The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Michael Sporn was a successful independent animator who lived and worked in New York City. A remarkably gifted individual, he built a long and prolific legacy of award-winning animated short films, often adapted from popular children’s books. According to Wikipedia, he produced and directed over thirty half-hour specials for PBS, CBS, HBO and Showtime. He created cartoon shorts for Sesame Street, public service announcements for UNICEF, and also music videos, documentary and film titles, commercial logos and industrial spots. He was immensely prolific and talented.

In addition to these achievements, Sporn created over fifteen short films, including adaptations of Raggedy Ann & Andy, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, Goodnight Moon, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, and many more. No doubt you will have your favorites from his filmography; I know I have mine.

Sporn was working on a feature animated movie based on the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe during his final years, which, unfortunately, was never to see completion. It was during this time that he began his battle with pancreatic cancer, which he fought with boundless courage and good spirits. Unfortunately, he would succumb to the disease, passing away in 2014.

In the early months of 2006, as I was beginning Ghibli Blog, Sporn was kind enough to send me a DVD copy of his most recent film, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (I repaid his kindness by sending a package of numerous Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata films which were only then available in Japan). Based upon a great illustrated book, It tells the story of a Manhattan performance artist who famously tied a tightrope between the then-newly built World Trade Center towers, then danced and frolicked between the towers to the delight of the people below. The cartoon captures a sense of pencil and watercolor nostalgia, perfectly realized from the book, sparsely and carefully animated, as though Sporn did not wish to impose himself. It is the work of an artist with a keen eye, a sharp mind, and a humble spirit.

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Miles Davis – Get Up With It

Miles Davis, Get Up With It (1974)

The 1974 double-LP Get Up With It is the final studio album of the Miles Davis electric “fusion” era, and contains the funkiest, hardest, and wildest music of his career.

This wasn’t conceived as a studio project per se, like 1972’s On the Corner. Miles was rushing in and out of recording sessions with regularity throughout the 1970s, and while the bulk of the album features the “Pete Cosey lineup” (that’s the easiest way for me to remember this voodoo funk period), some of the tracks are recorded a bit earlier.

No doubt, at the time, this gave the impression that the album was a collection of leftovers, like numerous post-retirement Miles Davis albums of the ’70s like Directions, Circle in the Round and Water Babies. But like the 1974 release of Big Fun, which was composed of tracks recorded 1970-72, Get Up With It has a cohesion to its sound. To my ears, it sounds very much like a modern album…and, by that, I mean a ’90s rock album (21st century pop music is terrible).

1990s rock was defined by a lot of experimentation, and it was common for the great artists to jump across genres every couple of songs. It’s not quite the same as the musical brew of the late ’60s, but more of a channel-surfing thing. Maybe everyone was just taking cues from Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Who knows? My favorite ’90s albums — Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Stone Temple Pilots Purple, Hole’s Live Through This, R.E.M.’s Monster, Radiohead’s The Bends and OK Computer, Metallica’s Load & Reload — have that jukebox attitude. Get Up With It carries that very same vibe, and I think that’s the reason why I love it so much.

The two epics, which fill sides one and three, couldn’t be more different in mood and texture. And the shorter songs range from boogie blues to trip-hop dance to dissonant noise. And yet it all feels so similar. There’s a similar plan of attack from Miles and his bandmates, and to my mind it comes down to two things:

One, Miles on the keyboards. While piano and keyboards were always a staple, at this point Miles takes the keys himself, but he uses the instrument almost purely for assault. It’s there to bludgeon you, shock you, to hit you upside the head until you’re kissing canvas. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Miles did little more than just punch the keyboard, or mash his forearm down for dissonant effect. Which brings us to…

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Ratatouille (2007): A Few Rambling Thoughts Posing as Some Sort of Movie Review

Ratatouille (2007)

I.

I’ve been following the box office numbers for Pixar’s Ratatouille on Box Office Mojo, hopeful that the movie’s fortunes turn out to surprise us. It’s a common assumption that this movie would not be a big hit with audiences, certainly not when compared to Pixar’s other hits. I’ve kept my hopes up that people would defy the suits and marketers who run Hollywood, and turn out in solid numbers. It hasn’t really happened, and at this point I don’t know if those numbers will ever arrive.

I’m really not sure why this is the case. Pixar is about as reliable a brand you can find for movies today. They’ve never made a bad picture, and many dedicated fans will insist that they never will. But you have to struggle to explain what could become Hollywood conventional wisdom: that Pixar is now a fading brand. Heaven forbid.

I’m not eager to accept such a pessimistic view just yet, but there’s no denying the numbers. Ever since Finding Nemo reached a peak, every Pixar movie since has grossed steadily smaller numbers; first with The Incredibles, then Cars, and now (almost certainly) Ratatouille. Surely this would be a concern, but add in the immensely expensive Disney buyout from last year, and you can see the stakes involved. The knives will be out for John Lasseter and Pixar’s generals, and that battle is really only just beginning.

So what’s wrong here? Is it simply that the market is oversaturated with CGI cartoons? Are parents reaching the burnout point, tiring of having to drag their children to more and more animated animal movies? Has the public become burned from an endless dirge of second-rate movies, cheap cash-ins and cynical sequels? Or is it the rats? Are folks really just turned off by rats? Maybe it’s everything, maybe it’s nothing.

I don’t know, I really don’t. I have my own pet theory, which also happens to be a running topic on Ghibli Blog. And here it is, in case you’ve missed it: Americans don’t think of animation as an artform or a facet of the movies; they primarily see animation as a babysitter. The idea that the medium could be capable of anything more, or serve any greater purpose, is embraced by artists and animation enthusiasts, but for the general population, the medium serves a more utilitarian purpose. Cartoons exist to keep our children quiet.

The explosion in mass media over the past generation, no doubt, has been a factor. When I was a small child, there were four television stations and maybe a few UHF channels. Then cable arrived and the number of stations rose to 30. Today, there are literally hundreds of stations across cable and satellite providers. Home video has made thousands of movie and TV titles available within reach. The rise of digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu only accelerates this momentum. And let us not forget the ten billion websites, all clamoring for our attention. American families have never felt so overwhelmed with entertainment options. Does this mean the loudest movies — the biggest explosions, the loudest fart jokes, the simplest plots — will rise to the top? Where does this leave thoughtful or nuanced movies?

Because of these reasons, I can understand the challenge in making a smart movie like Ratatouille a big hit. It’s so difficult to be heard over the noise. Even Pixar must sometimes struggle to be heard. This is going to be a major challenge for our beloved animation studio.

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Down on Skid Row

Down On Skid Row (1998)

Skid Row is a documentary movie that chronicles the lost era of downtown Minneapolis and its fabled “skid row” in the heart of the old city. It was filmed between 1955 and 1961 by John Bacich, a World War II veteran and successful real estate businessman who owned a bar and several “flophouse” hotels along Washington Avenue. He shot movies of his neighborhood patrons on 8mm film, and in the late 1980s, assembled his footage into a 30-minute short film, complete with running commentary of his memories.

This is a haunting documentary, deeply moving, and full of the human experience: tragedy, despair, misery, urban decay, but also humor, warmth, and the genuine compassion of Bacich, who was dubbed “Johnny Rex,” the “King of Skid Row.” It depicts an important part of American history that has now vanished. It is one of the most humane documentary films I have ever seen. Its power resonates and echoes in your heart and mind. I pray for the souls of these sad, lost men, as though they were here with me today, trapped in Purgatory and awaiting Salvation.

The Minneapolis Gateway district was the original heart of the old city, the merging of its three main avenues along the Mississippi River: Washington, Hennepin and Lyndale. Because its railroads lay nearby, this area became a source for cheap, easily exploitable labor — the “day laborers.” These men would work for the rail yards and trains for a short period of time, days, weeks or even months. Their temporary status prevented them from joining labor unions, thus keeping them poor and powerless. Ordinances were passed to force all the city’s liquor stores into the Gateway, and closed everywhere else. Police drove criminal elements — drugs and prostitution — into the growing slums, away from middle-class households. It was diabolical, brutally cynical, and highly effective. Soon, Minneapolis was home to the largest skid row in the American midwest.

In 1958, Minneapolis began a five-year crusade to reclaim the Gateway district, demolishing over 20 blocks and nearly 200 buildings. As the city’s business core moved several blocks west, Washington and Hennepin Avenues’ continued to decay. After World War II, a growing middle class embraced the new future of suburbs, with their clean and spacious streets, shopping malls, and luxurious cars. The age of the interstate highway had arrived. Edina’s Southdale Mall ushered in the age of indoor shopping. Skyway tunnels moved people off downtown streets and into safe, climate-controlled environments. City planners envisioned a futuristic city with gleaming highways, polished skyscrapers, a future that was bright, clean, rational. A future world totally devoid of crime, poverty, pollution.

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