An inspiration to the Nelvana animation studio’s first feature, Rock & Rule (Clive A. Smith, 1983), The Devil and Daniel Mouse (Clive A. Smith, 1978) was the Canadian animator’s second television special. Following 1977’s A Cosmic Christmas (Clive A. Smith, 1977), this Halloween program takes its inspiration from Stephen Vincent Benét’s classic short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and mines Canadian artistic anxieties over American cultural imperialism and selling out. Struggling folk duo Jan and Daniel Mouse are fired from their last gig and Jan sells her soul to the demonic record producer B.L. Zebub, transforming her into the hit sensation Funky Jan. Success is bittersweet for Jan as she misses Daniel but when B.L. claims his payment under the contract, it’s Daniel who stands up for her in a trial of the damned that culminates in a musical final statement that carries the day. The short features some solid tracks by John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful and singer-songwriter Valerie Carter, as well as some stunning animation for the infernal B.L. Zebub.
Those looking for more on The Devil and Daniel Mouse, Rock & Rule, and the failed early efforts of Nelvana to achieve its own commercial and artistic independence should consult Keir-La Janisse’s excellent essay “A Song from the Heart Beats the Devil Every Time: The Fear of Selling Out in Nelvana’s The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Rock and Rule” in Gina Freitag and André Loiselle’s The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul.
BREAKING NEWS! Halloween is sneaking up on us and MMC! has been slow to embrace the spooky season. (Actually, MMC! is hard at work on an imagined Arrow Video edition of a modern Canadian horror classic!) Let’s remedy MMC!’s omission with a favourite horror-comedy short from the 2018 festival circuit – Anthony Cousins’ The Bloody Ballad of Squirt Reynolds (2018). This quasi-riff on The Burning attends to the summer camp-in-peril trope at the hilariously named Camp Nawgonamakit and has a grand time nostalgically mocking the fashions and film themes of past eras while an iron-pumping former camper in a vacuform mask wreaks his bloody vengeance. And don’t worry, there are s’more horror shorts still to come! (I can’t believe I made that camping “s’more” joke again! I’m really sorry. I’ll try to stop.)
Let’s take a look at another city symphony while we wait for the next MMC! proposal, specifically Francis Thompson’s wonderfully distorted tribute to life in New York City! Thompson’s short film celebrates the rhythms, geometries, and absurdities of city life through a variety of fanciful lenses, prisms, reflectors, and editing techniques (all of which Thompson was quite secretive about). Originally a painter and an art teacher, Thompson began his filmmaking career with The Evolution of the Skyscraper in 1939 and later won an Academy Award for To Be Alive! (1964). In a frequently quoted comment on the film, Aldous Huxley remarked on Thompson’s ability to escape colour photography’s tyrannical claim to verisimilitude and use the medium to further the voice of non-representational art. Huxley observed:
And then there is what may be called the Distorted Documentary a new form of visionary art, admirably exemplified by Mr. Francis Thompson’s film, NY, NY. In this very strange and beautiful picture we see the city of New York as it appears when photographed through multiplying prisms, or reflected in the backs of spoons, polished hub caps, spherical and parabolic mirrors. We still recognize houses, people, shop fronts, taxicabs, but recognize them as elements in one of those living geometries which are so characteristic of the visionary experience. The invention of this new cinematographic art seems to presage (thank heaven!) the supersession and early demise of non-representational painting. It used to be said by the non-representationalists that colored photography had reduced the old-fashioned portrait and the old-fashioned landscape to the rank of otiose absurdities. This, of course, is completely untrue. Colored photography merely records and preserves, in an easily reproducible form, the raw materials with which portraitists and landscape painters work. Used as Mr. Thompson has used it, colored cinematography does much more than merely record and preserve the raw materials of non-representational art; it actually turns out the finished product. Looking at NY, NY, I was amazed to see that virtually every pictorial device invented by the old masters of non-representational art and reproduced ad nauseam by the academicians and mannerists of the school, for the last forty years or more, makes its appearance, alive, glowing, intensely significant, in the sequences of Mr. Thompson’s film.
In anticipation of our next found footage Criterion proposal, MMC! is taking a brief and relevant tour through a favourite genre – the city symphony. We start with the unconventional example of Claude Lelouch’s C’etait un rendez-vous (1976), a thrillingly accelerated tour through Paris, from the Paris Périphérique tunnel, around the Arc de Triomphe, through red lights, up one-way streets, and across centre lines to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica and Lelouch’s then-girlfriend Gunilla Friden. Lelouch shot the film himself one Sunday morning in August, driving a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 with a camera mounted to its front bumper and reaching a top speed of 200 km/h, although the film’s soundtrack is dubbed to the sound of the director’s Ferrari 275GTB. The short gets much of its charge from the fact that Lelouch is obviously not driving on a closed course. In fact, Lelouch had only one assistant along the route, Élie Chouraqui, who was posted at the Rue de Rivoli with a walkie-talkie to caution Lelouch on the blind junction located on the other side of an archway. The radios failed but Lelouch thankfully had a green light.
Those looking to connect C’etait un rendez-vous with our upcoming proposal might consider the short’s unconventional approach to the city symphony, the prominence of driving, and the potentially self-destructive actions undertaken for a beautiful blonde at an old basilica.
(Believe it or not, MMC!‘s next Criterion proposals are forthcoming. In the meantime and in anticipation of our next two proposals which deal with practices in appropriation, I thought we might consider another animated treatment of media ownership and access, this time from Japan!)
In a recent piece for Locus Magazine, Cory Doctorow laments the failed promise of digital media and selective rights management. In the article, Doctorow recalls how the digital revolution promised infinite distribution, customized rights to content, and cheaper prices. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Access is limited and often temporary, pricing remains static, and choice is dictated by owners who rights seems to be held in virtual perpetuity. Doctorow’s most pithy and salient point comes near the end of his editorial – “There’s a name for societies where a small elite own property and everyone else rents that property from them: it’s called feudalism.”
With feudalism comes poachers, bringing to mind Hiroyasu Kobayashi’s wonderful animated short Cassette Girl (2015). The film, one of the best from the Japan Animator Expo series, offers a beautiful pastiche of anime tropes, including a spunky young adventuress, her giant mecha companion, and an elaborate transformation sequence with obligatory undressing. The girl and her ‘bot search for vintage content on old video cassettes, causing them to run afoul of the tyrannical media police and initiating an elaborate battle that dominates the short. What makes Cassette Girl so impressive is its spectacular embrace of hard media and actual ownership. Physical possession is not merely a means to defeat Cassette Girl‘s media police, but a transformative process that remakes the world itself in favour of its media-poaching heroes (complete with full frame parameters and minor tracking issues). If only the battlefield over DRM were truly this awe-inspiring!
This year’s “Top Film Discoveries” list is still four months away but certain themes are already revealing themselves. In many ways, 2019 is MMC!‘s year of collage and found footage as it includes wonderful city symphonies like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Walter Ruttmann, 1927) and Études sur Paris (André Sauvage, 1928), Luigi Cozzi’s 1977 psychedelic remix of Godzilla (aka Cozzilla), and the activist work of Craig Baldwin. Our next two Criterion Collection proposals will celebrate the art of appropriation and so we set that table with this informative review of copyright principles prepared by Bucknell University Professor Eric Faden. Be careful not to take the existence of A Fair(y) Use Tale (2007) as a statement on its legality as Disney never challenged Bucknell’s use of its content. Take this instead as evidence that the only thing that trumps the Mouse House’s enforcement of copyright is its care not to establish a disadvantageous legal precedent.