Coraline by Neil Gaiman
There’s a half hour program on public radio called Chapter a Day where someone reads an excerpt from a book every weekday. That’s how I ended up hearing the story of Coraline over an eight day period. If you somehow don’t know the plot, it’s about a girl who goes through a magic door in her house and ends up in what seems like a better, more fun version of her world, but then things take a sinister turn. I didn’t remember the movie very well, but I rewatched it after listening to the book and it was a pretty faithful adaptation. The movie adds a few more fanciful elements, which makes sense when there’s a heavier emphasis on visuals.
The most significant change is that the movie gave Coraline a friend in the form of an obnoxious neighbor boy. I think he was my least favorite part of the movie the first time I saw it and he was even more so after I listened to the original story. I wouldn’t mind him so much if someone hadn’t felt the need to have him swoop in and save Coraline at the end. It’s not that he really even saves the day; they both end up working together, but in the book, she doesn’t need anyone to rescue her; she does it all through her own ingenuity… okay, her own ingenuity plus the help of a talking cat. I dunno, it’s like if they did an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz where they gave Dorothy a guy friend and made him be the one that throws water on the witch.
This is the second time this year that I’ve read (well, read and listened to) a book that got turned into a movie. This one and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Both stories are about loner girls who have to rid themselves of a predator of some kind. My main complaint about both movie adaptations, after having become familiarized with the books, is that the female protagonists were made just a bit less clever and resourceful in their transition to the big screen.
Kubo and the Two Strings
It seemed rather fitting to see the latest Studio Laika movie right after having listened to the story of Coraline and having watched the movie again. In fact, I wonder if this movie’s release is what inspired whoever picks the books for Chapter a Day to think of doing Coraline.
I knew so little about the plot prior to going to the movie, I thought Kubo was a girl. What partly drove me to finally check it out was seeing the trailer and hearing that cool cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I went to see this about two and a half weeks ago when I was pretty depressed about world events and was hoping the movie might be something that would improve my mood. I didn’t expect it to be quite so heavy. When one of the first things you see in the film’s opening is a baby that is missing an eye and you find out the reason why, you know things aren’t going to be super light hearted. I liked it (even if I’m still hazy about the antagonist’s motivations and how he was defeated)… I just didn’t know it was going to be so sad. By the end, my face was rather damp.
I almost want to give the movie five stars just because of how much work must have gone into every frame of film. If I were rating things by the animation alone, I’d probably give it top marks. There’s something about stop motion that I find more charming than other forms of animation. I know that it’s been enhanced by CGI somewhat, but it’s still very impressive what they’re able to achieve.
The next two movies could not be more dissimilar, but both evoked a mixture of nostalgia and disappointment in me.
Body of Influence
I actually saw this softcore film many years ago and it left quite an impression, but I never watched the whole thing until recently when I found it again on YouTube.
Nick Cassavetes (director of The Notebook) plays a shrink whose entire clientele seems composed of attractive, sexually frustrated women. He manages to maintain an air of detachment until the day he gets a patient (Shannon Whirry) with an apparent split personality: one timid, the other a brazen femme fatale. Rather than treating this woman, he ditches his professional ethics with appalling readiness and allows himself to be seduced by the promiscuous half. The affair becomes all-consuming; with her encouragement, he starts sleeping with other patients, seemingly not caring if he ruins his reputation and career in the process.
As a teenager, I used to scan the late night cable listings for any titles that sounded remotely dirty (words like desire, seduction, sin, bikini, etc were pretty good clues). I’d set my clock radio to get me up after everyone had gone to bed, then creep down to the family room at the other end of the house in order to set the VCR to tape whatever it was that had piqued my interest.
I kept the volume on my radio very low so that I wouldn’t accidentally wake up anyone else, but sometimes that backfired. Sometimes I wouldn’t wake up either… not right away, at least. That is probably what happened the night Body of Influence was on because I didn’t start recording the movie until about twenty minutes after it had started. Luckily, I was just in time to catch what I considered to be the sexiest scene in the entire movie: the moment when Whirry seduces Cassavetes by doing a sensual striptease in his psychiatrist office while relating a steamy anecdote.
I kept the TV on just long enough to watch that scene in full before going back to bed. The whole next day at school, I felt like I was in a cold sweat. It’s mainly due to that movie that I’ve always considered Shannon Whirry one of the most desirable actresses of all time.
Watching that scene again now, I couldn’t help laughing at how dumb some of the dialogue was. In fact, nothing about the movie was what I'd describe as a major turn-on.
It’s definitely not Shannon Whirry's fault. In a way, I’m glad I’ve reached a point in my life in which it doesn’t take the slightest thing, like the sight of bare breasts (even ones as nice as Miss Whirry’s), to reduce me to a quivering pile of hormones. On the other hand, it’s a little sad that I can watch this movie that I once found so sexy, and it does absolutely nothing for me now.
When I was a teen, I found it more understandable that Cassavetes’ character could be so intoxicated by Shannon Whirry’s overwhelming sexual magnetism that he’d have little choice but to succumb to her will. Ironically, now that I’m closer to the age he was when he made the movie, all I can think is that there was something seriously wrong the guy him to have such poor self-control. Either that or there’s something wrong with me. I haven’t ruled out that possibility.
Dear Mr. Watterson
Documentary about the lasting cultural impact of Calvin and Hobbes.
The Milwaukee Journal didn’t carry Calvin and Hobbes when I was a kid. It was in The Milwaukee Sentinel, but we didn’t get that (this was before both papers merged to become The Journal Sentinel). So, my first introduction to the strip was through a few daily strips my uncle had clipped out and framed. He wasn’t really my uncle, but a close family friend, but that’s not important. The important thing is that that handful of strips was enough to start me on the road towards becoming a fan. Soon, I was collecting the C&H collections during subsequent trips to the mall bookstore.
Among the things that’s discussed in this documentary is how comics have decreased in prominence and in size in newspapers over the years. That’s been a grievance cartoonists have had for as long as I can remember, but with the advent of the internet and the "atomization" of readership, it’s only gotten worse. Syndicated cartoonist was always a tough racket to break into, but it’s been made so much more difficult in recent years. Sure, doing a webcomic is an option, but when that’s something everyone and their brother can do, it makes it so much more difficult to stand out from the crowd.
You might imagine how depressing all this is to someone like me whose childhood dream was to become a syndicated cartoonist, which, in hindsight, sounds about as realistic and attainable as becoming an astronaut.
The filmmaker interviewed various professional cartoonists for his documentary (but not the reclusive Bill Watterson, of course). One of them is Berke Breathed, another former idol of mine, who describes Calvin and Hobbes as the last great comic strip. He may be right, at least in the sense that it may be the last comic strip to come along that’s a household name. There are probably some good comics that have been produced since Watterson retired, but it’s hard for me to name many. Reading the daily comics is an activity that’s slowly phased out of my life, I'm sorry to say.
I was such an avid comics reader in my youth that when we got back from vacation one year, I was so distraught to find that my parents had cancelled the paper for the duration of our trip that I had to go over to the house of neighbor who had happened to still have their papers saved from the past couple weeks, so I was able to get caught up on the comics I’d missed. Also, knowing how much I liked them, my maternal grandmother, who lived three hundred miles away, used to save the Sunday comics for me to read when we’d visit.
I'm as guilty as anyone for contributing to the decline of the newspaper. If I did subscribe to one, it would only be for the comics page. Reading the comics is something that the internet has actually makes less convenient. Instead of getting them all collected together on one page, if you want to read a particular comic online, you’ve got to go to its specific webpage.
Nowadays, I have to admit that about the only comics I read on a daily basis are the ones that are mocked on the Comics Curmudgeon site. If you’re a cartoonist, I suppose that might be considered another way the internet has made comics worse. Being able to get instant feedback means a lot of said feedback can be criticism and ridicule. And many of the jokes made at the expense of comics are far funnier and more clever than the comics themselves. I’ve said this before, but maybe it’s good that I’m not a cartoonist; I’m so thin-skinned, I don’t know if I could handle a steady stream of derision.
Even if the internet wasn’t forcing major changes in the newspaper industry, I’m not sure I ever really had what it takes to make it as a syndicated cartoonist. Knowing my worth ethic, cranking out 365 comics a year is something I might have found too daunting. On top of that, maybe I’m just not creative or funny enough. I’ve never hit on an idea that I thought I could sustain for years on end. I know one thing: I sure as hell could never have created anything as perfect as Calvin and Hobbes.