Sunday, 30 September 2018

What Murdered Mike's Murder?: An Overview


Two years ago, I concluded my case study of The Ladd Company's "Tree of Life" logo with the promise that a review of one of the company's lesser-known pictures was in the works. I sincerely hope you didn't hold your breath on that. The gestation process has been long and slow (thanks in part to the sound on my old VHS copy of the film suddenly deciding to become borderline inaudible shortly after I wrote that) but finally I'm making good on my promise. Thus, I present to you the first installment in "What Murdered Mike's Murder?", an idea I've had sprawled across the back-burner for almost as long as I've been running this blog. Here's where I'll be looking at a film that got brutally gutted, firstly by unimpressed test audiences and then in the editing room in an earnest (if futile) attempt to manufacture a crowd pleaser and finally got a sniff of indifference from the critics before the world obligingly forgot that it ever existed. It is not a perfect film by any means - and yet is a film that echoes its subject matter perfectly in so many (inadvertent) regards.

I find myself endlessly fascinated by Mike's Murder, a much-ignored feature film from director James Bridges, who is probably most famous for his nuclear disaster thriller The China Syndrome (1979). Released in 1984, Mike's Murder is a low-budget drama focusing on the dingier side of Los Angeles - the side populated by thieves and hustlers and crammed full of perilous dead ends. The story was apparently a very personal one for Bridges, who'd known a number of people who were killed for their involvement in the Los Angeles drugs trade. He remained haunted by their deaths, which were not deemed notable enough to make the news headlines and stayed hidden away within the homicide notices of local papers, compelling Bridges to make a picture revolving around that sense of lives being casually rubbed out and going largely ignored by the wider world. He had great ambitions for Mike's Murder, which he envisioned as a highly experimental piece with an unconventional narrative structure, but this was all offset by a disastrous test screening in early 1983. Audiences did not take to Bridges' arthouse sensibilities, with nobody in that initial, 1,200-strong test audience seeing fit to give the film their vote of approval. Bridges was so unnerved by their response that he delayed the release of the film for a full year to allow time for extensive retooling. Mike's Murder was given a full, top-to-bottom makeover in order to remove as much of that arthouse DNA as possible, and the end result is a film that blatantly shows the cracks and the glue, and which takes on a peculiar life of its own all because of it.

Mike's Murder centres around the relationship between two individuals living low-key lives within the cracks of Los Angeles society - Mike (Mark Keyloun), a drifter-cum-tennis instructor who supplements his income by hustling drugs on the side, and his would-be girlfriend Betty, a young bank teller with a more promising career trajectory ahead of her (she's played by Debra Winger, our good friend from Black Widow). Mike and Betty first meet upon the tennis court and share an intimate evening together, but their relationship never takes off thanks to Mike's errant lifestyle, which obligates him to keep a low profile and to be constantly on the run. He and Betty cross paths every so often, each time bringing the renewed hope of a fresh start that invariably goes nowhere. Eventually Mike meets an unnatural demise, as the title promises he will, and when the news reaches Betty she sets out to investigate - although the story never really comes together as either a mystery or a thriller. In fact, "never really comes together" would be an apt description for so many facets of Mike Murder. It is a film about a relationship that is waiting to happen, but never does, much as the film itself seems to take place on a largely monotonous sideline, from which it catches the occasional glimpse of something happening off in the distance, but is only prepared to move in so far for a closer look (as per the American Film Institute's entry on the film, this was a stylistic choice on Bridges' part, for he was booking to simulate the experience of watching the Los Angeles underground it evokes from the detached perspective of a vehicle passing through). It has very little narrative momentum behind it; the particulars of Mike's murder are not especially compelling, and the film's attempt to manufacture a dramatic third act, in which Betty is confronted by Pete (Darrell Larson), a treacherous associate of Mike's, is wholly unconvincing and does not lead to a satisfying pay-off (although it does incorporate a pretty slick moment in which Betty is able to fend off Pete by feigning an earthquake). Bridges' film positions itself as more of a character study than a mystery, with Betty's investigation being less about unraveling the truth behind Mike's disappearance and seeking some form of retribution than about gaining a fleeting window into the life of the man who had her transfixed for so long, but whom she never had the opportunity to understand in any kind of substantive detail.

Mike's Murder is a film about the haunting suggestion of what might have been, and precisely what makes it such a fascinating (and frustrating) experience is in the puzzle it inadvertently imposes upon the viewer as to the picture that might have been, had those early test audiences been a smidgen more favourable. Watching Mike's Murder, one is struck by just how unevenly it unfolds as a narrative; the curious time skips which seem purposely designed to confuse the viewer as to how much time has elapsed between Mike and Betty's sporadic encounters, the disjointed, episodic structure of the earlier sequences, complete with ominous fade-outs which become less prevalent as the story goes on. It's in these opening stages that we get our most tantalising glimpses of the picture that Bridges initially wanted to make, and it's probably no coincidence that these constitute the strongest moments of Mike's Murder - when it is a film about two souls wandering in and out of one another's lives, exchanging vague pleasantries and then going their separate ways, never getting close enough to satiate their mutual longing for intimacy. Mike's arc might be where all the danger and excitement is (ostensibly, anyway), and yet it is Betty's perspective that rings the truest, the most engaging sequences being those in which we catch Betty in the mundane comfort of her own home, where she's greeted by intermittent telephone communication from Mike. The first act shows Betty having to bond with Mike from afar, getting the occasional glimpse into his precarious lifestyle while she herself moves up in the world (in that she receives a promotion throughout the course of the film). The film's atmosphere is well-sustained at this point, evoking a contrast between the seediness of the Los Angeles underground and the city's sunny, glamorous exterior, and - more often - the sheer banality that lies in between. Once the titular event occurs and Betty switches into amateur sleuth mode, the film becomes significantly less interesting (Paul Winfield's charming performance as a gay record producer with whom Mike was also romantically involved notwithstanding). The sequences in which Betty retraces Mike's old haunts have a fun, noir-ish feel, but the story has nowhere to go and is basically just spinning its wheels for the remaining hour. We got to spend enough time with Mike prior to his demise to know that he's not an amazingly deep or interesting character, and the scant revelations gleaned by Betty on her travels - his bisexuality, his love of Polaroids - do little to alter that. There is a concurrent narrative thread regarding Pete's increasing desperation in the aftermath of Mike's demise, since he figures that he's next on the hit list, which ultimately prompts him to seek out Betty and put her at direct risk at the only point in the film, but this fails to generate narrative tension. Mostly, Pete's involvement comes off as a contrived attempt to raise the personal stakes for Betty, in a manner which comes dangerously close to undermining the deliberate mundaneness which characterises the rest of the picture. What genuine pathos the film is able to eke from Mike's demise comes from the distinct lack of drama surrounding it, and from the revelation that his murder is nothing more than part of the milieu in a city where near-identical stories are playing out on a daily basis, as hinted at by one of the figures encountered by Betty, an aspiring Chippendale dancer named Richard (Daniel Shor), who informs her that Mike was one of multiple friends he lost this week to drug-related causes. As I say, the film doesn't have the narrative momentum to function as a thriller, yet it is obligated to masquerade as one thanks to the rigorous efforts to reign it into a more routine structure. This was not a picture destined for conventionality, yet it has had conventionality awkwardly thrust upon it, and what we are left with is a curious end-product that never seems happy with itself or settles into any kind of consistent shape. As a narrative, Mike's Murder does not satisfy, and yet it leaves a lingering impression by virtue of its oddness; it is a portrait of loneliness, alienation and, ultimately, survival (on Betty's end of things, anyway) with an obvious hole where something more should be.

As noted, Mike's Murder was born from Bridges' own experiences of having acquaintances vanish abruptly from his life due to their involvement in the Los Angeles drugs scene, so it shouldn't surprise us that his original conception was for the film to focus overwhelmingly on Betty's perspective. Indeed, one of the reasons why that early telephone conversation between Betty and Mike proves so effective is because it puts the viewer in a position where they, too, are at a distance from Mike, only able to glean whatever cagey details about his circumstances he cares to disclose to Betty -  a sensation not sustained elsewhere in the film, where the narrative intersects freely between Betty's daily routine and Mike's adventures in hustling (until Mike's luck runs out and his narrative thread is usurped by Pete). The film's AFI page describes Bridges' original cut as a "subjective film", complete with a number of flashbacks and fantasy sequences that were ultimately removed in response to test audience feedback, although Wikipedia and the film's IMDb's trivia page (not the most reliable sources of information, I'll grant you) both specify that the original intention was for the film to have a backwards narrative - in which case, it appears that the film would have opened with the titular murder already having occurred and from there traced things back to the inception of Mike and Betty's relationship, and to their one night of genuine intimacy. This puts the viewer at a significantly different starting point, for the implication is that Mike's character would have been presented as a mystery that was slowly revealed to us over the course of the film - the "real" Mike behind the violent (yet alarmingly routine) killing might not have been any more deep or interesting than in Bridges' final cut, yet the entire point, one assumes, would be to convey the extent to which Betty remains affected by their fleeting encounters, and by his abrupt erasure. We look back from Betty's perspective, attempting to fill in the blanks and assemble a portrait of Mike based on her meagre first-hand experiences and other characters' recollections; the promise of what might have been versus the stark and unfulfilling reality.

Rearranging a film designed for backwards chronology to run in a more linear fashion is not a task to be undertaken lightly, and I think this accounts for why Mike's Murder winds up falling so flat on the narrative front. The overall story may be exactly the same, but our perception and the overall meaning of the film are inevitably going to change depending on where we enter in and where we ultimately end up, and this is one of the things that most intrigues me about Bridges' film - its implications about the drastic differences that changes to the narrative layout can make to a picture. One of the most popular films to utilise the reverse chronology technique would of course be Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), the stylish neo-noir that gave the then up-and-coming director the much-needed exposure that ultimately led to his becoming a Hollywood favourite (although, contrary to popular belief, Nolan did not invent the technique, which has long been a favourite of experimental storytellers - Harold Pinter had already successfully applied it in his 1978 play Betrayal, which was adapted into a film starring Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge in 1983, itself echoing a narrative device used by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart for their 1934 stage production Merrily We Roll Along, and I'm sure there are earlier examples still). If Mike's Murder was indeed intended to follow a similar narrative format, then I am reminded of that "The Beginning of The End" edit that you can access as a hidden feature on home media releases of Memento, which plays the events in their true chronological sequence (warning - some spoilers for Memento will follow). Although this "chronologically correct" version of Memento makes for interesting companion viewing besides the official release, there are multiple reasons why it could not hope to function as a substitute for it. "The Beginning of The End" is as tediously, joylessly straightforward as a narrative can be - everything we are informed in advance is going to happen happens, until finally we reach our painfully abrupt conclusion and the experience halts. There is no mystery, and no sense of betrayal at the end, because we've known all along that the protagonist's mission is founded on a lie. More than anything, it bears out just how much of the film's impact hinges upon the novelty of its narrative form. Memento benefits immeasurably from keeping its viewer suspended in a state of perpetual uncertainty; too much clarity, and the whole thing crumbles.

In the film proper, the backwards narrative serves two important functions - firstly, to provide a structural reflection of the protagonist's unusual mental state. Our hero, Leonard (Guy Pearce), was the victim of an assault which left him brain damaged, resulting in a condition called anterograde amnesia, meaning that he is unable to create new long-term memories. Leonard's long-term memory up until the assault remains intact, but he has no means of remembering anything that has occurred since and is dependent on a system of carefully-managed visual cues - tattoos, post-it notes, Polaroids* - to keep him grounded within the present moment. This is particularly important, as Leonard has lofty ambitions of tracking down and exacting personal revenge on his mysterious assailant, whom he also believes to be responsible for the death of his wife (Jorja Fox). Because the narrative unfolds in reverse, we share in Leonard's temporal blind spot, never knowing exactly what has led him to his immediate predicament and having to rely on the meagre clues at our fingertips to keep our sense of narrative coherence afloat. Like Leonard, we experience the constant dislocation of existing only in the present, although unlike Leonard we do have a memory of sorts - we have the luxury of understanding where his story is ultimately headed and this in turn affects what sense we are able to make of the present, notably our perception of Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a figure who wanders continuously in and out of Leonard's journey and whom the viewer is primed, from the start, to see as untrustworthy. Which us leads onto the format's second function - to engineer and purposely misdirect the viewer's expectations. Because we have spent the entirety of the film sympathising with Leonard's plight, it only heightens our feelings of betrayal at the end when we discover that Leonard has, in actuality, been deceiving himself, and by extension us. As it turns out, Leonard would sooner exist in his own custom-built narrative than come to grips with the reality of his situation, his unending compulsion to play judge, jury and executioner seemingly having more to do with shielding himself from a few unpalatable truths than with avenging his wife's death. An exercise in audience manipulation, Nolan's film evokes in a broader sense the manner in which memory colours our perception of the present, and how this relates to our sense of purpose and identity - a dangerous business when so much of our comprehension of past events rests on misinformation and misdirection (in some instances quite willfully). Leonard may be an extreme example, but Nolan uses him as a metaphor for the kinds of self-deceit we are all posited to practice on some level.

Mike's Murder concludes with yet another confusing time skip, with Betty having returned to her home some undefined time after her encounter with Pete, now finally ready to pick up the pieces and move on with her life. Her memory of Mike still haunts her but she has found a more positive way to incorporate that memory into her life going forward. Playing that story backwards, the film becomes less about Betty's resilience than about investing the deceased Mike with a life and humanity; the attempt to trace Mike back from his afterlife as a series of static images acquired by Betty at the end of her arc and locate the individual who was lost in all of this. It becomes a story about necromancy and tearing open old wounds as much as survival and moving on. Still, as per the AFI page, the re-editing process was a lot more complicated than just a simple rearrangement of the order in which sequences ran (if it were as straightforward as that, then I might have had a crack at creating my own fan edit by now). Entire sequences were pulled because they were deemed too violent or distasteful, including one in which Betty visualises Mike's brutal killing (this was probably a good call, as the titular murder is more effective for not occurring onscreen in any shape or form) and a moment in which Mike and Betty engage in mutual masturbation during their telephone conversation (which would account for why that particular sequence fades out so abruptly). Additional sequences were also shot and incorporated into the final edit, including most of the footage focusing on Pete's side of the story - this does not come as a revelation, given how awkwardly his arc meshes with the rest of the narrative (although, curiously enough, the AFI does stipulate that "Debra Winger was not involved with any of the reshoots", implying that the gratuitous climax in which Betty and Pete face off was always intended to be a part of the feature). The irony is that Bridges was apparently satisfied with the changes and believed that they had resulted in making Mike's Murder a stronger picture, although the film opened up to tepid critical reception and was swiftly banished to a black hole of deep obscurity. I cannot blame the world for its indifference - as a standalone piece, Mike's Murder is not particularly successful. It's a bit limp as a character drama, despite occasional flashes of style, and its retroactive attempts to make the film more narrative-driven are conspicuous and misguided, so that the ugliness of Pete's story ends up detracting considerably from whatever subtle poignancy the doomed central relationship might have brought. And yet, we know that this is not the film as it was originally intended to be. It could well be that Bridges' original cut was entirely deserving of its disastrous test screening and that the edits did improve (if not salvage) the experience - but the fact remains we'll never know, and it's that unknown factor that transforms the film from a relatively uninspiring drama and into a tantalising curiosity piece.

I note that even the promotional artwork was drastically different (and a lot more kickass) for earlier conceptions of the film.

Adding to the mystique of Mike's Murder would be the crossed wires surrounding the film's music. The original cut contained a pop/new wave soundtrack by English musician Joe Jackson, but this was to prove another casualty of the extensive re-editing, which discarded much of Jackson's contribution in favour of a more conventional orchestral score by John Barry (although portions of Jackson's soundtrack do survive in the final cut). Jackson's soundtrack wound up seeing the light of day as a commercial release anyway, thanks to record company A&M's unwillingness to hold off the tie-in LP in accordance with the film's production delays. Jackson's soundtrack was released in 1983, and by the time the actual film showed up in 1984, the LP plainly reflected a version of the film that no longer existed. It is as is the two products had wandered in from alternate timelines. Thanks to the Jackson LP we have some tangible evidence, that we can actually hold in our hands, of the Mike's Murder that might have been.

Sadly, Bridges died of cancer in 1993. He made two more pictures after Mike's Murder, Perfect (1985) and the Michael J Fox vehicle Bright Lights, Big City (1988). His death would appear to eliminate all prospects of us ever getting a director's cut reflecting his original vision for Mike's Murder, but then the film's failure to leave any kind of dent in popular consciousness may already have put pay to that. Let's face it, you'd never heard of Mike's Murder until you read about it here. I'd only heard of it because I'm such a Ladd Company obsessive. Even the man who sold me my (terminally decrepit) VHS copy of the film remarked upon my obvious eye for obscurities. The film was never likely to have mass appeal, and yet I've found myself going back to it time and time again, ever more intrigued by this dreary little drama that doesn't quite get itself off the ground. Like Memento, it presents the viewer with a puzzle of sorts, but unlike Memento, it's not a puzzle that one can possibly hope to solve. No amount of gazing into the film's assorted narrative and stylistic voids will leave us any more enlightened as to the film that Bridges originally set out to make, and which, if you squint, you just about catch enough teasing remnants of lurking in the final piece. It's a mystery that sucks you in - not the total non-mystery as to what became of Mike but the greater question as to what happened to Mike's Murder. The film ends up languishing in a hazy kind of no man's land - too straightforward and unadventurous to stand out as anything particularly visionary and yet too odd and unconventional to cater to mainstream tastes. It seems destined to satisfy no one, and therein lies its bizarre appeal.

Oh, and I finally gave up on trying to force my old VHS to behave. Fortunately, Mike's Murder has been released via the Warner Archive collection on a region-free disc, so the film is at least easy enough to get hold of nowadays.

*As a Polaroid hobbyist myself I must confess that it frankly bugs me that Leonard appears to get immaculate Polaroids every time, despite the fact that he shakes them so vigorously - which, contrary to popular belief, does not do them any good. NOBODY gets immaculate Polaroids that frequently, particularly when they treat their prints so haphazardly. What can I say, it's just not fair.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

And The Cuckoo Comes (The Advisory Circle)

Of all the phenomenons I've encountered throughout my years as an internet junkie, none have proven more personally enlightening than than the strange and devoted cult followings surrounding the great British institution of the public information film, or PIF. To put it bluntly, there are numerous people out there who are weirdly fascinated by those grim and often downright grisly educational videos that took big wet (and possibly rabid) bites out of their psyches as children; when I discovered just how deep that fascination ran, I felt a peculiar sense of belonging. It was as if something I'd been carrying around with me since early childhood - more specifically, since the point when some road safety gurus came to my preschool and gave out colouring books filled with images of unwary nippers getting plowed down by cyclists - had finally clicked into gear and found its rightful place in the world; as if some confusion I'd buried deep within my soul had suddenly attained clarity. At long last, I was with my people.

The allure of the PIF, on the surface, has to do with the dark side of nostalgia and the omnipresent disturbance that hung over what were supposedly our salad days. The PIF taught us that death and destruction were lying in wait in the most mundane of places, and the malaise it triggered was so deep and pervasive that we feel almost inclined to give ourselves a pat on the back just for having survived to adulthood. I would argue, however, that a significant part of that fascination lies less in the surface horror than in a deeper unease still, one that as children we were unable to articulate or comprehend and wound up lugging around with us in our subconscious; that is, the mystery as to why the adults would be so sadistic as to inflict such images of terror upon our tender young minds in the first place. Perhaps that was the most troubling aspect of all regarding the PIF - the sheer incongruity of having this distastefulness forced upon us by the very authority figures we were encouraged to see as respectable and upstanding (teachers, police officers, librarians and their ilk). I suspect that, on a unconscious level, those early PIF encounters might have seen the birth of our very first experience in not quite trusting authority; the folks who assure us that they've got our best interests at heart and that this tiny bit of psychological scarring isn't going to hurt (much). These were the demented minds who supposed that the best way to reinforce the concept of road safety awareness among small children was to gift them with images of colour-in carnage. In the same way, the PIF reveals the sickness and sadism of authority even when they're looking to present what would appear to be perfectly laudable messages.

Electronic musician Jon Brooks is one PIF devotee who took this malaise and channeled it into an art form; in his case, into a project known as The Advisory Circle, which to date has released five albums via the Ghost Box label, whose mission statement, according to the official website, is to explore "the misremembered musical history of a parallel world." The Advisory Circle's debut album, Mind How You Go, which saw the light of day in 2005 (and was later repressed as a revised edition in 2010), displays a particularly evident love/hate fixation with the PIFs that dogged the nightmares and afternoon teatimes of the Dark and Lonely Water Generation. Distrust of authority is a recurring theme throughout, right from the short opening track, "Logo", where a slightly off-kilter female voice assures us that The Advisory Circle is all about "helping you make the right decisions". It becomes particularly salient in the track at the very heart of the album, a beguiling curiosity piece entitled "And The Cuckoo Comes". Here, another slightly off-kilter female voice chips in atop a slew of swirling and discordant synths to recite a pseudo-educational passage on the comings and goings of the seasons. The owner of this voice is, alas, not credited, but she sounds innocuously reminiscent of Vicky Ireland narrating a segment on the BBC Schools program Words and Pictures, only crossed with the bristling contempt of a school headmistress who's grown weary of her charges. Her voice is ostensibly non-threatening enough that a casual listener may not even pick up on the track's trickery to begin with. And yet, with attentive listening its sinister nature becomes apparent. The implicit message of "Cuckoo" is to be wary of the voice of authority, for here authority is selling us a pack of lies. This is what she tells us:

In the summer...well, it's usually cold and sometimes it snows. The winds blow. In the autumn...the flowers are out, and the sun shines. In the winter...the leaves grow again on the trees. And in the spring...the winds blow, and the leaves fall from the trees. And the sun shines.
The leaves grow again on the trees and sometimes it snows.
And the cuckoo comes...

Joseph Stannard, covering the album in an article on The Quietus, identifies this track as, "the point at which the voice of authority becomes the voice of confusion. Common sense breaks down." But there is something a lot more troubling going on here than the sheer wrongness of the dialogue. "Cuckoo" is disturbing in its presentation of the cycles of nature, which have been purposely carved up and rearranged so that the seasonal cycle feels less like an unending process of renewal and regeneration than one of inescapable chaos. It represents the seasons as being at constant loggerheads, with each new season disrupting or contradicting what has come before it. The leaves grow on the trees in the winter only for spring to come along with its cold winds and blow them all down again. The autumn brings flowers and sunshine but the trees will remain bare until winter's fleeting return. In the end, the seasons all blur together into one eternal stretch of deadening futility. Creation is followed by destruction, nothing lasts for long or flows in any coherent sequence and the very fabric of reality begins to break down. And "Cuckoo" impassively coaxes us into accepting this as the natural order. For not only is the seasonal cycle in "Cuckoo" severely out of whack, but there is something eerily hypnotic about the track's increasingly garbled mantras, as if its true purpose lies in convincing the listener to surrender everything they understand about the world and to accept this distorted vision of reality in its place. With enough beleaguering, authority could convince us that black is white and get us killed on the next zebra crossing. If it didn't have our health and safety so firmly at its heart, of course.

And the cuckoo?  It is likely a reference to this traditional rhyme (which also - one assumes - provided the basis for Simon & Garfunkel's "April Come She Will"):

"The cuckoo comes in April,
She sings her song in May,
In the month of June she changes her tune,
And in July she flies away."

The above rhyme is likewise concerned with the cycles of nature and the passage of time, and with the inevitability of change but also the consistency with which these annual patterns are able to keep on replicating themselves. In The Advisory Circle's track the cuckoo's appearance is presented as a punchline of sorts; on the surface, the coming of a cuckoo sounds like a laughably innocuous way to round of its sequence of dread, and yet "Cuckoo" depicts it as the inevitable culmination of this never-ending chaos, so that the harbinger of spring becomes the harbinger of doom. This sinister presentation plays into the split personality of the cuckoo (or at least the personalities we have ascribed it), as a bird that is, on the one hand, synonymous with spring and with new life and regrowth. And yet this romantic emblem is also a brood parasite whose breeding habits fly in the face of everything we assume to be true about maternal instinct. If you happen to be a reed warbler then the coming of the cuckoo would be a very disastrous thing indeed. The brood parasitism of the cuckoo evokes nature at its most freakishly topsy turvy - as many an ornithologist can attest, the sight of a tiny reed warbler raising an enormous cuckoo chick is borderline surreal, the adult bird going about its business entirely oblivious to the fact that this gigantic imposter has mass-murdered its own biological offspring. "And The Cuckoo Comes" is a track about distortion but also duality, and the chaotic undercurrent it suggests is perpetually lurking beneath the apparent blissfulness of green and pleasant Britain, and which might occasionally manifest itself in the absurd (yet sinister) sight of that infant cuckoo occupying the warbler's nest. There is a strange and unfriendly world out there, which is precisely why the oversight of an authority like the fictitious Advisory Circle should prove so appealing. And yet Mind How You Go also evokes the paradoxical manner in which such authority, in attempting to impose order and understanding upon the chaos, merely heightens our confusion and sense of dread. Ah well. Stay safe. And if it's summer...don't be tempted to cut across any frozen ponds as you make your way home tonight.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Rescuers Down Under: Of Mice, Men and Those Left Behind To Rot

Last month, I wrote an entry on the "Disneyification" of nature, partly in response to the discussions raised in David Ingram's book Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema, where I identified Bambi, The Lion King and Brother Bear as Disney's three animal-orientated ecopics. Those are the three which most obviously attempt to match environmental consciousness with a sense of grandeur and/or mysticism, although in truth there are probably a few others I could have mentioned. I purposely left out Pocahontas (1995), which has a definite ecological theme but regulates the animals therein purely to the roles of comic sidekicks. The Fox and The Hound (1981) is another nature-orientated story, but it doesn't have a particularly explicit eco-theme, outside of the film's obvious distaste for Amos's hunting practices, which are the single biggest obstacle to Tod and Copper's friendship. There is arguably also a message about the need for wild animals to remain wild, as Tod's adoptive human owner is ultimately forced to release him into a nature reserve after keeping him as a house pet for a year, although the delivery of this message is not exactly ideal (in reality the chances of Tod successfully adapting to the wild, under the circumstances, would be slim to nil). On a similar note, The Jungle Book (1967) centres around Man and Nature accepting their respective, entirely separate places; Mowgli has been raised by wolves and identifies with the savagery of the jungle over the cleanliness of the human village but is ultimately persuaded that the latter is where he belongs. Crucially, Mowgli is lured to civilisation by the charms of a young female, which links his final acceptance of manhood to the onset of adolescence, the jungle he leaves behind being both a literal wilderness and a metaphorical childhood. The exact same happens in reverse for Tod of The Fox and The Hound - under the ownership of Widow Tweed he was permitted to live the life of a perpetual cub, but once he is forced from this cosy domesticity he finds renewed purpose in the prospect of settling down and raising a litter with a young female fox, Vixey. Mowgli must accept that he is a man much as Tod must accept that he is a wild animal, but in both cases the outcome is the same, with Disney upholding ideas about traditional family values in man and beast alike.

Although The Fox and The Hound wants us to believe that Tod and Copper's childhood friendship ultimately survives the test of time, the film closes on a conservative note, reinforcing the warnings of both characters' respective mentors, Big Mama the owl and Chief the veteran hunting dog, that society is upheld by certain boundaries that cannot be crossed. It is tempting to interpret the early declarations of friendship between Tod and Copper as emblematic of a youthful innocence which has yet to be tainted by social prejudices, but it would be shrewd to remember that this friendship is also facilitated by one of the two participants - Tod - being uprooted from his rightful place in the order of things. In fact, a lot of the conflict arises from Tod's poor understanding of how the world works due to his not having lived the life of a normal fox. Copper understands ahead of Tod that certain responsibilities are expected of him, for he has always been where he is intended to be, whereas Tod spends much of the film struggling to come to terms with his own calling and, once he has been restored to his true place in the wilds, he too must accept that there is no longer space in his life for something as frivolous as romping around with a hound. The film's final sequence appears to offer a compromise, for Tod and Copper are both shown reminiscing about their youthful interactions in a manner that suggests the survival of their friendship in a symbolic sense, as a mutual nostalgia for a simpler time. In both cases, that wistful longing for a lost innocence remains but is overridden by allegiances to their respective family units; Copper to his master Amos and his surrogate father figure Chief and Tod to Vixey and their prospective offspring. The prevailing message of the Disney feature is that the preordained social order is to be accepted and respected, and reverence for the natural world is often used a thinly-veiled means of asserting such values. If something as radical as a fox and a hound being friends is to have its place in that, it must be safely contained within the realm of wishful thinking.

There is one other animal-orientated Disney feature with an explicit ecological agenda, and my failure to tip my hat to it in my aforementioned piece no doubt constitutes a serious oversight on my part (not least because it was one of the defining films of my own childhood). Released in 1990, The Rescuers Down Under at the time represented something of a curiosity for the Disney feature animation canon, it being Disney's first attempt at a theatrical sequel to one of their animated classics. Audiences had first encountered globe-trotting albino mouse Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor), Hungarian representative of the Rescue Aid Society, along with her her neurotic American cohort Bernard (Bob Newhart), in the 1977 film The Rescuers. Adapted from a series of novels by Margery Sharp (although fine-combed to remove Sharp's political overtones), the film follows our tiny heroes as they head to a deserted swamp to answer the distress call of young orphan Penny (Michelle Stacy), who has been abducted by disreputable pawnbrokers Medusa (Geraldine Page) and Snoops (Joe Flynn) and is being exploited in their nefarious efforts to get their hands on a valuable diamond. The Rescuers Down Under rejoins Bernard and Bianca (still Newhart and Gabor) thirteen years later* and sees them journey to the Australian outback to rescue Cody (Adam Ryen), a young boy kidnapped by ruthless poacher McLeach (George C. Scott), who has been picking off the local wildlife population with the help of his pet goanna, Joanna (Frank Welker), and suspects that Cody can be cajoled into leading him to the nest of a family of rare golden eagles. Sandwiched in between Disney's surprise mega-hit The Little Mermaid and the Best Picture-nominated Beauty and The Beast, The Rescuers Down Under technically falls into Disney's "Renaissance era" but but even the most ardent Disney fans have a tendency to overlook its place in the studio's history. If retrospectives care to mention Down Under at all, they typically focus on the film's technical significance (it was the first traditionally animated feature to fully utilise CAPS, or Computer Animated Production System, the revolutionary computerised process that gave all subsequent Renaissance era features their sophisticated sheen). The film received positive notices from the critics for its dazzling animation and exciting set-pieces but was widely ignored by the general public. It was released to US theatres at around the same time that that festive comedy in which Kevin cripples two desperate men was the hot new thing; audiences clearly had an appetite for schadenfreude, and a picture about two earnest mice looking to help out a lost child no doubt seemed quite soppy and tame by comparison. Over time, the film has garnered admirers for its slick visuals and breakneck action (not to mention, the glut of direct-to-video Disney "cheapquels" that came throughout the late 90s/early 00s has merely amplified the level of ambition evidenced here**) but it remains a fairly neglected chapter in the annals of Disney history.

The Rescuers Down Under feels like a curious anomaly when compared to the rest of Disney's output during the Renaissance era (for one thing, it is not a musical, which may have been its single biggest mistake from a marketing standpoint, given how ravenously the public had devoured the pop Broadway stylings of The Little Mermaid) and as such it might be better viewed as the tail end of Disney's experimental streak during the so-called "Dark Ages" of the 1980s. At a time when the future of the company's feature animation (and feature animation in general) seemed uncertain, Disney made several attempts to reinvent themselves to suit the tastes of modern viewership, often with limited success. The Disney features of the 1980s were seldom great films (The Little Mermaid being an obvious exception) but it's nevertheless interesting to see what kind of stops Disney were pulling in an effort to keep themselves afloat. Whereas The Little Mermaid saw Disney return to a more "traditional" form (their first fairy tale adaptation since 1959's Sleeping Beauty), The Rescuers Down Under finds the studio in a more modern and adrenaline-seeking mood, its emphasis being largely on spectacle and on cutting-edge action sequences. Apparently, Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was initially quite skeptical about the box office potential of The Little Mermaid, which he thought had a limited market as a "girls' film" (although he later changed his mind following positive test screenings); with that in mind, The Rescuers Down Under comes across as Disney's attempt to court a more masculine audience (something they had tried and failed spectacularly to do with The Black Cauldron in 1985) by reinventing themselves in the vein of contemporary action-adventure films like the Indiana Jones series. This could well have been the future had the film had better luck at the box office. Instead, the public embraced the so-called "girls' film" and its spiritual successor, Beauty and The Beast, and the formula for the Disney Renaissance was swiftly molded. The Rescuers Down Under was a commercial misstep that was immediately forgotten, but as with all of Disney's commercial missteps and failed experiments,there's endless fascination to be had in the unpicking process, and in the "What if?" factor that haunts just about every bold new project that did not work out as planned.

In my review of Yoram Gross's 1992 film Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala, I identified The Rescuers Down Under as Disney's attempt to ride along on two significant bandwagons of the dawning 1990s - firstly, the demand for environmentally sensitive children's cartoons (which peaked in popularity - some would say notoriety - with DiC Entertainment's Captain Planet) and secondly, Hollywood's short-lived love affair with Australian culture, which was kick-started by the strong box office returns of the Crocodile Dundee films. I noted, however, that The Rescuers Down Under presents a conspicuously Americanized view of Australia, "with the Australian wilderness serving merely as a backdrop to stories populated by characters with predominantly American accents." For the most part, Australian accents are reserved for the more incidental characters, while Cody and McLeach, the only humans who get any significant amount of screen-time, speak with distinctly American tongues. Ingram doesn't throw The Rescuers Down Under so much as a sideways mention in Green Screen (confirming its status as one of Disney's more neglected features), although another writer, Amy M. Davis, identifies the film's ecological themes in her book Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Masculinity in Disney Films, and links Cody's egregious lack of an accent of an Australian accent to the film's attempts to utilise the antipodean setting to convey a message rooted in quintessentially American ecological concerns. David writes that "his attempts to protect the golden eagle he has befriended, and in particular his attempts to protect her eggs, could be said to link him to American conservation efforts for golden eagles and bald eagles in the United States" (p.36) Although identified, ambiguously, as only a "great golden eagle", Marahute was presumably inspired by the wedge-tailed eagle, a large eagle species native to Australia, although she would have to be a freakishly big one. (Naively, Davis also identifies a precedent for the film's environmental thinking in Disney's infamous True-Life Adventure series and asserts that, "Cody, no doubt, would be a fan of the series." Not when he finds out what they did to a bunch of innocent lemmings, he wouldn't.) If Ingram were to reference The Rescuers Down Under, he would no doubt criticise it, as he does with Kroyer Films' Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992), for its depiction of the Australian wilderness as "a National Park, unaccountably empty of its darker-skinned, aboriginal inhabitants." (p.43) As always, whenever Disney attempts to capture something of the romance and intrigue of a foreign location, we end up with the cinematic equivalent of going halfway around the world only to stay in our resort and dine exclusively at McDonalds restaurants; this is Disney's brand of ecotourism.

I should confess that the original Rescuers film from 1977 holds a special significance for me, for it was the very first film I ever saw on the big screen, during its re-release in 1989 (yes, yes, I know - during my very first cinema trip I saw a topless woman flash her tits at me and didn't even realise it; I'll never know how much the experience contributed to the shaping of my somewhat warped personality). When the film came out on home video a year or so later, I snapped it up and watched it incessantly (I even operated my own home cinema in which I charged my plush animals to attend the back-to-back screenings). It was from an artfully-placed trailer on the VHS release that I learned there was going to be a second movie featuring Bernard and Bianca, and that completely blew my mind. I was among the minority (it transpires) who were positively over the moon at the prospect of a sequel to The Rescuers, and I was counting down the days until it hit the theatres. I convinced my mother to take me to see it during the opening weekend and soaked up every minute of it. I loved the music, Joanna the goanna and the entire sequence in which the mice relay Cody's distress call all the way across the Pacific. And yet, there was one aspect of The Rescuers Down Under that greatly disturbed me. As the end-credits started rolling, I recall that my reaction was not one of awe or euphoria at the spectacle I had just witnessed, but one of deep-seated shock. Namely, I could not believe that the film was choosing to wrap up at the specific point in the narrative that it was. You see, there is a sequence around midway through the film where McLeach, unable to persuade Cody to spill the beans on Marahute's whereabouts, leaves him imprisoned overnight in a room filled with various caged Australian fauna, and Cody devises an ill-fated attempt to escape along with these animals. The sequence concludes with McLeach catching Cody as he tries to unlock the animals' cages and advising him to "Say goodbye to your little're never going to see them again." Turns out that he might as well have been speaking directly to the viewer, because we don't see any of these characters again. The film just flat-out forgets about them. The final sequence has Cody and Marahute mutually liberated, McLeach vanquished and the Rescuers proven heroes yet again; Cody tells Marahute, "Let's all go home", and off they fly into the night. There's a brief tacked-on epilogue involving Wilbur, the Rescuers' albatross escort (John Candy), and the credits start rolling. There is never any mention of heading back to McLeach's hideout to rescue the animals still rotting in their cages, a loose end the film seems oddly contented to leave dangling. As with the original, I grabbed The Rescuers Down Under when it came out on home video and watched it repeatedly, but with each and every viewing this particular story thread never ceased in sitting uneasily with me. "They would go back", I tried in vain to reassure myself, "Cody would go back and free them. They just had to go back." Maybe the production team assumed that audiences would draw such a conclusion through their own initiative and feel entirely at ease with how the film ends. Maybe. But still, we never see it happen, nor is there even the vaguest form of reassurance that it will happen. And that troubled me immensely.

I think the first thing to note is that The Rescuers Down Under is not an especially disciplined film on the narrative front. It tries to pack a lot into its seventy-seven minute run time, but much of that consists of subplots and random digressions from the main storyline that amount to little more than filler designed to buff the story out to feature length - only then, the film winds up with so much on its plate that it isn't able to tie up all of its story threads satisfactorily and ends abruptly. Opinion is heavily divided among fans as to which Rescuers film is the superior of the two, but a common criticism from those who prefer the 1977 original is that The Rescuers Down Under meanders so frequently from Bernard and Bianca's narrative arc that it barely qualifies as a Rescuers film at all; rather, it's an action-adventure film about a boy and his eagle that just so happens to have the Rescuers in it. Whereas the original starts out as a sort of private detective mystery story, which has the viewer every bit as much in the dark as the mice and becomes a rescue adventure only once the reasons for Penny's disappearance have been established, The Rescuers Down Under begins with Cody and doesn't bring in Bernard and Bianca until more than fifteen minutes in; it works "backwards", since the film has already established exactly who Cody is and why he's been kidnapped, and it's now a matter of bringing Bernard and Bianca slowly up to speed with what the viewer already knows. I can comprehend such criticisms - the viewer does end up feeling less involved in Bernard and Bianca's arc than in Cody's - but I'll state upfront that my own sympathies are with Team Down Under. I think that both films are enjoyable but distinctly flawed, each with their own individual strengths and weaknesses (their common strength being that Bernard and Bianca are likeable characters and that Newhart and Gabor do a wonderful job voicing them), but ultimately I'm inclined to give the edge to the sequel. It's a much better-looking film, the narrative pacing may be messy as sin but it's never slow or boring, and it dispenses with the murky yet incongruously cloying flavour that dominates so much of the original; that distinctive Don Bluth brew that would become the then-Disney animator's trademark once he'd moved onto producing his own feature films. Actually, I do like just how bleak and desolate the atmosphere is down at Devil's Bayou - it accentuates the middle of nowhere-ness of the location and it really does feel like the most terrifying place on Earth for a small child to be whisked away to - but there's a lot about the original Rescuers that feels either excessively saccharin (ie: Penny and that whole dialogue she has going on with her teddy bear, which I guess I'm supposed to find charming) or just plain goofy (whose idea was it to turn the bloodhounds from Sharp's novel into crocodiles, of all things? Scarier animal for Medusa to have domesticated and lounging around her houseboat, but also more surreal and therefore more ridiculous). I like the 1977 film, but it is a peculiar hodgepodge of ideas, not all of which mesh. But then I could say the same about the 1990 film. It's a string of set-pieces and arbitrary subplots that just about hang together as a whole while the experience lasts, but once it's over it leaves you feeling oddly unsatisfied.

With hindsight, it seems obvious to me that at least part of the reason for the extended digression with Cody and the caged animals was to shoehorn in an additional comic relief character in the form of Frank, a frill-neck lizard voiced by Wayne Robson (who had previously played Harry in the Disney trauma-rama One Magic Christmas). I recall that Frank was featured quite prominently in the film's promotional material, despite having such a limited, barely relevant role in the story itself. To put it uncharitably, he feels like an afterthought who got tossed in late in the story development process just to add another face to the tie-in Happy Meal range. It would explain the slipshod implementation of Frank's entire character arc, and the abrupt manner in which it's just left hanging, but in a way that makes it all the more disturbing. Frank was engineered to be one of the film's "breakout" characters. We're supposed to like him, root for him and want to go out and eat lunch at McDonalds just to get our hands on the bendy Frank toy. And yet, the film is ultimately quite happy to leave him rotting behind bars, with no suggestion of rescue. Did nobody seriously raise a storm about this during the film's test screenings?

I got to thinking, was this really such a disturbing anomaly for Disney? Were there any prior examples in which the weak and helpless were left in a dire situation with no clear indication that rescue was on the way? I thought it over and realised that, yes, there are at least two precedents for this in Disney's animated canon, the first occurring in Walt Disney's second animated feature, Pinocchio (1940). Ostensibly, it ends quite well - Pinocchio becomes a real boy, Geppetto is retrieved from Monstro's gut and Jiminy Cricket receives his official certification as Pinocchio's conscience, but what about Lampwick, Alexander and those other boys who got turned into donkeys and shipped off to the salt mines? Are we just going to forget about them? I guess so. Pinocchio is a black-and-white morality tale and it doesn't go easy on the unruly boys who bunked off to Pleasure Island just because they're children. The assumption here is that since they gave into their baser impulses and indulged in all manner of vices they forfeited their right to humanity and should remain asses (besides, have you read the original story by Carlo Collodi? The Disney version toned things down, believe me). Their downfall is directly linked to their failure to adhere to family authority - during his horrific transformation, Lampwick's last waning flickers of humanity are expended crying out in desperation for his mother and father, whose moral guardianship he realises, too late, he was wrong to stray from.

Similarly, the plight of the impounded dogs in Lady and The Tramp (1955) is all but forgotten by the end of the film; Tramp is spared their fate and inducted into Jim Dear and Darling's household, and clearly we are supposed to feel satisfied with that, even though the life or death stakes for the unlicensed dogs are made very clear when an unfortunate extra named Nutsy is seen "taking the long walk". A thin thread of hope is offered in the form of Dachsie, a dachshund who is last seen attempting to tunnel his way to freedom, but it seems unlikely that he could liberate the pound's entire population. On a human level, Lady and The Tramp has an obvious lesson to teach about law and order. Equipping one's dog with a license is shown to be a facet of responsible pet ownership, and this ensures Lady's safe return home after being picked up by the dogcatcher. On the dogs' level it translates into a class symbol, with two of the impounded dogs being swift to bestow the derisive nickname of "Miss Park Avenue" upon Lady and jokingly suggest that she was discarded by her household for "putting fleas on the butler". Boris the borzoi explains to Lady that this apparent animosity is rooted in envy, for every other dog in the pound would unquestionably give up their hind leg for such a luxury. The impounded dogs have a nice enough camaraderie and their lack of a license is not attributable to any fault of their own, but it's clear that a dog of Lady's pedigree would sooner not be anywhere near them - the dog warden explicitly remarks to Lady that she is "too nice a girl for this place", and when she is later returned home, she complains only of how "embarrassed and frightened" she was during her experience at the pound, with no thought or compassion extended to the dogs still imprisoned there. By the end of the film, the class barriers have ostensibly been broken, for Lady has accepted Tramp as her mate and the two of them now stand proudly over their mixed breed litter - in order to facilitate this, however, Tramp has first had to acquire a license of his own and prove himself worthy as a house dog. He does so by defending Jim Dear and Darling's baby from an external threat in the form of a rat, thus aligning himself with the traditional family unit. The film concludes with the all-American family safe and protected, their values further reaffirmed in being paralleled by their faithful canine companions - cats, meanwhile, are depicted as the preferred pet of the childless spinster and are aligned with a number of unpleasant foreign stereotypes to boot.

The preservation of traditional family values, and of middle-class America, is at the heart of Lady and The Tramp, with Jim Dear and Darling's baby being a minor character who stays largely off of screen but who is nevertheless pivotal to so much of the plot direction and to Lady's understanding of her own purpose and priorities. Like The Fox and The Hound, there are lessons in recognising and accepting one's true place in the established order - Jim Dear and Darling initially treat Lady as a baby substitute, but once the real baby arrives Lady must come to terms with the fact that her days of being at the centre of the household are over and accept her new role as the family's guardian. This role is fulfilled in warding off the various intruders that manage to infiltrate Jim Dear and Darling's pristine household, either because the humans aren't aware that they're there (as with the rat) or do not recognise the threat that they pose (as with the Siamese cats). Lady initially rejects Tramp's offer that she permanently abscond with him on the grounds that she is needed to watch over her human family; Tramp, meanwhile, sees humans as little more than meal tickets and considers it foolish for a dog to tie itself down to a single household (here, we see shades of his equally promiscuous lifestyle with the ladies) but ultimately learns the error of his ways. The film is content to leave the impounded dogs where they are because, while genial, they represent too much of a subversion to the guiding principle that a dog's purpose is to support the family unit; if they are unable to acquire licenses of their own then they are best off out of sight, where they cannot muddy the immaculate lawns of Jim Dear, Darling and their ilk. (Note that this is even more troubling in the DTV sequel, Lady and The Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure (2001), in which Tramp breaks into the pound to free my namesake and flat-out ignores the other dogs. Whereas in the original film Tramp put himself on the line in order to liberate two strays from the dogcatcher's wagon, by the sequel Tramp has become so safely domesticated that he no longer feels any affinity toward the unwanted dogs or their plight.)

The preservation of the traditional family is also at the heart of The Rescuers and its sequel. Whereas Lady and The Tramp was concerned with the protection of a family unit under siege from foreign influences, the original Rescuers deals with the restoration of a family that has already been torn apart and corrupted. Penny was an orphan who wanted desperately to belong to a family but faced constant rejection from prospective adoptive parents, chiefly because she struggled to make herself stand out in the crowd. "A man and a lady came and looked at me, but they choosed a little red-haired girl. She was prettier than me," she confides in Rufus the cat (John McIntire), painting a thoroughly unflattering picture in the process of contemporary adoption procedures, which appear to have dehumanised Penny to the level of one of those unwanted dogs in the pound, or worse, a hat in a shop window. It's the lack of positive adult influence that's implied to leave Penny vulnerable to the manipulations of the "trashy people" (according to Rufus) who run the local pawn shop. Medusa and Snoops are here our external threats to the wholesome American family, with the various words chosen by Rufus to describe them ("weird", "trashy", "sleazy") appearing to link this threat to class or at the very least to those who deviate from societal norms. Indeed, if you squint hard enough, it's possible to read Penny's living situation in Devil's Bayou as a twisted subversion of traditional domesticity; Penny finds herself in the care of two adoptive "parents", as it were, with Medusa as the screeching matriarch and Snoops her hen-pecked partner, while reptilians Brutus and Nero have taken the place of more conventional housepets (ie: Tyrant and Torment, the hounds of the original novel). At one point, Medusa attempts to convince Penny that life aboard the houseboat is the closest thing she could hope to find to a regular family, confirming her worst fears when she asks her, "What makes you think anyone would want a homely little girl like you?" Salvation arrives in the form of Bernard and Bianca, who retrieve Penny from Medusa's unconventional household and return her to the Morningside Orphanage, where she is commended for her bravery and swiftly adopted by the nice, clean-cut parents she always wanted.

The Rescuers Down Under similarly deals with the fractured family unit, only here the running theme is one of absent fathers and single mothers. Cody and Marahute's affinity is strengthened through the realisation that their respective families have each been rocked by the loss of a patriarch. When Marahute takes Cody to her nest and shows him her eggs, he is quick to ask "Where's the daddy eagle?" (This sounds at first like a characteristic Disney attempt to project traditional family values onto the natural world, but male wedge-tailed eagles do indeed assist with the raising of chicks, so it's a legitimate question). Marahute's forlorn expression tells us all we need to know on the matter. Cody identifies personally with her family's plight, telling Marahute that "My father's gone too," a revelation that allows for a touching moment of connection between the boy and the eagle but otherwise doesn't have a great deal of overt plot relevance. Cody's father isn't mentioned again and there's no suggestion that any of his actions throughout are motivated by a yearning for his departed father - indeed, Cody's father could easily have been added in at the beginning of the film and no other plot amendments would have been warranted. Rather, the purpose of this particular background detail looks to be more about emphasising the tragedy for Cody's mother when she is later led to believe that her son has met his own premature end (see below). Outside of a single, understated shot of her cradling her son's savaged backpack, however, Cody's mother is practically a non-entity; she waits passively at home while Cody is off having his death-defying adventure, less a character than an emblem of the domestic safety to which Cody aspires to return. Her avian counterpart, meanwhile, symbolises the threatened wilderness that Cody is also driven to defend, a feminised Nature that's motherly, nurturing and benevolent, and to which our villain, McLeach, serves as a direct counterpoint, being the traditional figure of the rugged, masculine trapper amplified to its most wildly grotesque proportions.

Deprived of their breadwinning mates, the film's two single mothers are left vulnerable and/or ineffectual, and wide open to the mutual threat that surfaces in McLeach, a dire menace not merely in his penchant for eliminating local fauna but also the knowingly nefarious assaults he launches upon family ties for boy and bird alike. Although motivated primarily by material gain, McLeach appears to derive a perverse kind of pleasure at the thought of tearing apart Cody and Marahute's respective clans. When he realises that Cody could lead him to the mother eagle's whereabouts, he admits, with spine-chilling glee, that, "I already got the father!" While kidnapping Cody, he makes a point of hurling his backpack into crocodile-infested waters in the hopes the authorities will assume that Cody was the victim of a crocodile attack, during which he cries out, "My poor little boy got eaten by the crocodiles!" in preemptive mockery of Cody's distraught mother. Later in the film, having captured Marahute, McLeach sets Joanna loose upon the eagle's nest to devour the eggs, less out of generosity to his lizard cohort than the desire to see the eagle stay rare (and thus valuable). His assault on our sense of everything good and decent is two-fold, a crime against both an entire species and an individual family unit. Even by Disney villain standards, McLeach is a horrifying creep who clearly enjoys being the bad guy a heck of a lot more than he should. Trouble is that he's so damned entertaining. One of the main reasons why I consider the sequel to be an improvement on the original is because it boasts the stronger villain; at any rate, I prefer McLeach's brand of comic book sociopathy to the high camp ferocity of Medusa, who is basically a trampier version of Cruella de Vil (in fact, she WAS Cruella in earlier versions of the script). As a bonus, McLeach and Joanna also provide us with a rare instance of a male Disney villain with a female sidekick.

McLeach's masculinity, which manifests as a desire to exploit and dominate nature, is shown to be malign, and yet these exact same urges are paralleled, more heroically, in the Rescuers' own arc, which sees Bernard on a personal quest to discover himself in the Australian wilderness. The film casts Bernard in what Ingram defines as the prevailing paradigm of nature-orientated fiction, even those with clear environmental sympathies, wherein a trip to the wilds presents an opportunity for a male protagonist to "recover an essential, authentic masculinity and thereby to reassert the hegemony of the white male not only over non-human nature, but also over his ethnic, racial and gender subordinates." (p.36) Having reached Australia, Bernard and Bianca join forces with local murine Jake (Tristan Rogers) who offers to lead them across the outback when Wilbur injures his back and puts himself out of commission. (Side-note: Jake is one of the film's very few characters to sport an authentically Australian accent, although he still tends to attract a lot of ridicule from commentators who like to make a point about him being a kangaroo rat, an animal native to North America that, deceptive moniker aside, has nothing to do with Australia. That's because Jake is not a kangaroo rat, genius, but an Australian hopping mouse). Jake has his own ulterior motives for wanting to tag along with the rescue mission, for he has a weakness for the females and is eager to impress Bianca. This is bad news for Bernard, who after thirteen years is finally looking to pop the question to his long-term partner (I'm surprised that the triskaidekaphobic Bernard would wait until this year to make his move, but then his fear of the number thirteen never comes up in the sequel, despite seeming practically gift-wrapped for an in-joke), and now has to deal with unwelcome competition. Stuttering, superstitious Bernard has always been one of Disney's least conventionally masculine heroes (which is precisely what makes him so endearing), with Jake embodying all of the traditionally manly traits that Bernard emphatically does not. Jake is tough, confident and thrives on adrenaline; Bernard is shy, socially awkward and prefers not to look for trouble, so obviously he's the underdog in this scenario.

A moot point in this entire dynamic are the actual underlying feelings of Bianca, who never indicates that she's interested in Jake as anything other than a tour guide and appears to drift through the adventure wholly oblivious to the battle of masculine wills going on right under her whiskers. Her main purpose in The Rescuers Down Under is to be a sweet and fetching feminine figure for the males to posture to, and the prize that Bernard must prevent from being snatched away by this spring-footed Johnny-come-lately, although whether this constitutes a downgrade from her role in the original film is up for debate. The original Rescuers had something of a mixed attitude toward Bianca. Evidently, she was intended to be a progressive female protagonist for the modern age, and she does have a number of duly positive traits - she's strong-willed, fully capable of using her own initiative and is recognised by her male peers as a pioneer in her resolve to personally spearhead Penny's rescue - but the film does try to have its cake an eat it with her, and I honestly struggle to think of a Disney feature that's more condescending and conspicuously 1970s in its attitude toward women than The Rescuers. Bianca may be a spunky modern heroine, but she's also the butt of a number of old hat jokes about the vain and frivolous things that women supposedly do (for example, she risks missing the all-important flight to Devil's Bayou and stalling the rescue because "a lady has to pack a few things"). Her request to be assigned Penny's case is honoured, but not without the Rescue Aid Society Chairmouse (Bernard Fox) giving her an odious pat on the hand and insisting that she take a male accomplice. (Medusa, meanwhile, continues a running gag of Cruella's about women being reckless drivers.) Jettisoned from the sequel are the original's high number of sitcom-level "women, eh?" quips, although Bianca does not have much of an arc of her own. The script places no demands on her for growth, development or change; the personal journey is all Bernard's, and it's about his needing to man (mouse?) up.

Ultimately, the film vindicates Jake's bravado, for Bernard realises that the only way he can rise to the challenge is by emulating his rival's example. Mirroring how Jake had previously subdued a dangerous snake and goaded it into serving as a mode of transport for the mice, Bernard is able to wrestle a razorback (feral pig) into submission (after his attempts at politely imploring the pig for help go nowhere) and convince it to carry him across the outback. In both cases, manliness is equated with a mastery over nature, with the "civilised", anthropomorphic mice putting the fear of god into the bestial, non-talking predators and effectively domesticating them as beasts of burden. In order to show the pig who's boss, Bernard is required to disregard not only his trademark anxiety, but also his social graces, metaphorical pearls which are shown to be wasted before the literal swine. Manners do not make the man, but mastery does.

Amid Bernard's voyage of masculine discovery, the more traditionally feminine roles of childcare and domestic upkeep are identified as crucial but less glamorous and ultimately degrading for a male to have to stoop to. Bernard does briefly find himself caring for Marahute's eggs (which he saves from being devoured by Joanna by replacing with decoys), but swiftly delegates the task of having to sit on and watch over the precious clutch to Wilbur while he sets out to conquer the outback. Wilbur accepts the responsibility but recognises that he's being a made a fool of and grumbles incessantly (to the point that the film's final punchline shows him still complaining about his allocated role in the climactic adventure). This is not the only point in the film in which a male character is undermined through association with femininity; earlier, during the sequence with the caged animals at McLeach's base, Frank the lizard is taunted by sardonic koala Krebbs (Douglas Searle), who tells him that his skin will eventually be sold as the raw material for a lady's purse, which is clearly branded as a more degrading fate than the belts and wallets Krebbs identifies as being in the other animals' futures. At this point, it seems appropriate to explore how the caged animals fit in with the traditional masculinity championed by The Rescuers Down Under, and from this why the film appears so unconcerned about their final fate. Noteworthy is that all of the caged animals who have voices are male; by contrast, the two most prominent wild animals encountered by Cody on his outback travels are both female - in addition to Marahute, Cody is friends with a jill kangaroo named Faloo (Carla Meyer), although her role is limited strictly to the film's opening sequence, where she summons Cody for help. The wilderness threatened by McLeach is personified as predominantly female; he has already done a meticulous job of weeding out and neutralising the males, who can now only sit around helplessly as the enemy lays waste to their wives and offspring.

Among the fauna imprisoned by McLeach is a male kangaroo named Red (Peter Firth), whom as a child I recall taking as an automatic given was the stolen mate of Faloo. With hindsight, I have to berate myself for ever making such a silly assumption; Australia is chockablock with kangaroos so there is little reason to assume that these two should have anything to do with one another. And yet, I wonder if we are indeed intended to notice the male and female kangaroo in their respective predicaments and forge some kind of mental connection between the two (even if it does not go as far as presuming them to be related), not least in how it echoes our theme of absent fathers and helpless mothers, and McLeach's previous statement about already having wiped out Marahute's mate. McLeach operates first by targeting the males and leaving the females exposed (he does not have any plans for Cody's mother, but even his abduction of Cody and staging of his death, leaving her only to cradle his backpack in distraught solitude, is a variation on this). These animals are in McLeach's private zoo because they were unable to step up and fend off this nefarious intruder. The bars and chains that hold them captive are symbols of their failure and emasculation; worse still, they are watched over and subjugated by a female, Joanna. Likewise, once Jake finds himself caged in McLeach's wagon, along with Cody, Marahute and Bianca, he good as drops his bravado - "It don't look good, Miss B, I can't see any way out this," he can be heard uttering shortly before Bernard shows up to demonstrate his mettle. Whereas the original Rescuers appeared to be making a point about the kind of pesky eccentrics who might end up influencing our children if traditional family values are not upheld, The Rescuers Down Under concerns itself with the kinds of unsavoury alpha males who may supplant the traditional patriarch if he allows his dominance to weaken. Down Under supposes that females are incapable of safeguarding against the advances of such interlopers on their own and are in need of male saviours and defenders; Cody's mother is completely ineffectual, Marahute repeatedly falls victim to McLeach's traps, while Faloo is reliant on Cody to carry out rescue missions. Charm and stealth are shown to be integral components of the predatory male's attack; McLeach is not exactly a wolf in sheep's clothing - we know from the minute we meet him that he is to be our antagonist - but he does not come off as entirely unreasonable at first. He looks as if he might be willing to let Cody go, but changes his tune when he realises what information Cody may be harbouring. By the end of the film, McLeach has revealed himself to be the kind of cold-blooded ghoul who would not only murder a child to get what he wants, but revel in every second of it.

The film concludes with a compromise of sorts. It is Bernard who defeats McLeach, thus eliminating the predatory male and upholding the sovereignty of the heroic male, but it is ultimately Marahute who saves Cody (and Bernard) from completing a deadly plunge down a waterfall. Having taken a stand for Mother Earth, she repays their kindness by ensuring their survival, enabling an intersection of the film's environmental sympathies and its distinctly conservative family values. Its feminisied nature is dependent upon masculine heroics to keep her protected, and she in turn sustains her male defenders, positing the arrangement as mutually beneficial. Meanwhile, a more explicit reaffirmation of traditional gender roles and family dynamics plays out in the conclusion to Bernard's arc. In the closing scene, he seizes the opportunity to finally propose to Bianca, who joyously accepts while Jake, acknowledging Bernard as the better man (or mouse), steps graciously out of the conflict. Bernard has gotten in touch with his masculinity and can now claim Bianca as his reward, the promise of marriage solidifying their relationship while compensating for the number of broken couplings referenced throughout the narrative. Cody, through his own acts of devotion and heroism, similarly suggests a bright future for both the environmentalist principles and the honorable masculinity promoted by the heroes of Down Under. Unlike the original Rescuers, in which Penny's broken family was explicitly restored in the form of her new adoptive parents, Down Under does not care to supply Cody with a replacement father figure; such a gesture would be redundant, for Cody has already demonstrated that he is capable of standing on his own two feet and is firmly on his way to becoming his father's successor, at least in terms of filling the gap in masculine authority. Down Under bemoans a weakened and waning masculinity (and a femininity endangered as a knock-on effect) but ends with that masculinity discovering a new lease of life. The film does not look back upon the failures of the past and instead concludes with our heroes soaring off toward a golden new future - which, unfortunately, means leaving Frank and and the others behind to rot in their steel cages. As far as Down Under is concerned, they are the failures of the past, and it ultimately affords them no more sympathy than the impounded dogs in Lady and The Tramp or the mutated boys in Pinocchio. Like I say, it's not a particularly satisfying conclusion, but it is where the film ultimately leads us.

Actually, there is one other thing that always bothered me immensely about The Rescuers Down Under. Early on in the film, Jake is accompanied by a sidekick of his own, a fly named Sparky who is apparently a whizz at checkers. Shortly after the Rescuers arrive in Australia, Wilbur puts his back out and starts flailing around wildly with the Rescuers' luggage, only to inadvertently strike Sparky. After that, Sparky is never seen again. Did Wilbur kill him then?

 Gimme hope, Joanna.

* Any mouse alive in 1977 would have been long dead by 1990, of course, but we mustn't be sticklers for realism in a movie where they also wear hats and fly around the world via albatross. 

** On the other hand, those direct-to-video sequels may also have cheapened Down Under's credibility, as there's a tendency now to lump them into the same category. I've seen a lot of people question why this film is considered part of the Disney feature animation canon when all of those other sequels are not - the answer being that Down Under was produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, the company's theatrical animation department, whereas all of those DTV sequels were created by Disneytoon Studios, the studio mainly responsible for the company's television animation projects.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Psycho II: One Hand Watches The Other (Supplement)

Previously, when I wrote my piece on Norman's handedness, its significance in Psycho and Psycho II and, more specifically, how it manifests in Norman's telephone-answering routine in Psycho II, I did not consider a sequence that occurs at the very beginning of the film, when Norman returns to his family house and has an early hiccup involving the telephone. I omitted this because it doesn't quite fit with the pattern of Norman's actions being in response to an incoming call, but it nevertheless merits its own discussion, for it is another deceptively simple scene that establishes so much about Norman's present day dilemma, including a sleight of hand in which screenwriter Tom Holland effectively telegraphs exactly where this new chapter is headed.

When Norman first arrives home he picks up the receiver of the upstairs telephone, not to answer a call but to confirm Raymond's assurances that the phone line has been reconnected. Raymond has advised Norman that, in the absence of any formal social support, the telephone is to be his lifeline ("Any trouble, use it"). In practice, the telephone proves to be one of the greatest sources of trouble for Norman throughout the sequel, allowing the intrusions of a meddlesome outside world to seep in and attack him in his private space (it is also the vessel through which Mother mounts her slow but steady return). This trouble is anticipated in this early scene, for the mere act of turning to the telephone for that momentary reassurance that all is right within his freshly-salvaged world has unexpectedly nasty consequences. Norman does not intend to make or receive a call. Oh, but he does get a response, for he discovers a note concealed beneath the telephone, apparently written by Mother. The note reads: Norman, I'll be home late. Fix your own dinner. Love, M. On this occasion (and in contrast to the routine established throughout the rest of the film) Norman lifts the receiver with his left hand, the hand more closely aligned with his own will and identity, and is caught unawares by Mother, who is all ready and waiting to resume their dialogue.

Unlike the fraudulent notes subsequently left by Lila and Mary, this one appears to be the genuine article, the faded writing and yellowing paper suggesting that it has been lying there dormant for some time, although whether it was actually written by Mrs Bates herself is another matter (odds are good that Norman unwittingly penned this to himself). In contrast to the angry, threatening missives that Norman later receives regarding his egregious bending of the rules in allowing Mary into the house, this one has a mundane, incongruously genial message, given the source. Still, we know that any form of dialogue between Norman and Mother is a bad thing, and the discovery of the note has a detrimental effect on Norman, who immediately relapses into a flashback in which he gets to relive the horrors of his matricidal youth. Mother has already succeeded in undermining Norman's newfound determination to be the master of the household, and she does so using nothing more than the legacy she left seeded in its walls many decades ago. As fiendishly underhanded as Lila's tactics might be, they seem relatively amateurish compared to the cruelty of this accidental encounter, which after a just a few moments of running wild with Norman's imagination exposes the fragility of everything he is desperately attempting to hold together. The sequence culminates in Norman knocking his suitcase down the stairs, spilling its contents in a chaotic sprawl that simultaneously recalls Arbogast's downfall in the original Psycho and anticipates Raymond's toward the end of Psycho II (and Maureen's in Psycho III!). Norman finds that his literal and emotional baggage have been gutted messily, announcing that the battle for dominance between himself and the specter of Mother is already renewing itself. And he has barely been home for more than a few minutes.

Psycho II is a film about cycles, about reincarnation and the renewal of life but also the repetition of old traumas and the extent to which the past keeps the present so paralysed as to deny it a future. Despite the fleeting promise of redemption offered by the sweet sincerity of Norman's friendship with Mary - two characters mutually bound by the sins of their mothers (and of their aunts) - it ultimately confirms Norman's nihilistic musings in the original Psycho about being caught in private traps and never budging an inch for all of our clawing. This early sequence shows Norman as being stuck in a time loop - the note was written decades ago and refers to an evening long in the past, yet it punctures through all sense of temporal distance with a startling asperity that speaks directly to Norman in the present. It is almost as if Mother planted the note with the intention of Norman discovering it only now, after his time away. More frighteningly still, it refers to what is coming in the future. Norman's ascension up the staircase marks the end of the journey he has been making within the twenty-two year gap between Psycho and Psycho II; his long, offscreen battle to reclaim his sanity and earn the right to return home is finally over, but having made it to the top, Norman finds himself not at the peak of a figurative mountain, but treading a harrowing loop which will ultimately lead him right back down to where he started. The message itself is entirely banal, and yet deeply ominous, for we would do well to heed the implicit threat buried in Mother's ostensible pleasantries. It acknowledges the current state of affairs - that Mother has vacated the premises and Norman is required be self-sufficient for the time being - but also promises that she will return and that Norman's (relative) freedom of her is only temporary. It functions both as a warning to Norman as to what lies ahead, but also a direct communication from Mother to the audience, cluing them in as to the film's trajectory and reassuring them that the status quo will eventually be reset. There is a particularly sly bit of fourth wall-breaking in her declaration that she will arrive home late, for Mother's homecoming will indeed occur, but only at the very end of the narrative.

One final curiosity - unlike the fraudulent letters left by Lila and Mary, which are signed "Mother", this note is signed only "M", leaving some ambiguity as to whom it really refers. Norman instantly connects it to Mother, but we know that she's not the only M from Norman's past who'll shortly be returning just to make his reintegration that extra bit more difficult. In this sense, the note serves as a dual purpose, telegraphing not only Mother's return, but also that of Marion, who is currently lurking not far up the road in the renewed form of Mary. How is the message "Fix your own dinner" pertinent to Marion? Well, Norman did initiate Marion into his twisted world by convincing her to eat with him.

Oh, and a small side-note: I'd also like to take the opportunity to officially retract what I said last time about Perkins' portrayal in the 2013 film Hitchcock being "unbelievably mean-spirited". I still have my problems with Gervasi's film, and with Perkins' portrayal therein, but I realise now that I overreacted somewhat. Since writing that tidbit I've taken the time to read Split Image, Charles Winecoff's 1996 biography of Perkins and I tell you, if any depiction of Perkins deserves to be called "unbelievably mean-spirited", it's Winecoff's. Anyone interested in reading Winecoff's book should keep in mind that it is essentially one big, leering exposé of the actor's various gay love affairs and (reportedly) promiscuous lifestyle. Winecoff barely attempts to disguise his indifference toward Perkins' professional output, and while he makes a perfunctory effort to pass the book off as a meditation on the difficulties of being homosexual in Hollywood within Perkins' lifetime, it possesses neither the depth or sensitivity to pull that off. It's less a biography than a drawn-out, 466 page-long catcall. Not recommended to fans of Tony, or to those with feline allergies.