Saturday, October 26, 2013

Top 20 Old Disney Cartoons

A look back at Disney from 1960 and earlier. Here are the top 20 old Disney cartoons:

20. The Ugly Duckling – 1939, Silly Symphony

Oh the feels. The classic story is given a particularly poignant update in the sequence when the duckling seems to have found happiness with a decoy.

19. Who Killed Cock Robin? – 1935, Silly Symphony

A weird little retelling, with caricatures of Mae West, Harpo Marx, and Stepin Fetchit, amongst others. Amusing, musical little short.

18. The Little House – 1952

A Mary Blair short, with her trademark visuals. Though best in her longer works, this adaptation of the picture book is saved from saccharine by Blair’s artistic quality.

17. The Brave Little Tailor – 1938, Mickey Mouse

Visually beautiful, heroic Mickey takes on a giant, with a little twist at the end. It is the most successful of the attempted adaptations of existing fables and fairy-tales in shorts.

16. The Truth About Mother Goose – 1957

Disney decided the fifties were an era to educate America with their shorts. This unusual cartoon explains the history behind old nursery rhymes.

15. Music Land – 1935, Silly Symphony

Symphony and Jazz are at odds, with a pair of discordant young lovers…not an original plot. But it is perfect to showcase the ‘Silly Symphony’ format, with music in place of words, high imagination, and a tender quality, without being pap (at one point King Sax is seen ‘tickling’ a Ukelele hula girl…)

14. Ferdinand the Bull – 1938

Academy Award-winning, this adaptation of the classic children’s book is perfect Disney of the late 30s. A quiet protagonist, an obvious moral, plenty of humor and a little action. This is the first of Disney’s trademark gentler cartoons.

13. Clock Cleaners – 1937, Mickey Mouse

Disney came close to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd in this short. It’s the mark of a great cartoon when Goofy’s high-teetering antics can keep you on the edge of your seat. This is an example of a short whose staying power resides in the timing and gags.

12. Ben and Me – 1953

Disney only did a few shorts longer than ten minutes. (‘Paul Bunyan’ jumps to mind.) The difficulty is holding the audience’s attention with, well, two-dimensional characters. The ‘Me’ of this short is colonial Amos Mouse a Sterling Holloway narrated-character almost as interesting Ben Franklin.

11. Goofy Gymnastics – 1949, Goofy

“Boy, did you see that? Nobody takes a wallop like Goofy. What timing! What finesse! What a genius!” So says Roger Rabbit, viewing this cartoon. Goofy was never my favorite. I preferred the irascible Donald to the dope. But this cartoon may be the apex of physical comedy in Disney.

10. Donald Applecore – 1952, Donald Duck

Donald’s humor, much like his Loony counterpart Daffy, lies in quality of his foil. The nephews never got the best laughs out of Donald’s anger, probably since they were family. With the nephews we always see the plot from their point of view, and predictably watch the follow-through. But Chip and Dale, wily and surprising, get Donald explosively mad in this cartoon. The comedy escalates quickly.

9. In the Bag – 1956, Humphrey the Bear

Humphrey the Bear got his own series – for two cartoons. His humor is not subtle. Leonard Maltin supposedly said these shorts were ‘belly-laughs’ which typically is not Disney. But the quality of the humor is the question. Humphrey is hapless, with just enough guile so we don’t feel bad at laughing at his consistent failures, losses, and fumbles. The portly ranger, too, is an underappreciated character.

8. Thru the Mirror – 1936, Mickey Mouse

This is a jazzy short, loosely based on ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. It’s a great product of its era. The short earns high points in the imagination category, transforming a living room and den into a world of living beings, some sixty years before ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Not only that, it succeeds in creating a unique animated dance scene worthy of Astaire, and duel worthy of ‘Stardust’.

7. The Band Concert – 1935, Mickey Mouse

The first color Disney cartoon. The first time Goofy, Donald, and Mickey shared a short. Goofy was still a peripheral character, but Mickey and Donald’s antagonism had already been developed in earlier cartoons. What makes the two so great in ‘The Band Concert’ is that each gets in a number of quality potshots at the other. Nor is either, really, to blame for their actions, making the escalation even funnier.

6. A Cowboy Needs a Horse – 1958

In 1951, UPA won an Academy Award for their excellent ‘Gerald McBoing Boing’. The UPA style – angular, flat, modern – was almost antithetical to Disney’s artistic style, coming out of the 40s. Disney spent the decade developing their style (compare ‘Ichabod’ to ‘Sleeping Beauty’). In 1958 they created the best artistic answer to UPA’s challenge, and arguably did it better.

5. Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom – 1953, Adventures in Music

Academy Award-winning, this short blends the new UPA-influenced style with Disney’s drive to educate in the 50s. So we get an animated music history lesson, how all instruments were developed. Attempting to be global in scope, shots at multiculturalism come off as vaguely offensive. Yet the music, artistry, and unusual subject matter combine to create an unforgettably smart work.

4. Steamboat Willie – 1928, Mickey Mouse

This is the first Disney cartoon with sound, and the oldest entry on this list. Mickey Mouse had only starred in two previous cartoons, and his appearance quickly became iconic. Walt Disney had been making animated films since 1921, but for most, ‘Steamboat’ is the moment Disney became recognizable. The amusing short also features audience’s first chance to see Mickey go toe to toe with his nemesis Pete.

3. Donald in Mathmagic Land – 1959, Donald Duck

From the earliest on the list, we come now to the latest. Walt Disney decided to dust off this excellent Academy Award-nominated short in 1961, as the first program aired on Wonderful World of Color. A generation grew up with it, showed it their kids, and now their grandkids are learning the beauty and wonder of mathematics through a visually stunning blend of animation and live footage. Artistically ‘Mathmagic Land’ is a high point of the 1950s UPA style, and marks the decline of the short era until quite recently, with works like ‘Paperman’. Unlike Goofy and Mickey, both of whom have had features since 2010, Donald hasn’t had another feature since 1965, and the last few are the worst examples of educational films that Disney used their animation department for in that decade. With luck Donald will return to his former position in the near future.

2. The Skeleton Dance – 1929, Silly Symphonies

The first ‘Silly Symphony.’ A weird plot, as we watch a quartet of skeletons dance in a graveyard. That’s it. There are no words in the short, setting a trend for the Silly Symphonies to follow. Simplicity leads to timelessness. Anyone can understand the humor, the visuals, the appeal of the cartoon. Unlike later Symphonies, there is no moral or lesson. When I show people this cartoon they are still entertained, often puzzled, and always laughing. It gets to the root of animation’s greatest talent, which is the presentation the bizarre, even the absurd. This dance macabre comes years before Fleischer will master the black and white surrealism in Betty Boop shorts such as ‘Minnie the Moocher’ and ‘Snow White.’ It also helped Disney diversify – for the next almost ten years shorts will be divided between the ‘Mickey Mouse’ series, often repetitive, and the new breadth of imagination in the ‘Symphonies’.

1. The Old Mill – 1937, Silly Symphonies

Academy Award winning is the least of the accolades. For this cartoon Disney’s team invented the multiplane camera, which allows for a three-dimensional effect. This camera will, henceforth, dominate animation. As far as the plot, we follow the story of a night in the mill, again, so simple as to be impossible not to understand. Visually stunning, the timing and use of music is also perfect to create suspense and engage the viewer. If I could pick only one Disney cartoon to show people, ‘The Old Mill’ would be my choice. With drama and humor, triumph and tragedy, in ten minutes it is surprisingly diverse for a seemingly limited subject. This short also marks a definitive break from the older, repetitive style of animation found in works like ‘The Skeleton Dance’. Even the repeated sequence of the swallow going round the gears is done with alternating perspectives, zooming, angles, and panning. Animation so often creates the incredible – flying anvils, King Neptune’s palace, fantastic beasts – but this shows the potential for the ordinary, an old mill, being beautiful and captivating.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Zoom Out, Swell, 'The End'

"We really shouldn’t be talking like this.”

It was a line out of a David Lean movie. And at the time it felt like I was living in noir tragedy. I’d done everything right, played the cards of a winning hand, and had an ace up my sleeve. But the ace wasn’t enough, and I found myself with nothing.

My world was crumbling around me, and fast. I needed to get to Santa Fe, quick. But the train was leaving without me. ‘Brief Encounter.’

“We really shouldn’t be talking like this.”

Ten years later, it’s always sunny when the scene cuts to ten years later. I never made it to Santa Fe, the admissions director told me I wasn’t going to St. Johns College. I went to Vermont for five years, did my best with second best.

Then the wilderness years, the roving and tramping, trying to find myself, never forgetting my real purpose, working away slowly, biding time and remembering. Like a Dickensian shoe-maker, working away at my task. If the story were more pulp I’d have been planning a revenge for wrongs done. But this story wasn’t hard-boiled.

“Then as it was, then again it will be /An' though the course may change sometimes /Rivers always reach the sea.” Led Zeppelin, ‘Ten Years Gone.’

I’ve reached the sea, but know not what to make of the shore. The horizon stretches on and ever on. Painstakingly, doggedly, I went about reading the classics – the great books of the western world – the St. John’s curriculum. Roughly 200 books, tens of thousands of pages. Copernicus, Homer, Nietzsche, Heisenberg, Austen, Plato, Tocqueville, Mendel. Literally months of my life.

I read them as I got my hands on them. I had my college library purchase the obscure mathematical works: Ptolemy’s Almagest, Lobachevsky’s Theory of Parallels. Wrote to science departments across the country for charitable offerings of Huygens and Viete. Indeed, the maths and sciences were the hardest to acquire.

And I went further. In Santa Fe they only read selections of Plutarch, I read the whole work. They only read parts of this and that – I read the whole. It’s an exclusive club, and although I was turned away at the door, in the end I paid premium membership.

Reading these books has defined me. My ethics, my view of life, my appreciation of literature, my view on narrative, on the language we use, what civilization is, our role on the planet and the universe, all of it. Where our music comes from. What humans are capable of. What humanism really means.

But the horizon looms. St. Johns has been an institution in America since 1696, and has committed to the great books since 1937. Back then they weren’t reading Einstein, or Watson and Crick. Likewise, there is a great deal of literature on my shelves that in 1696 probably seemed necessary, and has now dropped out: Fibonacci, Galen, Marco Polo, Burke, Cicero, Erasmus.

I always assumed the consummation of the list would lead to further reading, but I never grasped how much. The great books are just the skeletal frame on which the rest – the sinews, colloids and capillaries – hang. The end, just the start. There’s a lifetime’s worth to contend with. I got what I wanted, and now don’t know what to do with it. The guy at the top rubbed out, but the bigger challenge now of figuring out what to do with yourself.

Just like a noir tragedy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Dread Stock Market

As every old-timer will tell you, candy was a penny and gas was a nickel. Econ 101 profs will likewise extrapolate why a dollar’s purchasing value will decrease with time. A dollar today will be worth less tomorrow.

So be it.

Stanley Druckenmiller is the 184th richest American, according to Forbes, valued at $2.9 billion dollars. However, he has a passionate interest in making sure people younger than him have money when they get to be his age (he just turned 60). The following video clip, too large to embed, details his argument from 14:00 – 40:05:

If however, you don’t have half an hour to watch the clip, the points are these:

·         Federal entitlement payments have risen since the 60s from 30% to 67% of Federal budget outlays
·         Of these transfer payments, over 50% goes to the elderly, and 15% to the young
·         Since 1983, those over 55 have increased their net worth by 120%. Over 75 by 149%. So the ‘one percent’ is also quite old. Not only that, but those aged 30-40, for example, have seen their net worth decrease over the same period by 20%
·         The national decrease in poverty rates has only affected the elderly, decreasing from a high of 35% in 1960, to a low of 9% now. However, poverty for the young has actually been increasing since the late 60s, and now stands at over 20%
·         2013 marks the start of the retiring baby boom, which began in 1948, and will continue for twenty years, making all of these statistics worse unless action is taken.
·         And, as more retire, fewer will bear the burden of support. The number over 65 will increase 102%, but those 18-64, the workers, only by 17%
·         Furthermore, right now, social security is 5% of GDP, and Medicare, Medicaid, etc. is 5.5% of government spending. Over the next 20 years that we have to take care of the baby boomers, it’ll double. By 2080, it’s a quarter of all government spending.
·         The fiscal debt gap, at $12 trillion, doesn’t account for any of this. If it did it would be closer to $200 trillion.
·         Today, in 2013, the elderly receive about $330,000 in government benefits over the course of their lifetime. For the unborn, who are paying this forward without their knowledge, they actually will be in debt to the government $420,000 over their lifetime, paying for the boomer’s retirement.
·         If we decided to fix this with taxes, all taxes would have to increase, across the board, 55% in 2013. If we do nothing by 2030 that percentage increases to 72%. If we decide to fix it with austerity, the government would have to rein in spending by a whopping 36% now, and 44% in 2030 if not dealt with. Clearly, there will have to be a mix of each.

Bottom line: retiring baby boomers are going to make it impossible for the current generation, and our kids, to retire.

Combine this upcoming catastrophe with the fact that the dollar loses value over time. Compound that with the interesting fact that about 30% of the underemployed are 18-29, compared to 15% for those over 65. Those figures are from 2010, but the underemployment has increased 3% overall since then. So our generation is out of work, or not earning what we should. And we are going to need a lot of money down the line to take care of this retirement problem for the next twenty years.

Half of Americans own stocks, at 52%. But this also includes 401k holders. Before the recession it was at 65%. Of course, in lean times, people don’t want to set aside money for something as volatile as stocks. Who wants to risk it? Who has the disposable income to invest?

Unfortunately, for our generation, the only way historically to ensure your dollar would be worth more tomorrow than it is today, is if you put it in the stock market. Even if we didn’t need the money for retirement, let’s not forget the $1 trillion in debt our generation owes for student loans. You don’t want to pay that off with dollars that are worth less over time, do you?

So are we investing in the stock market? Those who are between 20-30 are investing conservatively, around 43%, compared to 31% investing conservatively amongst the boomers. The actual numbers of youthful investors seems to be unknown. Based on my professional and semi-professional friends it seems as though it’s not many, but maybe that’s just my small sample size.

I’m conservative with my personal finances, with I have a growing savings account and Roth IRA. I have no stocks. I try and look at Wall Street Survivor, and all the terminology gets me in a frustrating muddle. Beyond my financial illiteracy, though, is a more pervasive skepticism of the stock market in my age bracket. Our trust was shaken and little has been done to reaffirm it in the years since 2007. Six years have passed with us still the largest section of unemployed workers, and underemployed, and with incredible student debts.

And now we’ll have to pay for our parent’s retirements with our entitlement money. All while our purchasing power decreases. We can either get serious about stocks as a generation, and choose to trust that which has harmed us so often as a country, or we can change politics.

For, if we take our money to the Wall St. shell game, what will protect it? Not Glass-Steagall. Should we trust the market with our money, when the regulators of the market come within an hour of default, having shut down the government for two weeks?

The point persists: no matter what you think is important, changing government is actually the most important thing. But until we raise our voices and get really angry, and actually vote in numbers, and maybe even take to the streets, the older generation is going to keep ripping off the young, robbing us of our inheritance. We face personal, tragic, impoverishment. We need to rise up and actually make our point to the nation that we will not suffer horrific futures, and decades of poverty, without a fight.

As Stanley Druckenmiller put it:

 “When [I was] your age the Vietnam War was raging and I watched a group of young people, who saw a clear and present danger – back then we didn’t have an all-volunteer army, you got drafted…You were literally looking at if the draft number came up the wrong way you were going to be in the rice paddies getting shot at for kind of a silly war that a lot of us didn’t believe in. I watched young people at that time bring down a President and change the whole political spectrum and end that horrible war. And what I want to say to you young people tonight is, while we’re not talking about bullets flying, you are in clear and present danger…”

So. Will you go buy stocks, or will you fight for a righteous government?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Distraction Lists, or: Revolution for All

The Nobel Prizes will start being awarded tomorrow. I'm hoping, this year, the U.S. will boast a Literature Laureate for the first time in twenty years.

Of course, one of the main things the Nobel's are famous for is science. Yesterday, fortuitously, I went to the Boston Museum of Science to see an exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Museum opened in 1951. In the main gallery is a list of luminaries, great names of scientists who changed the world, in bold caps above the visitors below.

I decided to figure out which I was familiar with, and which I still needed to learn about. Who knows if the winners next week will be added to this pantheon.

Hippocrates. Physician. I have read many of his selected works, collected in Volume Ten of the Great Books series, which I own.

Aristotle. Biologist etc. I have read a lot of his works, including his Physics, Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals, On Interpretation, Categories, and Prior Analytics.

Euclid. Geometer. I have read his Elements, in Volume Eleven of the Great Books series, which I own.

Archimedes. I have read many of his works, in Volume Eleven of the Great Books series, which I own.

Galen. I have read his On the Natural Faculties, collected in Volume Ten of the Great Books series, which I own.

Ptolemy. I have read his Almagest.

Copernicus. I have read his On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, in On the Shoulders of Giants, which I own.

Vesalius. I have read his On the Fabric of the Human Body, which I own.

Galileo. I have read his Dialogue on Two World Systems, in On the Shoulders of Giants, which I own.

Kepler. I have read his Harmonies of the Spheres, in On the Shoulders of Giants, which I own and the Epitome, which I also own.

Harvey. I have read his On the Motion of the Heart and Blood.

Boyle. I have yet to read Boyle. His was a British chemist.

Newton. I have read his Principia, in On the Shoulders of Giants, which I own.

Linnaeus. I have yet to read Linnaeus. He was a Swedish naturalist.

Lavoisier. I have read his Elements of Chemistry, which I own.

Laplace. I have yet to read Laplace. He was French mathematician.

Dalton. I have read his New System of Chemistry.

Cuvier. I have yet to read Cuvier. He was a French zoologist.

Faraday. I have read his Forces of Matter.

Lyell. I have yet to read Lyell. He was a British geologist.

Agassiz. I have yet to read Agassiz. He was a Swiss biologist.

Darwin. I have read his The Origin of Species.

Helmholtz. I have yet to read Helmholtz. He was a German physicist.

Pasteur. I have read his The Germ Theory and Its Applications to Medicine and Surgery.

Mendel. I have read his Experiments in Plant Hybridization.

Maxwell. I have read his Dynamical Theory of Electromagnetism.

Gibbs. I have yet to read Gibbs. He was an American physicist and mathematician.

Pavlov. I have yet to read Pavlov. He was a Russian physiologist.

M. Curie. I have read her articles on the discoveries of Polonium and Radium.

Rutherford. I have read his Chemical Nature of Alpha Particles.

Einstein. I have read his Relativity: The Special and General Theory, in On the Shoulders of Giants, which I own.

Bohr. I have read his Atomic Theory and The Description of Nature.

So, all told, I’ve read 23 of 32 scientists or, as Laplace would point out, 71% of what some guys in Boston thought was important in the 1950s.

In Other News

As most of the world has noticed, barring those Amazonian primitives whose lifestyle is looking increasingly attractive, the U.S. government has shut down. This time it seems to be real, not a single day or a couple of days, like most shutdowns, but, hopefully, not a 21-day belly-buster like in 1996.

The day after and of the shutdown there was a flurry of articles and blog posts. Some were humorous, some were scathing, some pointed fingers, some apocalyptic. Writing a post in the deluge seemed unnecessary. It took long enough to sort out which ones were worth reading as it was. But now that we're a week in I'll put forth a couple personal points and recent anecdotes.

Like many Americans, I don't have health care. The policy offered by my work is too expensive. So on Tuesday I went onto the website, was directed to another for my State, filled in my information, and am waiting for the site to fix its bugs so I can get insured. I'm 27, and excited for cheap health care. The Affordable Care Act is not all things to all people, nor did I ever expect it to be. It's a step in the right direction. 'Scumbag' is the word to be used for big employers who fire anyone over the implementation of this Act.

Which brings me to last night and a few months ago. Since 2009 Kickstarter has raised $717 million dollars for various projects. I am responsible for about $100 of that. A few months ago twenty of my hundred bucks went to funding Robert Reich's new documentary, 'Inequality for All', which just opened in select theaters.

This is part of the reason I was in Boston, to see the film I'd helped to create. (The other, and perhaps more important reason, is my mom's birthday.) 'Inequality for All' isn't playing in my state, at any theater. This is a damn shame, because the movie is excellent. If it is in your state, (check the website: go see it. The timing of its release, with the shutdown, couldn't be better. I thoroughly expect it to win Best Documentary at the Oscars, at which point it will hopefully open in more theaters. But, then again, based on last year's predictions for the Nobel Prize winners, I may not be the best at picking awards. For visual culture award predictions you should try my sister's blog: