Friday, August 26, 2011

The World's a Stage in "Cape Feare"

Episode 9F22 – originally planned as the final episode of season 4 but ending up as Ep. 2 / 5 – is one of the most popular Simpsons episodes and much has been said about the fact that this was the farewell episode of the show’s original writing team. I believe that this alone is enough of a pretext to study the storytelling and how they got the scarier moments across and told a “serious” story between slapstick rake gags, Itchy and Scratchy and a grampa missing his hormone pills.

Note: I won’t write in detail about the particular references since there are already a DVD commentary and an extensive wikipedia page full of valuable information about the making of this episode and the many different “movie connections”.

The Simpsons, a series of half-hour (or more precise 22 minute) episodes, consists of quite a lot very short scenes, some of them no longer than 15 seconds consisting of only one or two shots. So a lot of the character based humor is only possible because we’ve grown accustomed to a great many recurring Springfieldians besides the title giving family.

There is a wealth of narratively unrelated parodies, pop references and side gags in each episode, but – like “Cape Feare” – there are whole episodes based on famous movies. In the case of Cape Fear there are already two adaptations (J. Lee Thompson 1962, Martin Scorsese 1991) of the same J.D.MacDonald novel available. The Simpsons episode is closer to the more recent Scorsese version where Bobby DeNiro is hiding underneath a driving car.

One reason why a two-hour movie plot works as a 20-minute scary-comedy-operetta lies in the casting. Because we expect a certain behavior from Homer, Chief Wiggum or Lisa, it is simply entertaining to watch how these characters react to a well-known madman trying to kill Bart. And casting Sideshow Bob (Terwilliger) as the killer, we don’t even need character exposition, just a little brush-up about the townspeople’s previous encounters with Bob.

A parody only works for people who know about or have actually seen the spoofed film. But a Simpsons episode (and every good parody for that matter) should also work as a story on its own. In contrast to many other episodes the main storyline starts right at the beginning and not on a detour.

The first third of the story is also a whodunnit.

Not even a minute after the opening credits, Bart gets his first death threat letter. This starts the game of suspense and surprise that structures the narrative emotionally. We know that Bart is really frightened because he doesn’t laugh at the violence of Itchy and Scratchy. For the next three and a half minutes he is first paralyzed by paranoia, then after learning that the police won’t be of any help in this matter he tries to reveal the killer with Lisa’s help.

About a third into the episode it is revealed that Sideshow Bob was the originator of all the death threats and that he’s about to leave the penitentiary. The suspense now lies in our expectations of how soon they will meet. After the first confrontation/chance meeting in the cinema, Bob is seen steeling his body while the Simpsons (and the audience) are given two minutes of rest when they are introduced to the Witness Relocation Program.

Even during the happy trip to Terror Lake Sideshow Bob is never far. The last third of the episode takes place in Terror Lake and again echoes the first third with Bart being frightened by Homer bursting into his room with a knife and a chainsaw.

The final confrontation on the houseboat only lasts for about two and a half minutes with Bob’s singing the “H.M.S Pinafore” taking up more than a minute. Nevertheless, within the 21 minute episode the sequence feels quite long and memorable. The suspense plot arguably loses momentum when Bart outsmarts Bob with his last request (a classical countdown suspense scene that somehow doesn’t create the tension it should). But the police capturing Bob because the boat passed by a brothel and Abe Simpson turning into a woman end the episode on such a funny note that we forgive the otherwise squibbed climax.

Expressionist Lighting
As we have seen, much of the suspense comes from the anticipated confrontation of Bart and his pursuer. These scenes work because of the way they are written, therefore they are mostly staged in standard TV show style (high key lighting, no extravagant angles).

The Scorsese topshot (left); Bart is scared, doesn't this cage remind you of The Birds? (right)
Surprises and scary situations on the other hand benefit greatly from – or are even generated by – audiovisual elements and effects. So it’s no wonder that “Cape Feare” employs subjective lighting and other horror clichés more heavily than the average Simpsons episode.

Whether someone seems scary is largely based on a subjective perspective. Consequently, people who look threatening to Bart also appear in a different light and from more unsettling angles.
The first subjective scary moment: Marge depicted from an extremely low angle.
Ned Flanders also from Bart's low point-of-view; There's an additional backlight effect as Bart gets tenser.
After all, there is an clear-cut open villain at work, not some mystery killer who is only revealed in the last act like in a whodunnit.
Tilt angles and strong low-key lighting to make Bob's entrance scarier (and more campy).
When Bob gets angry in the parole board room, the lighting changes like on a theater stage...
...and back again, before he talks to the board.
Later in the cinema, Bob only turns green when scaring Bart (or trying to).
Bart does not seem to be scared by Bob lying in the streets (no shadows). At the Bates Motel (tilt angles) there's low-key lighting all around while Bob is writing a diabolical note.
Again extreme angles, low-key (cast shadows), a Hitchcock/Scorsese topshot (god's eye view) from where we see that it is Homer after all...

...but Bart sees it much more expressionistic.
Now that all devices are used, the progression is in the way Bart's reaction is animated.

When Bob comes aboard, he is not scary (straight angle, another rake gag), but soon afterwards he's back in villain mode and tilt angle/shadows.

This time it's not Bart's imagination playing a trick on him. It's the real thing, there are no subjective colors.

Comedy: flat, no shadows...

...threatening again: tilt and low key lighting.

A Stage Show
There’s no question that such lighting looks artificial and theatrical, especially in a cartoon where ambient light and cast shadows are generally absent. In addition to spoofing and exploiting our knowledge of horror films, the theatrical staging is a recurring theme on many levels.

As if foreshadowing* the “final curtain” Bob refers to after singing the complete score of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the episode starts with an elaborate broadway show couch gag that has been heavily critized because it was re-used from an earlier episode.

The TV show the kids are watching before Bart gets his first letter opens with so many curtains that it’s hard to miss the staging reference here.

The nature of a staged TV show is later parodied during the Witness Relocation Program when the Simpsons become the Thompsons and there is an all-new couch gag. Parallels to the popular film-within-a-film or musical-about-staging-a-show genres could be drawn here.

The stage and acting theme is also referenced when Martin is wearing women’s clothes in order to play a murderer in a school theater production (and yes, we see the Bates motel later on). It visually foreshadows not only Homer’s disguise as Jason but also Gampa’s hormone problem.

So it doesn’t come as a complete shock when Bob and Bart put up an full-blown operetta performance with obvious props and improvised costumes and all. Visually, the final curtain falls in the form of a Union Jack (see images above).

The visual representation of the dramatic/theatrical theme is supported by a memorable soundtrack that incorporates Bernard Herrmann’s Cape Fear leitmotif for Sideshow Bob, the Thompson family singing in the car and an abridged Gilbert and Sullivan score performed by Kelsey Grammer.

* There is one favorite instance of foreshadowing that is only marginally related to the staging theme: When Bob tells the parole board that “Die, Bart, Die” is German for “The Bart, The”, a board member says under her breath that “no one who speaks German can be an evil man”. Only minutes earlier we have been reminded of Germany’s violent past in one brief shot of a TV announcer in uniform (who introduces a homophobic TV host with a German/Austrian accent talking about the “music guy’s” costume).

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pooh vs. Pukh, a character analysis

My interest in storytelling and defining screen characters led me to analyze two very different yet faithful adaptations of Alexander Alan Milne’s children’s classic “Winnie-the-Pooh”. It just so happens that Wolfgang Reitherman’s first Disney adaptation Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966) is based on the same two chapters as Fyodor Khitruk’s first two Vinni-Pukh (1969/1971) films, both of them about ten minutes long per chapter. However, Pooh and his friends come across as quite different characters in these two versions of the same simple story. 

The first two chapters of A. A. Milne’s book “Winnie-the-Pooh” from 1926 are built around Pooh’s incessant appetite for honey. In the first one he fails to get honey out of a treehole inhabited by bees, in the second one he climbs through another hole into a rabbit burrow and eats so much honey that he gets stuck when trying to climb out.

While Milne concentrates on Pooh’s relationship with Christopher Robin (CR) in the first chapter and introduces the good-mannered rabbit in the second, he only mentions the other characters in a sort of preview of later chapters. After all, Pooh is Christopher Robin’s favorite toy bear and CR is the narrator’s six year old son who wants his daddy to tell Pooh stories about himself, Pooh that is. In fact, Milne’s own son was called Christopher Robin and the book contains many a conversation between father and son in parentheses.

Thus, one might say the self-reflective narration has always been part of the appeal of the Pooh stories. So there’s no wonder that both the Russian and the American adaptations feature voice-over narration and characters looking into mirrors or even straight at the camera.

Literal but playful and appealing
The way Khitruk and Reitherman differ in how they incorporate the narrator and CR into the story is essential to the way they handle the characters and their on-screen relationships. They both seem to do Milne justice on different levels, though. True to Disney’s literal “illusion of life” paradigm, Reitherman frames the animated segments with a credit sequence over live-action footage of a deserted nursery full of stuffed animals and a book of Winnie-the-Pooh which belong to a boy called Christopher Robin “and they all live together in a wonderful world of make-believe”.

This ghostly human world feels as artificial and lifeless that it seems only natural to see the book open all by itself. As it turns out, there is no connection between the English narrator (Sebastian Cabot) and the American animated boy Christopher Robin whose voice belongs to director Reitherman’s son Bruce (later the voice of Mowgli). This Pooh story is obviously told to us and not to CR.

Since the original stories already lack any opportunities for emotional involvement (or Disney sentimentality) the film makers have cleverly expanded the concept of characters inhabiting a printed book, no matter how distancing this may turn out. The original self-reflective conversations between CR and his narrator-father have been translated into occasional interactions between Pooh and the narrator.

Yet the printed book and the carefully rendered illustrations support the notion that this is a children’s story told from an adult’s point of view, fondly looking down on the lovable characters like one is looking at a young child. After all, Pooh is only “stuffed with fluff” and “of very little brain”. The stories in this book might fuel a child’s imagination and role play, audience involvement is not as immediate though because of this additional layer.

Diving into that world

Khitruk’s narrator, on the other hand, is in no other relation to the characters than faithfully narrating their story. When these characters look at the camera, they may look directly at us or appear to think something that we don’t know about. By eliminating the meta-level that both Milne and Reitherman used to indicate the child-like make-believe world of embarking on adventures with forest animals and stuffed toys alike, Khitruk is able to eliminate CR and humans in general.

Thus, the director creates a world of immediacy itself, a universe where Vinni Pukh and his friends are very much alive, not as forest animals or stuffed toys but as “real” characters with no traces of human interference, there’s no distancing book involved.

A narrative that follows children’s logic is ideally suited for a visual style that has the warmth of children’s drawings. After all, this artistic illustration style was much more contemporary in 1969 than the timeless Disney-fied Shepard imitations (I happen to like so much). So Khitruk even manages to discard the “literary classic” or nostalgia dimension of Reitherman’s film without compromising Milne’s spirit.

Although breaking the concept of either style, both films give us a point-of-view up-shot at the "black rain cloud".

Probably the greatest advantage of such a conventionalized, two-dimensional style is the fact that the characters don’t need to be animated in an “illusion-of-life” fashion. The obviously skillful Russian animators have found a naïve style that allows very laconic and deadpan comic performances.
Rabbit is all excited, in Khitruk's style tilted glasses do the job.

The gopher that is "not in the book".
Although only Pooh, CR and Rabbit appear in the first two chapters, Reitherman sneaks in the whole gang of Pooh characters from the first book as extras – except for Piglet (instead there is a much criticized American gopher that is “not in the book”). Piglet however is mentioned in the preface of Milne’s book and comes off as a small but somehow jealous guy who would love to be as popular as Pooh.

By substituting Piglet for CR, Khitruk gives Pukh a screen partner who unlike CR is not considered mentally superior. Thus, characterized by his relationship with Piglet (Pyatachok), Pukh comes off as a distinct character quite different from what we are used to from the Disney version. Apart from the fact that he hardly ever smiles at anybody he also walks and talks in a swift pace. Especially in the second Pukh film, Piglet is breathlessly trying to keep up with him.
Piglet replaces Christopher Robin

Milne’s Pooh
But before comparing the different film characters, let’s have a look at how Milne characterizes Pooh in the book: According to the narrator, Pooh is CR’s favorite toy and likes to play a game, sit quietly in front of a fire or listen to a story, preferably about himself (as CR remarks). He also likes to make up songs and poems which he sings/hums when wandering about aimlessly. His thought process seems to be slow and steady and he talks to himself. All in all, he is pretty confident that his plans work. And above all, he has an insatiable appetite for honey.

In the second chapter we also learn that he is capable of self-reflection: He exercizes in front of a mirror and afterwards thinks about what it felt like being somebody else. Yet he is persistent enough not to believe Rabbit’s polite way of trying to get rid of him by posing as somebody else or even “nobody” (“But this is Me! – What sort of Me?”). In fact, Pooh doesn’t get the concept of saying things out of politeness at all. When he’s stuck he’s embarrassed and even crying at the prospects of not eating for a week, but it never occurs to him that this situation might have been uncomfortable for Rabbit as well. In his case, social ignorance leads to resilience and one couldn’t even be mad at him for that. E.H. Shepard’s illustrations hardly show any strong facial expressions.

Reitherman’s Pooh
The stereotyped thinking gesture.
Sebastian Cabot introduces Pooh as a lovable bear with very little brain and an insatiable appetite for honey. We see Pooh exercising and talking to himself in front of a mirror (self-reflection). He’s obviously a Teddy Bear. His voice (Sterling Holloway) is rather high but slow and charming, he always smiles and there is a stereotyped gesture to show his thought process. He speaks not only to himself but also to the narrator and sings whenever he is on his own, sometimes supported by a choir that emphasizes the mood of warm American nostalgia right from the title song.

Talking to himself and stuffed with fluff.
Another framing device.
This happy-go-lucky Pooh might be regretful but never angry or hurt, he even laughs when he bangs his head to a branch. The first person he thinks of is not CR but “Winnie the Pooh”. But like in the book, he relies on CR to get him out of tight places. Yet, the narrator tells us, Pooh is not “the sort to give up easily”. When he put his mind to honey, he stuck to it. He may always be happy and not be able to think a bad thought but he certainly can’t read other people’s feelings/intentions. After eating all Rabbit had, he’s simply disappointed that there’s no honey left, and – like in the book – doesn’t think about what he inflicted on Rabbit by getting stuck in his front door.

Khitruk’s Pukh
Although the harpsichord title tune and the fairy-tale narrator suggest a deliberate pace, Pukh himself is quite the opposite. Before we see him, we see his tracks and the narrator tells us that he always likes a snack and that he’s a poet writing verses and even small songs. As I’ve written above, Pukh is walking and talking swiftly and comes off as rather gnarly, especially when he sings. He shows hardly a facial expression and pauses from time to time looking into the camera and guessing what to say or do next. His blank looks are funny in itself and combined with brilliant timing define an animated performance as laconic as anything Buster Keaton or Kaurismäki have done.

He is a slow thinker, though. During his first conversation with Piglet he hardly makes eye contact and speaks in choppy phrases. He treats Piglet like a younger brother whose always one step behind but running to catch up. Piglet seems to look up to Pukh and do whatever he demands. Although Piglet is eager to help Pukh, he is still better at doing some things like inflating a balloon.

The emphasis on relationships and character interaction becomes especially apparent in the second film/chapter, where Pukh only gets stuck in the end for a few seconds. Instead the honey-eating part is expanded to show how Pukh is ignorant of the whole politeness concept and how he bosses around Piglet without coming off as a tyrant. In fact, Pukh not only washes his little friend’s face, he also ties a napkin over his mouth so that Piglet isn’t able to eat or say anything during the whole meal. Pukh soon forgets about his proudly displayed social manners when he learns that there is still more food for him.
Although Pukh only thinks about Rabbit's honey...

...he still remembers his manners.
What really makes these characters come to life are such small gestures like in the end when Pukh tries to grab Piglet’s hand to run off with him.

Final Thoughts
Having grown up with Disney’s Pooh featurettes, I was slightly disappointed the first time I saw Khitruks Vinni Pukh not because of its visual simplicity and charming stylization but because it was built around a different title character and most of all, everything I loved about Winnie the Pooh – notably the book and narrator interactions – was missing from this version.

Only after seeing all three Khitruk shorts a second time I began to see why everybody in Eastern Europe was so fond of Pukh. Gradually, the brisk pace and singing became a valuable alternative to the laid-back style of the Sherman Brothers’ songs that in my mind had become synonymous with Winnie the Pooh.

Although both film versions follow the book very closely, even down to the dialogue (according to the subtitles, at least), Khitruk’s substitution of CR with Piglet sounds like a major change but ultimately leads to less detached storytelling than in the Disney version. Pukh’s relationship with Piglet gives us an additional dimension not present in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree* because it doesn't show when Pooh talks only to CR who he looks up to and not Piglet who looks up to him.

After all, and this is true for both adaptations, isn't it refreshing to have a protagonist who only cares about his well-being and never thinks about how his friends feel? Actually, the quirky Russian Pukh is also a more interesting character, simply because he isn’t always happy. I think it’s interesting to see what small decisions can lead to two different characters in roughly the same story.

*Piglet is present in later Disney featurettes, of course, but comes off as a rather different, timid and even stupid character.