Monday, August 24, 2015


Thomas Ian Nichols (left) and Jon Hader as Walt and Roy Disney
WALT BEFORE MICKEY (2015), Directed by Khoa Le and starring Thomas Ian Nicholas as Walt Disney, Jon Hader as Roy Disney, and Armando Guttierrez as Ub Iwerks.  Based on the book by Timothy Susanin and forward by Diane Disney Miller (Walt Disney’s Daughter).

There’s more than one howler in this sincere but regrettably inept biopic of Walt Disney’s early years in Marceline, Missouri, Kansas City, MO, and Los Angeles.  Several times Walt is referred to as being from KANSAS!  Not Missouri, not even Kansas City, Missouri, but KANSAS.  Much as we Kansans would love to claim him, the state of Missouri (with a nod to Chicago, where Walt was born) takes the palm.

Young Walt in Kansas City, appx. 1919

The film nods toward the expected sign posts in Walt’s early biography leading up to the late 1920s—the years on the Marceline farm (complete with the boy Walt sketching animals on the barn door); the post-World War I years in Kansas City (with references to the Pesman-Rubin Studio, where he first met Ub);  work at the Kansas City Film Ad company and the Laugh-O-Gram studios (where the Disney team first assembled); the first Newman movie theater advertisements (brief shots from the “Newman Laugh-O-Grams”); the shift to the Fairy Tales and the first “Alice” Cartoon (a few posters on the walls and a shot or two of “Alice”); the failure of Laugh-O-Gram (with Walt slumped over on his desk gazing quizzically at a little mouse); the relocation of the bankrupt Walt to Los Angeles (and the hookup with brother Roy); the loss of rights to “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” to Charles Mintz; and the train trip from NYC back to L.A. when Walt comes up with “Mortimer Mouse” (later christened “Mickey” back in the studio).  We end with Walt looking on with satisfaction as Mickey’s “Plane Crazy” is a hit at the movie theaters.

Walt and Ubb in Kansas City, appx. 1922

And, of course, there is the Kansas City team of Walt (an earnest take by Thomas Ian Nicholas, in and out of mustache), Hugh Harmon, Rudy Ising, Friz Freleng, and Ub Iwerks.  Ub is the star, to be sure, and the turn by actor-producer Armando Guttierrez is one of the better performances.  It’s fun to see these impersonations, and a welcome reminder of how many great animators came from K.C.  

Drawing by John C. Tibbetts

But whatever energy the first half musters up, the film’s second half falters badly as the pace goes slack and as everybody seems to wander around looking for a motivation.  There’s some silly business with a Mintz stooge infiltrating the Disney team as he lays the groundwork for some of the members to bolt the financially-straitened Walt.  Just when Walt arrives in L.A. in 1923, the film should have picked up steam; but the boiler goes dry.  Worse, the creation of Mickey is hurried over.  Doubtless, Disney copyright restrictions hampered any details of the Mouse’s genesis.  All we see is a crude drawing of a pre-Ub Mickey and a few scenes from “Plane Crazy.”  In reality it was “Steamboat Mickey” that first reached audiences; “Plane Crazy” was drawn first and released later.

Except in the early scenes in Marceline, Missouri, which are so handsomely shot they seem to belong to another movie (shot in Florida), WALT BEFORE MICKEY everywhere else betrays its humble budget and amateurish productions. Most of it is shot in a handful of small rooms in medium shot, with few exteriors and even fewer establishing shots. Period recreation is limited to a handful of props, bowties, and suspenders. There is one nice panning shot of the Laugh-O-Gram studio that seems to possess at least some period accuracy. The direction by Khoa Le (whose specialty so far is photographing weddings) is slack and the dialogue awkward. The “rags-to-riches” story fails to generate any dramatic heat. About the only “punch” anywhere comes when Ub collars one of the renegade animators as they leave Disney to go to Mintz.

About the book, from the University Press of Mississippi, author Timothy Susanin’s credentials consist of experience as a former federal prosecutor and Navy JAG.  Go figure.  The web site boasts that he wrote it out of concern for the scarcity of material about Walt’s early years. Apparently, he has not seen Leslie Iwerks’s wonderful book and documentary, The Hand Behind the Mouse, and the host of other books out there that document this period, including Russell Merritt’s Walt in Wonderland and Brian Burnes’s Walt Disney’s Missouri.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel as Jason Lipsy and David Foster Wallace

In his commencement speech to students at Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace related the parable of the three fish. Two young fish encounter an older fish swimming the other direction. “How’s the water?” asks the older fish. The two young fish continue swimming the other direction, until one says to the other, “What’s water?”

Wallace means that the most important realities are the ones that are the hardest to see and understand. Marshall McLuhan would have added that until those two fish could find a Counter Environment, they will never be able to comprehend the nature of water around them.

THE END OF THE TOUR is also a portrait of two fish, as it were, swimming around each other, each seeking some sort of understanding of the other. But there’s no counter-environment available. Jesse Eisenberg is a reporter for the Rolling Stone writing a story about the acclaimed novelist, David Foster Wallace. They spend a couple of days together riding through snowy Bloomington streets, attending Wallace’s book talk in Minneapolis, touring the Mall of the Americas, eating junk food, watching junk TV, and circling around each other, always circling. . . Both are writers. Both spend a lot of time not answering questions but asking their own questions. Both are wary and terribly insecure. And both plead confusion as to what is authentic in their own lives, and what is a pose.

Anyone who has spent a major part of his life interviewing celebrities of all stripes can watch with equal parts fascination and revulsion. I plead guilty. Mea culpa. I’ve been there, tracking down the suspects, cornering them, plotting the meetings, relishing the accidental encounters. I’ve known the exhilaration of sensing breakthroughs in communication—conversations with Spielberg’s cinematographer Allen Daviau and classical orchestra conductor Iona Brown—and agonizing over doubts as to the veracity of anything recounted—can you spell actor Tommy Lee Jones? And how about writer Ray Bradbury? Jones’s rude and digressive responses were simply a part of playing a cynical game. Ray, bless him! had fallen in love with those same Romantic stories about his life and work that he had been rehearsing for many years. I was the victim in the first instance, and the willing accomplice in the latter.

I have never read anything by Wallace, and I have no idea what he really looks like. But Segel’s portrayal has a marvelous nuance and spontaneity which leads me to want to believe what I see and what he is saying. . . and which enlists my willingness to entertain his contradictions. He is trapped in the kind of self-awareness that confesses his addiction to junk food and television while, at the same time, resisting their very “American” shortcuts to self-gratification. His is the self-awareness of his superior intellect and education, but it is also the fear and paranoia of seeming to exploit those very qualities lest they separate him from the world around him.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


Drawing by John C. Tibbetts

New Hitchcock books, bless ‘em!, just keep a-comin, as Ma Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath. Back in the day, I myself was proud to be an executive editor with author Thomas Leitch of The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock in 2002.

But the appearance of a new book grabbed immediately my attention, on this day, his birthday (August 13th). Hitchcock a la Carte, by Jan Olsson, tracks and discusses the many television shows Hitchcock appeared in, as both host and (sometimes) as director. I refer, of course to the six seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a dramatic anthology series of half-hour programs on CBS and NBC, which ran from 1955-1962. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour followed, from 1962-1965. Of a total of 251 episodes, Hitchcock directed eighteen, and stepping in were other luminaries, including Robert Stevens (49 episodes), Paul Henreid (29 episodes), and many others, like Robert Altman, Ida Lupino, William Friedkin, John Brahm, and Sidney Pollack. Not to be forgotten was Suspicion, 1957-1959, another hour-long series, for which Hitch directed the outstanding first episode, “Four O’Clock,” adapted from Cornel Woolrich— literally a “ticking bomb” of a story. 

How vividly I remember as boy raptly watching the Monday night telecasts, delighted and teased by the modicum of menace, even limited gore, allowed by the television censors. An equally vivid memory is hearing my father vent his frustration when Hitch always appeared at the end, to explain, at the behest of those same censors, that in the end the crooks got their just desserts, after all.

Drawing by John C. Tibbetts
With his macabre humor and irreverence toward advertisers (his appearances were ghost-written by JimmyAllaradice), “Hitchcock was an instant hit on television,” writes author Olsson, “and his performance as host was sensational very cleverly crafted.” Success “in a medium with a deeper cultural penetration than cinema” turned him into “a fully-fledged celebrity” and had “repercussions for his cinema and particularly its marketing.”

Drawing by John C. Tibbetts
Among the episodes Hitch personally directed, and which are personal favorites, were ones adapted from a number of stories by modern masters of macabre humor. For example, John Collier was represented by “Wet Saturday” and “Back for Christmas” (both 1956); and Roald Dahl by “Dip in the Pool” (1958), “Lamb to the Slaughter” (1958), and, perhaps best of all, “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” (1960). Two more Dahl stories, but not Hitchcock-directed, were “The Landlady” and “Man from the South.” Everybody should remember the latter, starring Steve McQueen as a gambler caught up in a game whose high stakes included the potential loss of a finger from a chopper.
Drawing by John C. Tibbetts
We are reminded that concurrent with the television episodes was the production and release of PSYCHO in 1960, whose black-and-white images and production crew were drawn from his television colleagues.

Drawing by John C. Tibbetts

Hitchcock a la Carte is a book to savor. Keep it at hand as you watch those wonderful boxed sets of the half-hour programs. And as you watch “Lamb to the Slaughter,” consult the book to learn about the changes in the teleplay which Dahl agreed to at the behest of Hitchcock producer Joan Harrison.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Chance... predetermination... free will... accident... random vs intentional actions...

Not ten minutes into Woody’s new film, IRRATIONAL MAN, we have references to Kierkegaard, Kant, and Phenomenology... Woody is at it again. New adjunct philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) has come to a small New England campus to teach all that stuff. Yes, “stuff.” The alcoholic Lucas is tired, listless, impotent, sapped of ambition and meaning, and suffering from writer’s block. It’s all just “words” to him now. But when, by “accident,” he overhears news of a thoroughly corrupt local judge, he decides to ACT. To act... Existential meaning resides in MAKING YOUR OWN MEANING. Empowered by Satrean rationales, Abe stage-manages a perfect crime and knocks off the offending judge. Eureka! The world’s a better place. And he’s a new man, re-energized with new life, energy, and potency.

But what happens when his new girl friend, a student in his philosophy class (Rachel McAdams), discovers his guilt and takes a moral high ground. She’ll go to the police unless Abe can confess.

I mean, what’s a murderer to do now?

I liked IRRATIONAL MAN quite a lot. There’s genuine suspense in the second half of the picture, once everybody stops talking and Abe starts squirming. Just as Woody evoked Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy in MATCH POINT (my favorite Woody movie in recent years), now he’s trolling Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment.

I remember a conversation I had with Woody many years ago, in 1983, about his underrated A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY. He was startlingly young then. See my portrait of him at the time, which he signed (the signature now fading)...

Drawing by John C. Tibbetts

He had just returned from the mellow countryside of the Hudson River Valley. His film caught him in a sunny mood, and the results looked as if he were channeling Ingmar Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT:
“American audiences as a general rule have never been great audiences for the European style film,” he told me at the time. “You know, the more urban, civilized, charmingly-paced kind of thing that one hopes to do in the movies. I’m just hop­ing that this one’s funny enough, and that since it has an American cast, it will get at least enough people in the theaters to repay its cost.”
“Is Woody Allen mellowing out?, I asked him. “A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY is very easy and Innocent.” 
Woody replied: “That’s just that a part of me that I’ll cover up quickly. You won’t see that charm again for a long time. So don’t worry...”
Indeed, subsequent films like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, MATCH POINT, and now IRRATIONAL MAN, are bearing his prophecy out: Some of the mellow charm may be gone. But a harder edge has replaced it.

And it seems to be quite intentional.