Tuesday, December 26, 2017
Back when we had a Betamax VCR, I'd rent this movie over and over. Ragamuffin kids in English country estate try to uncover a hidden treasure as a long-lost-heiress scheme plays out. David Niven's character in disguise playing multiple roles, Leo McKern (Help, ladyhawke) & Vivian Pickles (Harold & Maude) play the villains. I think it was my pre-Harry Potter fix for kid adventure in English architecture.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971):
Topol as Tevye! My father had the record of the soundtrack with an illustrated cover that fascinated me. And he would regularly quote Tevye: "If I try and bend that far, I'll break" when my sisters and I would ask him to stray too far from his view of the world. Beyond the story and the music resonating for me, with my sisters in theater in high-school, I was noticing even in elementary school how this stage play was adapted for film differently than another on my list: The Music Man. Cinematography, set design, camera movement, editing, were things I took note of, realizing "there's no way they could do it like THAT on stage.." (As a side note, as an adult, Julia and I were able to see Topal on stage in his farewell tour as Tevye in Detroit in 2009."
The Godfather (1972):
This is one of a handful of movies in the world that lives up to all of the praise, is not over-hyped, and in a very rare instance, where the film is better than the book. Of course, this film would appear on a lot of people's lists for best or favorite, and I don't think that's for any lowest-common denominator reason. It's just that well filmed, acted, scored, edited, and written.
Vito is as honorable a man as the leader of a crime family could ever possibly be. His decision in the opening scene about the difference between 'justice' & 'vengeance' paints the picture of a man who believes in fairness that we see play out in-full with young Vito in Part 2.
The saga of Michael going from idealist moral high-ground to criminal, to Don is a compelling and tragic backbone to a great period piece and crime film.
Harold & Maude (1971):
Hard to imagine much funny about an 18 year old obsessed with death & suicide as he becomes romantically involved with an octogenarian who attends funerals for fun. However, Hal Ashby does it in this cult-classic dark comedy. It's through the quirkiness of the performances & character traits that allows us, even if we are not at all a Harold or a Maude, ready to want to be more like them and less like the 'normal' world around them. The overall uplifting idea of knowing how to truly live constant throughout certainly helps. All that and a Cat Stevens soundtrack!
First off, The Beatles! My favorite era of their music is the middle period that started with Help and lasts through Magical Mystery Tour. The lads push their comedic chops beyond what they accomplished in Hard Days Night, but here become something that feels like the Marx Brothers time travel from the past to meet Monty Python in the future. Set-piece-wise I really love the seemingly separate row-house exterior that inside is one long open concept flat with each Beatle having their own color/look/theme to their area: Paul's organ rising up from the floor, John's sunken bed, George's lawn & gardener, and Ringo's automat.
Monty Python & The Holy Grail (1975):
My favorite movie. At the age of 12, this is what introduced me to Monty Python, and I think it changed my life. The troupe has been called "The Beatles of comedy", which, after HELP, feels like a logical next-step. As a kid who loved knights & fantasy, as well as humor that felt safely subversive, this move struck a lot of chords with me. At that age, my friends and I liked making movies, and there was something about the way this is filmed (and watching the making-of enforces this) that felt like a group of kids making a movie...though the final product isn't at all diminished for it. In fact, the authenticity of the setting and photography is what makes the comedy work at such a high level. That grounding of realism makes the absurd all the more potent. It's the same grounding I use in Mouse Guard with the natural world & worldbuilding being as precise as I can make it, while the mice themselves are a little off-model from nature.
The Music Man (1962):
My parents, and to some degree my sisters, loved musicals. For whatever reason, as a kid, I couldn't get into Oklahoma, West Side Story, or My Fair Lady (though they were on heavy repeat in the Petersen house)...but the first one that landed with me was Music Man. I'm not sure what resonates the most with me, the tale of a swindler with a heart of gold who just needed the right reson to stop swindling? or the music, performed by Robert Preston & Shirley Jones. Can't entirely say, but Julia and I did have 'Till There Was You' sung at our wedding.
My Side of the Mountain (1969):
On an overnight visit to my paternal Grandparent's house, my Grandfather told me to "come in to the living room and see this movie with a boy living in a tree". He got me. I loved wandering off in the woods and building forts when I was as young as 5. This adaptation of the book of the same name (another case where I think the film fixes problems the book has) has a boy named Sam Gribley moving out into the wild to make his own way in the world. A self-sufficient 12 year-old who builds his home into a tree hollow, makes his own fireplace & pottery out of river clay, and befriends wild animals as pets/companions. Everything young David Petersen wanted to do. In fact, when I was Sam's age, I did have a fort in the woods with a fireplace inside where I'd cook eggs, sausage, potatoes, and warm up frozen burritos. I think this movie also influenced the way I looked at how the mice make their way in the world, how do they do pottery, how to they kiln bake it? how do they preserve food? what materials do they make clothes out of? Thanks Grandpa.
Nightmare Before Christmas (1993):
I'd grown up on the Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas/holiday specials, but Nightmare was the first time I saw really compelling stop-motion, especially of this length. Before this movie came out, in middle-school, I'd played around with our home camera and clay or toys to animate. Nightmare Before Christmas came out when I was in high school, it renewed my desire to animate, and even go so-far as to scratch-build my own stop-motion puppets. The design of this movie is also so special, not just the characters and the art direction for the obvious Tim Burton-isms, but all of the structures and props.
Everything that appears on film was hand made....for this film. Every character, garment, object, tree, gravestone...you name it, fabricated for the movie.
The Wizard of Oz (1939):
A classic. In 2nd grade, in art class, Rebecca Holm told me that she was putting on a play of Wizard of Oz, and that if I wanted to be in it, I had to watch the movie when it aired on TV that night. Done. I was the Tin Woodsman. The production turned out to be something us kids put so much work into that even when our teacher Ms. Polly said 'no' we couldn't perform it as a class project (at this point 1/2 the class was in it) a few of our parents called her privately to explain how much work we'd all put in and how meaningful it would be. I drove my family crazy by watching and rewatching to 'learn my lines', and by the time of the play, I could recite 3/4 of the movie by heart...not just my part, but all the parts.
Return to Oz (1985):
As I mentioned earlier, we had a Betamax...and at a time when that format was going extinct. When I'd get the chance to rent something, and it wasn't Candleshoe, it was Return to OZ. The movie led me to know OZ outside of the 1939 musical adaptation and to the original books (which I didn't read many of, but did flip through exhaustively at the library). The darker tone didn't scare me, which was a popular complaint when the movie was released. And the production design was so interesting to me...even then I felt a sense of authenticity to the look of the characters and settings. I was lead to discover how much was influenced by my now favorite OZ illustrator John R. Neill.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988):
My parents didn't take me to many movies in the theaters. They had become soured on all the talking, sticky floors, and previews (they called "ads") so this is the only entry on the list my parents took me to see in the theater. I was 11, and what kid doesn't love cartoons? I also, it turns out, love period films...so this blend made me happy. I wanted to be Roger. I mimicked Roger (I still do a decent impression), but most importantly, I drew Roger. This movie made me want to draw more. Before this I was interested in art, but it was an occasional hobby. Drawing Roger and the other toons is what tipped the balance over to art being my primary leisure activity, and paved the way for me getting into more art classes in middle-school.
IT - TV Mini Series (1990):
Tim Curry as Pennywise...hard act to follow. Though I did REALLY like the 2017 film, I am impressed by how accurate the TV mini-series is to the book. This came on TV when I was in middle-school. I was not really into horror or scary movies, but something about the ads leading up to broadcast compelling (my older sister, who was married & out of the house by 1990, was a Stephen King fan...and perhaps I wanted to impress her). I'm sure this is by desing, but I could relate to the Losers. I was one of them, and so were my friends. My childhood felt like a lot of King's books with kid protagonists, but without the supernatural clowns, dead bodies, or really horrible stuff...I explored the Flint, MI storm drains, had forts in the woods, hung around the train tracks, and explored the abandoned 'haunted house' at the end of my street. This was my first introduction to King's work, and is still my favorite book of his.
Shawshank Redemption (1994):
In some ways, this is on my list because of the 'Shawshank Effect': That if flipping through channels, if you discover it's on, you will watch it again for the umpteenth time, no matter how far along it it...but I think that effect has a compelling reason...The movie is really good! I mentioned above that IT lead me to become a Stephen King fan, and this story so wonderfully shows his ability to write and not just scare. The movie is a terrific adaptation. The pacing, use of narration, and how it treats its revelas and twists is a great example lesson in storytelling. Yet another period piece on my list...
Dark Crystal (1982):
Worldbuilding is important to me as a storyteller. And I think seeing The Dark Crystal was the first time I became so aware of it, I realized it was something intentional and a craft to be honed. Like I mentioned with Nightmare, the fabrication of that world was so important, nothing was found, everything was created. It should be no surprise that I am a big fan of Jim Henson's work. And I love that this movie, unlike Labyrinth, never has a visible human...every performance is through some form of puppetry or costume. As a young artist who enjoyed creature design, seeing Brian Froud's drawings realized as physical puppets with detailed costuming, textures and movement, was, and is, a treat to this day. I know the story is a bit slow, but I forgive that for the blessings of design, craftsmanship, and mood The Dark Crystal gives in return.
The Village (2004):
By the time The Village came out, audiences had gotten used to the 'twist' endings in M. Night Shyamalan's movies and were prepared to look for them and therefore be underwhelmed when they arrived. But I think the photography, 'period' worldcraft, and performances aren't the only reason the twist isn't what this movie hinges on. See, I think, this is one of the rare movies where knowing the twist, enriches the viewing, enriches understanding the character motivations, and enriches the central relationships. I also enjoy using the scene of Ivy & Lucius on the porch as one of the best love scenes with two characters that never physically become amorous or say the word 'love'. Plus, the color symbology and the creature design are right up my alley.
Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story (2005):
A period comedy musical...it's like many of my movie tendencies merged into one. Walk Hard delivers on a lot of levels, cast, type of humor, but I think most importantly, authenticity. Not only do the in-jokes and phases of Dewy's musical career dovetail into a multi-decade understanding of real musical and cultural paradigm shifts, but the music itself, though parody, is so well done, much of it stands on its own (I recommend the 30 track soundtrack with songs not in the film). The care and songcraft that went into those songs that span musical styles and artists-cliche's through the years shows a level of worldbuilding comedy movies can't generally do. "It's about make a little music every day 'till you die; it's a beautiful ride."
Wind in the Willows - Cosgrove Hall (1983):
Though released when I was in elementary school, it wasn't until I was in college that I was able to get my hands on a VHS boxed set of this series and watch it in-full. From the list already you can see my appreciation for stop-motion, handcrafted elements, and lovingly built worlds. As much as E.H. Shephard, Inga Moore, and Arthur Rackham were influences on my illustrated adaptation of Wind in the Willows, so was the Cosgrove Hall animated version. Wind in the Willows is one of my favorite books, and this is my favorite movie adaptation of it.
It's A Wonderful Life (1946):
A Holiday classic! Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore star in my favorite Christmas movie. It's full of 1940's black and white film goodness, a little over-the-top character acting in bits, but also really meaningful subtle moments. One of the things I enjoy the most about It's A Wonderful Life is its playing with darker ideas: suicide, never existing, addiction, extreme loss, & the butterfly effect; being woven into an ultimately uplifting story at Christmas time in the grand tradition of Christmas ghost stories like Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Also, the opening bit with the angels talking to each other depicted as twinkling stars feels to me like a Mignola handling how to story-tell an etherial being conversation.
Doctor Zhivago (1965):
Another film I learned to love thanks to my Father.
It's a period piece, an epic, sweeping drama, with big picturesque set pieces and establishing shots. I really appreciate the framing of the narrative both sandwiched between Zhivago's brother searching for the lost love child of his late brother and mistress Lara, and narrated by that brother as played by Alec Guinness. I wanted Mouse Guard to be square format so I could do wide panels with impact on the page like a David Lean movie.
Yellow Submarine (1968):
Discovered this movie when I was in middle school while taking an animation class at the Flint Institute of Arts. While we were making flat-paper-cutout animation in the style of Terry Gilliam, The teacher wanted to share this with us to show how effective stylized two dimensional shapes can be even with simple movements. And while the Beatles had no real involvement with the creative decisions, the humor feels like a logical growth from HELP!. It's a really fun narrative that promotes Love.
This was a staple replayed in high school as I drew things from my imagination and tried to realize them on paper. Bonus points for getting turned on to artists Heinz Edelmann & Peter Max because of Yellow Submarine.
Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996):
"Morning in Paris, the city awakes to the bells of Notre Dame..."
That opening sequence...I mean, wow! And while Beauty and the Beast ranks higher for me overall as a modern Disney animated movie, the parts of Hunchback that work, work so well, that it gets the spot on the list. This is also my favorite Disney musical soundtrack, and I have very fond memories of taking parts and singing it aloud with Jesse Glenn in early college, as well as in the attic of my hometown church as I painted a new outdoor sign for the building. No surprise that a piece of medieval architecture plays such a strong part in a movie on my list. Not to mention that Quasimodo is a model builder with a scale set of the world he longs to be a part of is a big part of my professional job (and I love the look of the carved pieces.)
Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004):
I love the Harry Potter books. Rowling did such a fantastic job of crafting a modern classic fairy/folktale...and one that perfectly handles the loophole-problematic concept of magic. Azkaban is not only my favorite of the Potter books, but I think the most innovative of the films. Part of that is due to the length of the source material not needing to be as condensed to fit a run-time as the later volumes, but Alfonzo Cuaron played with style at exactly the right point in this series to tackle the shifting tone of the narrative as well as become something more than the slightly safe/pedestrian takes on the first two books. His transitions from scene to scene really impressed me, and gave some nice breathing room that allowed us some time to be at Hogwarts without a running narrative. This is where the film series turns a corner that informs the rest of the series look and cinematic mood.
Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981):
This one's on most people's lists I'd assume. I can't help but think of it as a near-perfect movie. George Lucas & Stephen Spielberg played up their love of radio & movie serials with the larger-than-life adventure hero constantly cliffhanging out of the fat and into the fire. The story structure and character introductions are so clean and efficient that nothing could/should be added or removed that would improve this movie. And while that opening scene, seems hard to top, the rest of the movie does the near impossible and lives up to that spectacular start. Indy being irrelevant to the plot (an old analysis made popular on The Big Bang Theory) I think is irrelevant. Even IF Indy played no role in shaping the outcome, there is still value in the ride...it's not the destination but the journey.
Disney's Robin Hood (1973):
Medieval folk hero, adventure story, with talking animals...I think this movie is responsible for some things in my creative life. As a kid, for some reason, I called it "Robin Hood: The Animal". Before Mouse Guard was Mouse Guard, it was called 1149, and had a variety of animal species as main characters...including a fox and a bear. Disney's Robin Hood was not only an influence for my love of these types of stories, but a blueprint that the prototype version of Mouse Guard was based on.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980):
Star Wars is such a cultural and universal experience, I'm sure no one is surprised to see one of the entries on my list. Empire being my shining example, is also a cliche. But, I think for great reasons.
The 2nd act of most plays is where things heat up and get really interesting, and Star Wars is no exception. I love how different Empire sets out to play the Star Wars narrative. The tone shifts, it becomes more character driven, the locations and design are different, but it's still familiar. The ante is upped with both in-atmosphere pilot battles & spaceship dogfights. And that epic showdown/reveal with Luke & Vader tops nearly everything before and since in a Star Wars movie. Joseph Campbell's concept of the Monomyth is on full display in the original Star Wars trilogy. And as a storyteller, my working vocabulary of those concepts isn't from The Epic of Gilgamesh, Sinbad, or The Odessy...it's in Star Wars, and it certainly informed my story structure in Mouse Guard.
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