Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Virtues of Villains

The writer C.S. Lewis once noted that to be a successful villain, one needed a strong virtue. This is a literary truism that bad storytellers tend to forget. We know our villains have to be people we are willing to hate, yet we often forget that some virtue is needed to become a menace in the first place.

Case in point: Darth Vader. A guy we love to hate. But he has virtues: he has self-control (he doesn't kill his lackeys wantonly) and leadership skills. One of the reasons why people weren't all that enthusiastic about The Phantom Menace is because they couldn't see in young Anakin Skywalker the vices that made him Darth Vader. But the virtues of Anakin--his passion, his reluctance to leave his mother--do start to morph into Vader's vices in Episode II.

Another case in point: Retsudo Yagyu from Lone Wolf and Cub. A major player who murdered Lone Wolf's family and framed him for treason, he nonetheless displays the virtues of a samurai in the later part of the manga series. He battles Lone Wolf with a sense of personal honor, looks after Lone Wolf's son during a truce, and treats his ninja subordinates with greater respect than we might expect from a typical Western villain. I'd argue that these displays of virtue make Retsudo a more well-rounded villain -- and thus, a more memorable character.

Think about the villains you remember from your favorite stories -- Saruman and Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Doctor Doom from Fantastic Four. the list is endless. Odds are, if you analyse them, you'll find some form of virtue that makes up a key component in their personality.

Is this important? Yes, because a virtuous villain is one capable of redemption. Darth Vader dies a hero because he rediscovers his virtues of love and self-sacrifice. It is that possibility that draws us, the listener of stories, to bad guys who can become good.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Animation, Abstracted and Distracting

Last night I went to see one of the competitions of the Ottawa Animation Festival. Interesting to note the way they divide up the categories: instructional or industrial, narrative, non-narrative. It's this last category that tends to irritate me.
The non-narrative category is usually where the competition puts what I'd call "art films," or films that only an art critic could love. They don't need a story, hence the "non-narrative" designation. The key to understanding these types of films is that you respond based on what you bring with you--it's your own life, intellectual, and emotional experiences that allow you to decide whether or not you'd like such a film.
The first non-narrative in this particular competition is Welcome to Kentucky by Craig Welch, produced by the NFB. It's the closest one of the three non-narratives to traditional animation. It's a stream of consciousness type of film; representational imagery moves, then flows into a new image. Welch's film works well enough as a "waking dream," but you'd need to have at least some understanding of "stream of consciousness" to really appreciate what it does.
The next non-narrative was Martha Colbourn's XXX Amsterdam Drunken Globalization. I met Colbourn at last year's Ottawa Student Animation Festival, and she's a nice enough woman, and I know she has a following, but quite frankly I don't care for her work. Collage cutouts of porn pictures moving about via stop motion--okay, that meets the bare-bones definition of animation, but just barely. The thing about Colbourn is that her films tend to look like my bedroom: a high-energy mess. And this is no exception.
But at least Colbourn has the virtue of using representational images. The worst of the lot was Interception by Rena Del Pieve Gobbi. An epileptic flurry of abstract imagery, I gather from the end credits that she made this film as a form of therapy for dealing with sexual assault. The problem is, therapy is not meant to be seen in public.
We were issued voting ballots. I wound up voting for Harvey Birdman : Peanut Therapy. Yes, it's conventional TV with a rude attitude, but at least I can understand it.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Reflections on a Sailor Man

Last night I went to a showing of the Ottawa Animation Festival, a special retrospective on a classic cartoon character -- Popeye, the Sailor Man. We saw a few of the Max Fleischer cartoons from the mid- to late 1930's, including one where Popeye guest-starred with Betty Boop. We didn't see anything from the later periods because of copyright disputes, according to our host: Time-Warner (through Turner Broadcasting and the Cartoon Network) owns the later cartoons (including the Fleischer color, Paramount and Hanna-Barbera versions) while King Features owns the character, making for a tricky legal situation for publishing a DVD.

The charm of the Fleischer cartoons isn't really in the animation -- Fleischer was apparently one of those people who didn't really believe in improving his artists. Nor was it the backgrounds which were very innovative for the time (3-D modelling shot on a turntable; very realistic looking for pannings). Nor is it from the story writing, which is pretty formulaic -- we all know that once Pops chomps down on the green stuff, it's bye bye Bluto.

No, the real charm of the Fleischer cartoons comes from the stream-of-consciousness mutterings of voice-actor Jack Mercer as Popeye as he talks to himself during the action. Since lip-sync was less of a concern (and it was something mastered by Disney and Warners), the directors felt free to let Mercer, Mae Questel (as Olive Oyl) and the other actors improvise some dialogue, and the results are witticisms that add a much needed depth to this character. It's one of the reasons why the later color cartoons seemed so bland, at least until the H-B years.

Popeye was one of the first cartoon characters I learned to really draw well, when I was in school, so of course he's a sentimental favorite of mine. I hear they're planning a computer graphic movie with him as the star. Well, no matter what form he takes, here's hoping he makes his full century.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Welcome to My Lair

I browse the vast domain of the Web, seeking knowledge and enlightenment. From time to time I will observe the peculiarities and eccentricities of human endeavour, and I will post my observations here.
My observations can be on any subject I choose -- that is the beauty of the web log. You may agree, or disagree, and that is your right. But my observations are always thought out after much deliberation. This is not wisdom, but only a path to it.
I claim no special knowledge or expertise. My passions and politics will be obvious to those with careful observation. I speak only with one voice -- my own, untainted by diplomatic nicety or correctness.
I am the Phantom Observer. Welcome.