drew. I was drinking beers I bought from the Mexican vendors on the beach. Then all of a sudden we heard the sound of an approaching brass band. Then we were surrounded by half naked sea creatures dancing in the surf. A big bearded Neptune with a trident waded out in the surf and declared it summer. The brass band wailed. The sea creatures danced. I lost the kids in the crowd. But that didn’t matter, I had forgotten about them anyway. taking photos. Then I realized they were gone and looked for them frantically. I couldn’t find them. I took more photos. Eventually I saw them in the viewfinder as they were being chased by a giant lobster. And then there were Mariachis. It’s all a bit hazy at that point, but I had learned about Mermaid Day and went back to photograph it every year after.

Until yesterday. This year I took no photographs. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am taking a sabbatical from (unpaid) photography. So I was just a parade goer much like everyone else. A witness to what I fear will be one of the last gasps of a truly special event.

For me, Mermaid Day always starts on the F train. You can’t help but notice the gaudy sea creatures, especially the females with their tits hanging nearly naked and their asses showing. But this year, even though the train was far more crowded than it’s ever been, there were no sea creatures in my car. Everyone was dressed pretty much just like me, which is to say unimaginatively, the guys in knee length cargo shorts with plain colored t-shirts and black sneakers with ankle socks, the women in shorts or blue jeans with modest-for-the-most-part tops. I took this as a very bad sign.

But when we get off the train there are a few sightings. Two girls with blue sequined fins and bikini tops, a naughty school girl with seaweed for hair and 50-something woman in fishnet stockings carrying a blowup doll.

But my fear that the parade would be taken over by the establishment thickens when I hear a prep school accent. “Someone brought their blow-up doll, ugh.” “No way.” “Ugh.” “Gross.” So that’s how it’s gonna be? No more blow-up dolls? First they ban the blow-up dolls. Then the dildos. Then the tits and the ass. Then the art. The progression seems inevitable.

So I’m seeing everything through dark tinted glasses. And I don’t see a lot of light when we get over to the float staging area on 16th street. This is usually one of the wilder scenes but this year in addition to the tattooed roller girl pirates and other old stand-byes, there’s the Brooklyn Cyclones painted car, the Brooklyn Lager corporate float (not handing out free beer, btw) and Marty Fucking Markowitz. There’s still a loud rock band, a bunch of asshole photographers, and still plenty of assorted crazies, but the vibe has changed.

When they start rolling out we make our way around Cyclones stadium to get to the boardwalk. I fear that the sterility of that soul deadening stadium is the future of Coney Island, but don’t dwell on it. Then we get a good spot on the parade route, one of the last remaining. There are at least twice as many people attending the parade this year. I don’t know if it’s due the weather, the impending death of the event, or what? It really doesn’t matter, I tell myself. Enjoy. Enjoy.

But it’s difficult to enjoy. The beginning of the parade is corporate crap. The Brooklyn Cyclone mascot. Keyspan (Climate is Everything). Marty Fucking Markowitz (again). Then the king and queen roll by. I’ve never heard of them. They should make David Johansen king-for-life. Then comes a black marching band working for some outfit called “The Future of Coney Island.” What the fuck is that? Must be the developer. Then grandma mermaid and some little mermaids in wheelchairs. A small group of older women in tastefully concealed bikinis with a boombox blasting California Girls badly bombing and basting in flop sweat. Then all of a sudden it’s over. Everyone starts walking up the boardwalk. I’m just sick at this point, and not from the beer. My worst fears have been realized.

But then the cops start yelling for everyone to get back. The parade is not over. The real parade begins to arrive. A brass band. The Flames of Discontent. Rides not Timeshares. The god Thor hammering the Wonder Wheel and the parachute drop. Women painted white with black eyes and black pasties. Giant styrofoam Starbucks cups. Gay guys in thongs pretending to fuck half naked mermaids. The Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Sparkles. Sequins. Fishnets. Plump girls in sailor suits flashing red undies. The bloody ghoul from Mermaid Days past. Goat horns. Bloody boobs. The East Village Sea Monster Marching Band. Semi-naked hula hoopsters. Blue men. Yellow man. Green man with six foot dick. The dawning of the age of aquarium. Dead fish. Uninhibited flesh. A blue woman with hanging penis obsessed with her image in a mirror. Sirens of the Sex World. The Main Squeeze Orchestra (girls with accordions). Overheard conversations. “Mommy, that’s my teacher.” “I thought you were in jail.” “Where are the police? Why aren’t they doing anything about this?” “Nothing is as it used to be.” “I’m glad I saw it when it was.” A giant fat guy covered in glitter wearing nothing more than silver shoes and a thong. Hellvis. Stop Starbucks and Red Lobster by any means necessary. A buff guy with eight giant snakes coming out of his jockey shorts. Bare stomachs wiggling in my face. Flesh, flesh, everywhere. And for the most part, it is not the flesh of the beautiful people. It is the flesh of the people you see on the busses and subways (albeit on the lower east side).

Eventually we make our way down to the beach to catch the official start of summer, but we are way too late. Apparently the corporate sponsors rushed front loaded the event for the evening news and let the real parade happen out of sight. But there’s a brass band splashing around and a few mermaids in the surf. It’s definitely the most white people you’ll ever see on Coney Island beach. But we missed the good part.

So back up to the Cyclone where the parade ends (if it doesn’t go on to the beach). That’s always a good place to Mermaid watch, though it’s often hard to see much through the throngs of asshole photographers. I too am an asshole photographer, officially since 2005 when I purposely took pictures of T&A for that year’s parade to make a point about asshole photographers. They are disgusting though. Usually middle aged men obviously taking close-ups of women’s tits or ass. The great majority of them don’t have professional equipment. Some even use cell phones. I don’t know if it’s due to the huge crowd this year, but the asshole photographers didn’t seem as onerous as usual. There were even quite a few women photographers showing much better taste by how they framed their shots.

Our Coney Island Day ended at Jimmy’s prime meat market where we picked up some of Brooklyn’s best hamburgers to grill later. “It’s a beautiful day in Coney Island,” said Jimmy, the white haired proprietor. “This’ll show em that Coney Island’s not going anywhere. This’ll show em we’re coming back.” As much as I like and respect Jimmy, I fear his idea of “coming back” is quite a bit different than my own.