Roger Corman In The ‘Sixties

The King of the Bs Gets Serious ● by Craig J. Clark

[He was fast. He was cheap. He was looking for thrills. Long before the DIY culture became fashionable, Roger Corman was doing it himself, making feature length movies with little money but lots of ingenuity. He is the patron saint of independent cinema and he will be visiting Bloomington on April 18 and 19.]

For some, the Honorary Academy Award producer/director Roger Corman received in 2009 “for his rich engendering of film and filmmakers” was a moment of long-overdue recognition from an industry that seemed loath to acknowledge the impact he’d had on it over the course of his six-decade career. For others, who only know his name from the handful of his ’50s B movies that made their way onto cable’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the ’90s, it must have come as something of a surprise that the Academy would give him an award at the same time as acting legend Lauren Bacall and influential cinematographer Gordon Willis. Even putting aside all the filmmakers who got their start at Corman’s production company New World Pictures in the ’70s and beyond, though, the amazing run of films he made in the ’60s would be worth celebrating.

As a director, Corman tried his hand at just about every genre, beginning his career in 1955 with the westerns Five Guns West and Apache Woman, the crime drama Swamp Women, and the sci-fi parable Day the World Ended. For the rest of the decade he cycled between those subjects and other drive-in friendly fare about juvenile delinquents, rock and roll, Viking women, gangsters, and teenage cavemen. He didn’t tackle a war film, though, until 1960’s Ski Troop Attack, which Corman filmed in tandem with Monte Hellman’s debut Beast from Haunted Cave, which he executive produced.

Shot on location in South Dakota, Ski Troop follows a five-man recon patrol scouting the German countryside in the winter of 1944 in advance of General Eisenhower’s final push. The patrol is led by lieutenant Michael Forest, who likes to do things by the book and is constantly being dogged by sarcastic sergeant Frank Wolff, who’s eager to fight and resents Forest’s officer training. In order to differentiate between the three privates under them, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith makes one a Yankee, one a Southerner, and one a radio operator who gets killed early on. The only other major character is the hausfrau whose cabin gets raided for supplies when their rations run out, and to further save money Corman himself plays the distractingly dubbed commander of the German ski patrol in pursuit of our heroes when they set about destroying a strategic bridge. The battle scene that follows clearly illustrates how much he was stretching his budget, but you’ve got to admire the guy for trying to make a war film for pocket change.

Thankfully, Corman had a bit more money to work with when he made 1960’s House of Usher, the first of seven Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made for American-International Pictures. The film also represents Corman’s first collaborations with screenwriter Richard Matheson and star Vincent Price, who would become a fixture of the Poe cycle as well as a few other films Corman made during the same period. Price plays Roderick Usher, a sinister, white-haired recluse who believes his family line is doomed and tries to stonewall Bostonian Mark Damon when he arrives at the titular residence and announces his plan to take Usher’s sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) away with him. The only other living character in play is Usher’s faithful servant (Harry Ellerbe), but in a lot of ways the most important character is the house itself, which shudders from time to time and appears to be ready to collapse at any moment. No matter how annoyed he gets at Price’s insistence that he leave, Damon can’t deny that his life is in danger as long as he stays.

Corman may have been known for his ability to churn out movies quick and on the cheap, but House of Usher and the others in the series show what he was capable of given a little more time and money. It also benefits greatly from having been shot in CinemaScope (which cinematographer Floyd Crosby uses to enhance the atmosphere) and Daniel Haller’s sumptuous production design really stands out thanks to the decision to spring for Technicolor. It’s no surprise that the National Film Preservation Board chose to add House of Usher to the National Film Registry in 2005. It’s definitely one that has stood the test of time and laid the groundwork for more compelling films to come.

Another Corman film that has had remarkable staying power is 1960’s The Little Shop of Horrors, which became a cult favorite long before it inspired an off-Broadway musical and big-budget remake. Today, it’s probably most well-known for the three-minute cameo by Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient, but his character is barely an afterthought. The actual star is Jonathan Haze as the hapless Seymour Krelboin, creator of hybrid plant Audrey Jr., which turns out to have unusual tastes, with Jackie Joseph as the ever-sunny Audrey, Mel Welles as the Skid Row florist who lets his greed get the better of him, and Corman regular Dick Miller (who had previously starred in 1959’s A Bucket of Blood as a wannabe beatnik artist who turns his murder victims into art) as a flower connoisseur who prefers eating in “out-of-the-way places” and is “crazy about kosher flowers.” For a film Corman reportedly shot in two days on a bet, Little Shop is a real winner.

Later that year, Corman traveled to Puerto Rico to make a trio of movies. (Actually, he only planned on making two, but the script for a third was hastily thrown together to make the most of the location shoot.) First out of the gate was Last Woman on Earth, a post-apocalyptic adventure story which Corman had enough faith in that he put up the extra money to shoot it in color. Written by first-time scripter Robert Towne (who would later write Chinatown), it stars Betsy Jones-Moreland as the neglected wife of unscrupulous businessman Antony Carbone, who is vacationing in Puerto Rico (and gambling on everything in sight, including the cockfights) while the U.S. government is investigating him. He’s also accompanied by his lawyer (played by Towne under the pseudonym Edward Wain), who wants to talk business but gets roped into a scuba diving expedition. It’s a good thing he is, too, because it’s while the three of them are underwater that the world goes kablooey. After they surface and discover that they’re the only humans left, our three heroes make for shore and begin building a new life – one that is immediately beset by conflict as the last two men on Earth aren’t interested in sharing the last woman.

Carbone, Jones-Moreland, and Towne also show up in 1961’s Creature from the Haunted Sea, the aforementioned hastily-thrown-together film which was written by Corman’s frequent scribe Charles B. Griffith. It’s one that Corman highlights a number of times in his 1990 autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, so it must have been one of his favorite movies. It’s certainly one of his more offbeat efforts. In it, Carbone plays a crook who agrees to help Cuban nationalists smuggle the nation’s treasury out of the country on his boat in the wake of Castro’s revolution. Aiding him are his moll (Jones-Moreland), her dim-witted brother (Robert Bean), and his henchman (Beach Dickerson), who inexplicably communicates mostly in animal sounds. Also along for the ride are an inept government agent (Towne, again using the pseudonym Edward Wain) and a brace of Cuban soldiers brought along to guard the treasury. Carbone plans to double-cross the Cubans, killing them off one by one and blaming the deaths on a made-up sea creature, but when the creature turns out to be real, he realizes he’s out of his depth.

During his two decades in the director’s chair, Corman only ever made one sword-and-sandal epic – 1961’s Atlas – and it’s easy to see why. Filmed on location in Greece, which he presumably figured would give him all the production values he could ever want, Atlas stars Michael Forest as the title character, an Olympic wrestler/philosophy student recruited by the evil Praximedes, Tyrant of Seronikos (Frank Wolff), to fight the champion of neighboring kingdom Thenis, which is ruled by wise old Telektos (Andreas Filippides, helping to fill the quota of Green actors in the film). Atlas takes some convincing, though, which is why Praximedes throws his ex-lover, high priestess Candia (Barboura Morris), at him. When the film gets to the battle scenes, they’re staged very poorly and edited most chaotically to cover for the shortage of extras. Corman even put on a tunic himself and entered the fray alongside mainstay Dick Miller and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, but their efforts are largely for naught.

Returning to America and AIP with his sword between his legs, Corman embarked upon the second entry in his Poe series, 1961’s Pit and the Pendulum, which also boasted a screenplay by Richard Matheson. It stars Vincent Price as Nicholas Medina, the haunted son of one of the Spanish Inquisition’s most notorious torture enthusiasts, who is in mourning after the sudden death of his wife Elizabeth. John Kerr is Elizabeth’s brother Francis, who travels to Nicholas’s desolate castle to find out how she died (and is fairly blunt about it). Barbara Steele (fresh off starring in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday) is the lovely Elizabeth, glimpsed in distorted flashbacks and supposedly returned from the grave to torment Nicholas for entombing her prematurely (apparently one of Poe’s biggest fears since it features in so many of his works).

PitPendulum Poster

It takes a while for the film to actually reach the scene with the pit and the pendulum, but it’s a corker of a finale and Corman and Matheson effectively build the sense of the dread in the 70 minutes leading up to it. The scenes in the torture chamber are especially well-done, with Corman able to evoke the evil of the Spanish Inquisition without actually showing anyone being tortured. If I have one complaint about the film, it is that Barbara Steele’s part is so small, but that’s what you get when you play a character everybody believes is dead.

Vincent Price wasn’t available when it came time for Corman to make his next Poe film, 1962’s Premature Burial, so he hired Ray Milland to play his tortured lead instead. The tone of the film is set in the opening scene in which Milland is present at the exhuming of a grave where it turns out the occupant was buried alive. This awakens his gravest fear since he has long believed that his father was entombed prematurely, so Milland attempts to break his engagement to fiancée Hazel Court, but she talks him into going through with the wedding. Instead of going away on their honeymoon, though, Milland insists on staying at home so he can design and build a tricked-out mausoleum to make sure he doesn’t fall victim to the same fate. (The scene where he proudly demonstrates its features is one of the highlights of the film.)

Court tries to get help for her husband, but this is pre-psychoanalysis, so her doctor friend Richard Ney can only diagnose that he is disturbed, a suspicion echoed by Milland’s sister Heather Angel, who insists that their father wasn’t buried alive. Then there are the two gravediggers, played by John Dierkes and Dick Miller, who keep popping up and scaring the wits out of him. It’s no wonder Milland starts getting rude and ill-tempered. Milland the actor must have enjoyed working with Corman, though, since he returned the following year to play the lead in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

Before that, Corman took time out to make 1962’s The Intruder, a hard-hitting social drama starring William Shatner as a representative of the Patrick Henry Society who arrives in a small southern town to fight racial integration of the local high school. Following an unbroken string of financial successes, this was the first film Corman made that didn’t immediately reap a profit, which is why he retreated to the exploitation films he was known for and didn’t look back. The major studios could afford to make the occasional prestige film for the sake of posterity; Corman needed each film to make money so he could go on and make the next one.

Long before he became known for his hammy acting, Shatner puts in a credible performance as the anti-integrationist (who’s also rabidly anti-commie and anti-Semitic to boot) who talks a good talk, but can’t control the situation once he’s stirred up the hornet’s nest. He’s ably assisted by Frank Maxwell as a newspaper editor who’s against integration, but finds Shatner’s methods even more distasteful, Beverly Lunsford as Maxwell’s daughter, who goes to the high school that’s being integrated, Robert Emhardt as a rich southern gentleman who gives Shatner crucial backing, Leo Gordon as a traveling salesman staying just down the hall who unwisely leaves his wife Jeanne Cooper on her own, and Charles Barnes as one of the black students reluctantly going to the white school, much to the majority population’s consternation. To illustrate this, Charles Beaumont’s screenplay (based on his novel) is peppered with racial slurs (I counted 21 uses of the n-word alone), some of which were voiced by local nonprofessionals who were probably all too comfortable using them. While the film may lack subtlety, one can’t deny its power.

Following the Vincent Price-less Premature Burial, Corman made it up to him by giving him not one, but three choice roles in his next Poe film, the 1962 anthology Tales of Terror. In the first part, based on “Morella,” he plays the boozing Locke, whose decrepit house is visited by his estranged daughter, who he has always held responsible for the death of his wife. The house is in such disuse that even the cobwebs have dust on them. The second part, which combines elements of “The Black Cat” and “A Cask of Amontillado,” pits Price against Peter Lorre, who plays a disreputable drunk who hasn’t worked in years, but has a knack for identifying wines. Price plays Fortunato, an effete wine expert who takes up Lorre’s challenge at a wine tasting and then takes up with his wife, spurring Lorre on to his revenge. The last and best segment, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” casts Price as the dying Valdemar, who employs mesmerist Basil Rathbone to relieve his pain and strikes a bargain on his deathbed that he comes to regret.

That same year, Corman took time out from his Poe cycle to make Tower of London, a Shakespearean pastiche that takes the basic plot of Richard III and grafts elements of Hamlet and Macbeth onto it. In it, Vincent Price plays the deformed Richard of Gloucester, who will do whatever is necessary to ascend the throne, including literally stabbing his own brother Clarence in the back. Egged on by his wife Anne, doing her best Lady Macbeth impression, delivering soliloquies of self-doubt and seeing ghosts like a certain Prince of Denmark, and generally hamming it up, Price’s Richard is far from a model of restraint. Still, he must have relished the opportunity to essay the role, having played Clarence to Basil Rathbone’s Richard in one of his first films, 1939’s Tower of London.

Corman kicked off 1963 with The Young Racers, a melodrama about the lives of race car drivers on and off the track. It stars Mark Damon as a writer who sets out to do an exposé on philandering champion William Campbell, especially when Campbell sets his sights on Damon’s secretary (and fiancée) Luana Anders. And he’s not the only one has an axe to grind – there’s also Campbell’s sourpuss brother Bob, played by his actual brother (and the movie’s screenwriter) R. Wright Campbell, and self-proclaimed “critic of life” Patrick Magee, who has waited a long time to get his revenge (just as we have to wait a long time for him to even show up in the picture).

The Young Racers was a major international production by Corman’s standards, with extensive location shooting and plenty of actual race footage. As a result he had plenty of help on hand, including Charles B. Griffith as assistant director, Robert Towne as second assistant director, a young Menahem Golan as production manager and assistant director, and an even younger Francis Ford Coppola as sound man and second unit director. Incidentally, it was during this production that Coppola convinced Corman to give him the money and three of his stars to shoot Dementia 13, the calling card he used to move on to bigger and better things. Sometimes the ones who learned the most from the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking were the ones who graduated the quickest.

Made somewhat late in Corman’s Poe cycle, 1963’s The Raven was the last one to be written by Richard Matheson, who had a free hand to develop the story however he saw fit and chose to play it for comedy. He was also able to tailor the parts for the film’s stars, namely Vincent Price (as a retiring magician who has been in mourning since the death of his wife Lenore), Peter Lorre (as a belligerent and frequently drunk magic-user who arrives on Price’s windowsill in the form of the titular bird) and Boris Karloff (as an evil sorcerer keen to learn Price’s secrets).

 Raven Poster

The cast also includes Hazel Court as Lenore, who’s not quite as dead as Price thinks she is, Olive Sturgess as his beautiful daughter Estelle, and Jack Nicholson as Lorre’s bumbling son Rexford, the kind of prototypical gawky goofball usually played by Jonathan Haze. On the whole, the film is a great deal of fun, with a certain amount of physical comedy (as in the scene where Lorre has only partially been restored to his human form) and actors who are clearly enjoying themselves very much. And it was at the end of this film’s shoot that Corman initiated The Terror, which was started purely because he had the standing sets and wanted to get more use out of them.

Released in 1963, The Terror is a bit of hodgepodge in that it features scenes shot by Corman, associate producer Francis Ford Coppola, location director Monte Hellman, writer Jack Hill (who gets a screenplay credit along with Leo Gordon) and even star Jack Nicholson, who plays a French soldier during the Napoleanic wars who gets separated from his regiment and comes upon the beautiful Sandra Knight (Nicholson’s wife at the time) when he’s searching for water. She shows it to him, which proves that if you lead a Napoleanic soldier who was been separated from his regiment to water, you can make him drink.

Top-billed, though, is Boris Karloff, who plays the Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe, which is quite a mouthful for any actor. For 20 years, since the death of his wife Ilsa, the baron has kept himself locked away in his castle, attended only by his faithful servant Stefan (Dick Miller), the bearer of the bulk of the exposition. Also on the baron’s property, for reasons of their own, are a witch (Dorothy Neumann) and her supposedly mute servant (Jonathan Haze). At various points, nearly everyone tries to convince Nicholson that he is mistaken when he claims to have seen Knight, but they also bristle at the mere mention of the name Eric. Eventually it comes out who Eric is, but before we reach that point there are a lot of scenes of Nicholson wandering around the castle, occasionally bumping into Karloff or Miller and demanding that they explain what’s going on. As the audience’s surrogate, he’s only doing his job, but there are times when his behavior borders on Ugly Americanism – and he’s supposed to be French!

Corman returned to the present day with 1963’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, which is one of his most ambitious and, in many ways, most successful films. Ray Milland stars as a scientist working to expand the range of human sight who experiments on himself and finds that his formula works all too well, with Diana Van der Vlis as a representative of the foundation that is funding his work – and which chooses not to continue funding it despite his breakthrough. His grant terminated, Milland is forced to scrape by as pierside attraction Mr. Mentallo, with Don Rickles as his barker. Rickles quickly catches on that he’s no ordinary mentalist and sets him up as a healer, but Milland has no illusions about what his powers mean.

As time goes on and Milland keeps applying his eye drops, his visions get more and more disturbing until he can no longer control what and how far he sees. (At one point he’s driving a car, but it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road when you can’t even see the road to begin with.) Eventually he winds up at a revival tent where the preacher informs him what the Bible says to do if your eye offends you, leading to a shocking freeze-frame.

X uses a range of photographic effects to depict the progression of Milland’s second sight, but sometimes the simplest effects are the most effective. And while the film plays things straight for the most part, there’s definitely something amusing about watching Milland half-heartedly dancing the twist at a swinging party where he can’t help but see everybody naked. (This being 1963, though, we only see people from the shoulders up or the knees down. It’s also six years before M*A*S*H, so at one point we get to see a virtually bloodless operation.) One can only imagine what Corman could have done with this material just a decade later.

Since he’s so closely associated with his Poe films, it’s less well-known that Corman was the first director to bring H.P. Lovecraft to the big screen, probably because AIP gave 1963’s The Haunted Palace the title of an Edgar Allan Poe poem instead of the Lovecraft story “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” that it’s actually based on. No matter what it’s called, though, it does an admirable job of conveying the creeping dread that pervades Lovecraft’s work, even if its depiction of the dark forces is somewhat lacking.

Vincent Price plays Ward, who journeys to Arkham with his wife Debra Paget to claim his family’s estate, 110 years and one Poe stanza after his great-great-grandfather was tied to a tree and burned as a warlock. Upon their arrival in the perpetually fog-enshrouded town they ask for directions at the Burning Man Tavern, where they get a decidedly chilly reception from the townsfolk, led by Leo Gordon (in a scene that surely inspired the one at the Slaughtered Lamb in An American Werewolf in London). Finally, helpful doctor Frank Maxwell points them in the right direction and they show up at the house, which has been prepared for them by creepy caretaker Lon Chaney, Jr., thus setting the stage for history of repeat itself.

Corman’s penultimate Poe picture was 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, easily the most sumptuous film he ever made. Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, it also gave Vincent Price one of his meatiest roles as the decadent Prince Prospero, an avowed Satanist who locks himself away in his castle with dozens of equally loathsome courtiers while the Red Death ravages the countryside. Joining him in the service of Satan is Hazel Court, who seems all too eager to give herself over to the Prince of Darkness, and fighting against Price’s corrupting influence is innocent believer Jane Asher, who pleads with him to spare the lives of her lover (David Weston) and father (Nigel Green), who are intended to fight each other to the death for the amusement of Price’s guests. In terms of depravity, though, Price may be matched by the leering nobleman played by Patrick Magee with all the malevolence he can muster.

Corman & Price

Corman Directs Price (r.)

All of the films in Corman’s Poe cycle are known for their lavish visuals and this one benefited greatly from the work of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and production designer Daniel Haller. The most striking image in the film, though, is one of its simplest: the faceless personification of the Red Death sitting leaning against a tree dealing out tarot cards. Not only does it bring to mind Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (an admitted influence), but it’s an eerie depiction of the implacability and inevitability of death. Not even Prince Prospero, with all his wealth and power and influence, can escape that forever.

Leaving AIP once again, Roger Corman struck out on his own in 1964 and traveled to Croatia and Yugoslavia to film the World War II adventure yarn The Secret Invasion. Written by R. Wright Campbell, The Secret Invasion plays like The Dirty Dozen with half the cast and a fraction of the budget – only Corman actually beat that film to the punch by a few years (a practice he would come to perfect when he turned independent producer a few years later). In this case, the officer leading the mission behind enemy lines is played by Stewart Granger and the criminals he handpicks for the assignment are Italian thief Raf Vallone, IRA bomb-maker Mickey Rooney (complete with Irish accent!), brash young forger Edd Byrnes, emotionless killer Henry Silva, and pretty boy William Campbell. There’s even a love interest of sorts for Silva in the form of Slovenian actress Spela Rozin. This being a war film, though, they have little time to declare their feelings for each other, though.

Five years and seven films after he started it, Corman completed his Poe cycle with 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia, which he shot in England from a screenplay by Robert Towne. This time out, Vincent Price plays Verden Fell, a man so obsessed with his departed wife, the Lady Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd), that he refuses to believe she is really dead. He even winds up marrying her double, the Lady Rowena (Shepherd again), after symbolically carrying her over the threshold of the abbey he calls home. After a globe-trotting honeymoon, during which they visit Stonehenge among other exotic locales and he comes out of his shell somewhat, they return to the abbey where he falls under its spell once again and she is menaced by a malevolent cat. (For once, the cat scares in a horror film are due to the cat itself.) Not a bad ending for the series, but the film does take its sweet time coming to a conclusion.

After taking a year off (something almost unheard for the workaholic), Corman kicked off his biker-movie boom with his 1966 film The Wild Angels. Written by Charles B. Griffith, it stars Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the president of the San Pedro chapter of the Hell’s Angels, which was for the most part portrayed by actual Hell’s Angels. As the film opens, Fonda goes to see his buddy Loser (Bruce Dern) at the oil rig where he works. Rigger Dick Miller, a World War II veteran, takes exception to the Nazi paraphernalia Fonda wears and after an altercation Dern gets fired by the foreman. When Fonda announces that they’re heading south to Mecca to recover Dern’s stolen chopper, the whole gang goes along, always under the watchful eye of the police. Also along for the ride are Nancy Sinatra as Fonda’s old lady, Diane Ladd as Dern’s, and Michael J. Pollard as one of the gang.

Wild Angels Set

Corman, Fonda & Bogdanovich (l. to r.)

While attempting to get Dern’s bike back the gang runs afoul of the Mecca police and Dern is shot while trying to escape. Fonda manages to bust Dern out of the hospital, but he’s in no condition to be moved and dies in Ladd’s arms. All that’s left to do at that point is ship the body back up north to Dern’s hometown of Sequoia Grove for a quiet funeral and respectful burial. (Yeah, right.) The church service turns into a drunken party and the locals turn out to watch the funeral procession and start a brawl at the cemetery. (Peter Bogdanovich, who was Corman’s assistant on the film, plays one of the curious locals who gets the crap kicked out of him.) The whole film is shot in a striking cinéma vérité style, which was imitated (usually very poorly) by the hordes of biker films that followed in the wake of its massive success. One thing is certain: the last thing the film does is make the life of a biker look glamorous.

In 1967, after operating independently or for AIP for his whole career, Roger Corman got to make his first film for a major studio, namely 20th Century-Fox, which produced The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a fact-based account of the events leading up to that fateful February 14th. Written by Howard Browne, the film stars Jason Robards as a cigar-chomping Al Capone, who’s eager to shut down “Bugs” Moran (Ralph Meeker), the upstart head of Chicago’s North Side mob and a major thorn in his side. Throughout the film (and with the help of the voice-over narration), we’re introduced to the other major players, including George Segal as one of Moran’s enforcers, Jean Hale as Segal’s trampy wife, Clint Ritchie as the architect of the massacre, and Bruce Dern as a mechanic for Moran’s organization who picks the wrong day to do some auto repairs. And since the events depicted in the film are a matter of record, in lieu of suspense Corman and Browne use the narrator to reinforce the inevitability of what will happen when seven of the characters reach “the last morning of his life.”

With a major studio’s resources at his disposal, Corman was able to successfully evoke the period setting on a scale he hadn’t been able to previously, with lots of classic cars and clothing helping to bring late-’20s Chicago to life. He was even able to get realistic-looking snowfall for the day of the titular event, which must have seemed like pure extravagance to someone accustomed to filmmaking on the cheap. As well-mounted as the end result is, though, Corman chose to return to the world of the independents.

People generally don’t think “experimental filmmaker” when they think of Roger Corman, but when he made The Trip in 1967 he was pushing the bounds of what was expected not only of a Corman picture, but commercial cinema in general. The photographic effects that were used in X were like a dry run for some of visuals Corman and his crew conjured up to depict what it’s like to be high on LSD, and the kaleidoscopic editing techniques put it squarely in Point Blank territory. Written by Jack Nicholson, the film stars Peter Fonda as a commercial director at an impasse in his life who decides the way to find some insight is to drop some acid. All goes well at first, with his friend (a heavily-bearded Bruce Dern) acting as his guide and telling him he’s “into some beautiful stuff, man,” but then the trip takes a scary turn and Fonda gets spooked.

The film also features Susan Strasberg as Fonda’s soon-to-be ex-wife, who figures into some of his visions, Dick Miller as the bartender at the psychedelic club where Fonda meets Dern, and Dennis Hopper as the dealer they buy the acid from. One of the images the film keeps coming back to is a pair of hooded figures on horseback who give chase to a Fonda in vaguely Renaissance-y garb. There’s also not one, but two dwarves, and a torture chamber set seemingly left over from one of Corman’s Poe films. The strangest scene, however, has to be the one where Fonda is put on trial by his own psyche. This is the place where he’s forced to come to certain realizations about himself, so it’s no wonder he isn’t eager to go back there once he’s out.

By this point in his career, Corman was growing disenchanted with AIP, which was starting to meddle with his films in a way they hadn’t previously. For one thing, The Trip is preceded by a bummer of a roller caption, with a stentorian announcer to drive home the message that this is not the sort of thing you should do at home. For another, they changed the ending, shattering the closing image as a way of showing that Fonda’s one trip on LSD had irrevocably damaged his life. Sure enough, it was only a matter of time – and the formation of New World Pictures – before Corman started calling his own shots for real.

[The 2011 documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel will be screened at the IU Cinema on Thursday, April 17, and Saturday, April 19. In between, Corman is scheduled to be present for a Jorgenson Guest Filmmaker Lecture on Friday and introduce screenings of 1966’s The Wild Angels, 1967’s The Trip, 1962’s The Intruder, and 1964’s The Tomb of Ligeia on Friday and Saturday.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

Trashion Refashion 2014

Or, How I Found Myself Designing Couture Clothes from Materials Found in Dumpsters ● by David Ebbinghouse

[The annual Trashion Refashion Show is a community fashion event that promotes sustainable design. Compulsively creative conceptual artist David Ebbinghouse is one such designer and he discusses his work in the essay that follows. Reading about sustainable fashion design is all well and good but attending the show is even better — April 27th at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

I didn’t start out to be a fashion designer. I have been involved in the use of discarded materials in my art projects since the early seventies. Most people would call me a conceptual artist or a performance artist. I don’t think in terms of categories, so I am open to problem solving of all different types. I don’t define art in the way most people would. In fact, I usually don’t define it at all. I just do things and usually you can call whatever comes of my explorations “art.”

I guess it all started with T-shirts. I have an artist friend who screens prints his own T-shirt designs as his way to support himself. Whenever I would visit his loft in New York City in the late seventies and early eighties, I would go through his box of test shirts. These were randomly printed tests, printed on the inside and out, and some of these were the best juxtapositions and accidental masterpieces I had ever seen; those were the ones I wanted. He would sell them to me for two bucks a shirt! In this way, I got some of the hippest shirts imaginable. They were William Burroughs “Cut Up” methodology in wearable form. I wore them and wore them and wore them out. I tried to save them by grafting them onto T-shirts found in the dumpsters. I would sew them together at the neck and arm openings and tack down some of the larger rips. The look was punk. It left me with an excess of dumpster T-shirts to work with. That’s when I started slashing them. By the nineties, the slashed punk look was long over. So the question was how to do it without it being cliché and passé. The answer lay in using the structural possibilities of the knit and being very precise in cutting.

So now I’m going to tell you some of my secrets. Here’s how you can duplicate the looks I put together for the 2012 Trashion Refashion Show, starting with “Foxy Lady.”

Ebbinghouse & Models

Designer David Ebbinghouse with Hayley Plageman (Foxy Lady) and Sarah Nadolski (Party Girl)

Photo/JoAnn Latvaitis

You need a piece of “peg board.” It is basically a piece of Masonite with a grid of holes drilled into it. Pull the T-shirt over it so the shirt is stretched tightly. Then take a piece of chalk and find each hole and push the chalk into it and rotate. Do this for every hole (back side as well) and you will have a very precise grid of dots laid out on the shirt. Now, with a very sharp knife ( I use Xacto), connect two of the dots with a slash. It you do a row of diagonals across the front and then do the next row with the diagonals going the opposite direction, you will get a herringbone pattern. This drapes nicely on the body. You do it all over and you have a very “body-con” nineties look. Different patterns produce different effects. You might start with a diamond in the middle of the front. All the cuts to the left go left and to the right go to the right and on up.. Below the center it is the same but the diagonals are reversed. You can leave some areas open and some closed for a peek a boo effect. You can both conceal and reveal. This does not look “Punk” if you do it carefully and precisely. I took the look one step further with my “The Dark Ryder” outfit in 2013, but we’ll get to that presently.

Another way I got a very nice tight fitted look out of cotton knits was by ruched slits. Here’s how you can get the effects I used in my “Party Girl” outfit: Make a series of horizontal slits that go down the length of the shirt about four inches wide. Pull the top band down and reach through it to get the next one– pull it through the loop and then do the same with the next band pulling it from behind through the loop you have pulled down. Go all the way down the front and sew down the last band. This makes an open crocheted band down the front and also pulls in the fabric making the shirt narrower. An XXL shirt can be made into a sexy little dress. You can make two more vertical bands that start just below the breasts and that will pull in the fabric even more at the waist. You can fit it in this way for whoever is going to be wearing it. The “look” isn’t just the dress, its shoes, accessories, jewelry; and for jewelry, I love using pop tops.

It was last year with my “The Dark Ryder” look that I elevated the slashed T shirt to the elegance and mystery of Haute Couture; it was the accessories that pushed it over the top. I started with a 50% cotton, 50% polyester black XL T-shirt that was printed with The Ryder logo. Since it was very thin with age and filmy and lent itself nicely to my herringbone pattern slashing, it made a flowing tunic. This was put on over pants that were made from black chiffon window drapes fabric. Here’s how they were made: Two rectangular pieces are laid down one on top of the other. In the middle of one long side, a “U” shaped piece is cut out of both overlaid pieces. The rounded part of the “U” extends towards the middle by the distance of the waist (the top edge) to the bottom of the crotch (the “U” part). These edges of the “U” are sewn together. When the piece is straddled with the legs on either sides of the “U”, then the two back pieces are wrapped around to the front and tied and the two front pieces are wrapped to the back and tied. These wrap pants are open legged but the two edges overlap around the outsides of the legs. Once again, there is a reveal/conceal aspect as the layers overlap in the sheer fabric, and the top is covered by the tunic. The effect is that of a sheer skirt. So far, so good, but the head piece/ hat is what totally made the outfit. I started with making a helmet of black leather (once again from a jacket from the dumpster) sort of like what the early aviators wore but minus the goggles. On the top I stitched a receiver piece of Velcro. Using black heavy duty cat-proof plastic window screening (left over from fixing the screens after my cat had fun with them), I cut a two foot circle. I attached this to a small “hula hoop” and sewed the other Velcro piece in the center. From the edges of the hoop I sewed skeins of human hair that I took from a wig found in the dumpster. This fringe hung down from the edge and when the disc was secured to the top of the helmet/hat (with the velcro), it gave the outfit a very Goth/Kabuki feel. Black over-the-elbow gloves completed “The Dark Ryder” outfit. “The Dark Ryder” definitely got the audience’s attention with Elizabeth Grooms modeling it with great sophistication.

Dark Ryder

Elizabeth Grooms as The Dark Ryder in the 2013 Trashion Refashion Show; Her Hat is Trimmed with Human Hair

Another outfit that used a simple wrap/ no-tailoring approach was made from two Indiana state flags also found in a dumpster. The two were sewn together one above the other with a yellow border around the outside edge of the whole piece. It could be hung on the wall as an art piece, as the two flags are the same but different in many small ways. One has faded to a different shade of blue, one is silk screened and one is appliquéd, the golden yellow colors are not the same shade, etc. To wear it as a dress, center the logo of the top flag on the model’s back and wrap the two sides around to the front overlapping them. The two corners go over the shoulders and tie to the top edge of the flag at the shoulder blades through grommets on the edge. The dress is longer than the model is tall, so it trails behind with a train. Sarah Nadolski (“Sarah, Queen of Indiana”) needed a crown. Fancy Feast Feline Food cans have anodized gold pop tops and lids. Starting with a metallic gold cone as a hat, a crown was built up by overlapping the gold lids and sewing them down in a kind of fish scale pattern. The booties (once again, from Plato’s) were given the same fish scale overlaps of gold lids which extended out past the heels like little wings. A stole was made by sewing together different sizes of small American flags that had been picked up out of the streets. Remember all the flags that were hung out of car windows after the gulf wars? I picked them up on my morning jogs after they came loose and ended up along side the roadways. I usually got a few after the 4th of July parades as well.

[Image at the top of this post: Sarah Nadolski (Sarah, Queen of Indiana) with her crown made of Fancy Feast cat food pop top lids.]

Now I am designing and building the pieces for this year’s show. I started thinking about it last year as soon as that show ended. The ideas started to accumulate. But like a leaky faucet you can’t quite get closed, I can’t just turn off the ideas when my requisite three outfits are done.  I actually have four complete outfits and now I am making accessories. I already have four hats and I’m working with some new ideas off in a new direction. Maybe you’ll see those next year. I’ve already started a pop tops mini skirt.

Ten Ideas About Designing Trashion Refashion

    1. All of my designs are based on responses to materials and objects. I don’t make sketches of “looks” and then interpret them. I am actually making sculptures out of materials and not so much designing from my imagination. I am being imaginative with my use of materials. “How can I use these two Indiana state flags I’ve found in the dumpsters?”
    2. I do have a muse in mind when I start working up a “look.” Then I have a direction to follow as I develop the materials into a concept. I want to amplify some quality I see in them, and I want them to feel that it is “them” so they can feel good wearing it. I also want to provide them with a fantasy of themselves that they can inhabit and embody on the runway. It can’t be faked.
    3. It has to be a real garment, not a stunt just for the show. It can’t be something glue-gunned together for one walk down the runway. It has to be more than just a costume. Fashion, not Halloween.
    4. It has to look good, and not just in the context of the reuse concept of the show. It has to be something that could be worn somewhere else and still is viable and attractive. It can’t just be shocking. It has to be convincing. It has to come from a definite point of view.
    5. I want it to be really wearable, maybe not totally comfortable (i.e. high heels), but manageable. If you can’t sit down in it, it has no business on the model. She will suffer standing in her high heels at rehearsals with no way to get off of her feet. She can’t even bend down to slip out of her shoes. Unless you provide her with a slant board to lean back on, you’re not a designer, you’re a sadist. I love the high heels, but I worry about them, too. They are dangerous.
    6. There should be some “statement.” Fashion is a communication system and it comments on both the past and the future. In that way, it references the culture at large. I hope I notice something in my designs that is also showing up in the fashion magazines. (This year it is the use of nylon mesh). I’m not trying to copy something I see, but noticing if I have tapped into something that other designer are seeing and doing. It should be synchronicity. I’m trying to “say something.” It is not random.
    7. About that glue gun in #3.  Nothing against glue guns. I’ll probably find myself using one at some point on a headpiece/hat. But there should be some craftsmanship involved. If you don’t know how to use a sewing machine, that’s a distinct disadvantage in making clothes. I’ve had to ask my wife Marilyn for help. Fortunately, she is patient with me. If I don’t like how it’s going, I seam rip it and re cut and repress and re pin. She knows how to use the sewing machine. I insist that details that won’t be seen when the model walks the runway are still important. (see #3).
    8. A fashion show is a theatrical event. Gestures and accessories have to be big enough to be read clear in the back of the theater. So there needs to be some drama. If the audience gasps when the model comes out, you’ve done it right.
    9. About the models: At first I wanted to use my wife, Marilyn. She said, “They only want young girls.” She meant the audience. So now I use young, beautiful girls, and I am lucky enough to get them and design specifically for them. Uh oh. I’m promoting and unrealistic view of women. I’m a sadist who wants to ruin their feet with those dangerous and unhealthy high heels. Can’t I see the beauty in ordinary women? No. That is not what you the audience wants to see. Fashion is fantasy. We have inherited a standard of beauty from the ancient Greek civilization in our Western culture. Statues of Greek gods and goddesses were depicted as being the ultimate of physical perfection as a metaphor for their divinity. Venus had to have the most perfect and physically beautiful body imaginable because she was a Goddess and Divine. I want my models to be goddesses and so do you. I want them to look and feel like goddesses and I want you to see them as such. This is the fantasy. It is art and artifice that create it.
    10. I want to have fun. I’m not designing a product line. I’m not trying to make a ton of money and become famous. I’m trying to be as creative as I can and make some kind of meaningful art. I’m trying to inspire you to have a different attitude towards all the material in our materialistic society. I want to have fun with it, respect its inherent possibilities and not just take it all for granted and needlessly waste it. I want to use my creativity in all aspects of my life and I want that to inspire you to do so as well. I hope you will enjoy what I do. I will enjoy it, that’s why I do it. I hope you will come and see what I and the other talented designers have for you to see at this year’s show!

The Ryder ● March 2014

Big Talk: Color Comics

Nate Powellʼs Drawings Bridge Divides ● by Michael G. Glab

[The Ryder and WFHB present Big Talk. This is the first in our new series of interviews with Bloomington people, conducted by Michael G. Glab. Hear Nate Powell speak with Glab on WFHBʼs Daily Local News. Send in your suggestions for future Big Talks to]

Big Talk

How many people are celebrated cartoonists and big sellers in the graphic novel field? How many of them have created a DIY comic book publishing empire and then gone on to found a DIY record company? And how many of them toured two continents in a punk-hip-hop band?

Nate Powell, who fits all the above criteria, lives right here in Bloomington. And now Powell has become a spokesperson for the Civil Rights generation. Add to that the irony that heʼs white. Very white. He has pale skin and light hair. His features are sharp. He was born and raised in suburban Little Rock, Arkansas. Why him?

“People ask me why I am interested in civil rights or in human rights,” he says, after pondering the question a long moment. “Iʼm a person so naturally Iʼm interested in human rights.”

Civil rights are central to two of cartoonist Nate Powellʼs recent books; human rights to all his titles. His books, Any Empire and Swallow Me Whole launched him into the top ranks of the comix-memoir-biography-narrative-fiction field. And now, Powell has hit bookshelves again as the illustrator of March: Book One, the first in a trilogy recounting the life of civil rights pioneer and current Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

This on the heels of his 2012 release, The Silence of Our Friends, based on real events, about a black family and a white family in 1967 Houston who work together to win freedom for five black teenagers wrongly accused of killing a cop.

Book Cover

“Thereʼs been a strong social lean in my comics since Iʼve been an adult,” Powell says. “But Iʼd say it wasnʼt until five or six years ago that I felt Iʼd really had enough time and distance and perspective after leaving the south and seeing how more racist and backwards the northern midwest in a lot of ways is than the traditional south, to understand the different dimensions of American racism. I finally felt like a lot of my anxiety in terms of wanting to have something to say about race, power, and identity in our society, fell away. I wrote and drew some short stories about it. The authors of the Silence of Their Friends approached me about bringing their story to life. My work on that book got a nice big feature in The New York Times. John Lewis and his co-writer Andrew Ayden secured a publishing deal with my publisher, Top Shelf, for the book, March, but with no artist. They saw the New York Times review and were like, ʻOh, we should see whatʼs going on with this guy.ʼ But Iʼd already been speaking with my publisher who strongly suggested that I try out personally for the job. We all happened to find each other at the same time.”

Powell began his cartooning career as a high school freshman. “I started by drawing a lot of guns ʻnʼ boobs style superhero comics, as did many a 13-year-old,” he says. “My best friend and I had been drawing comics for a couple of years and we decided to take the jump into printing the books ourselves. At my dadʼs office there was, essentially, an unused copy machine and we decided we were just going to run off copies of our book until the thing broke down. Which is exactly what happened. We wound up with exactly a hundred copies of our first comic. We had exactly one comic book store in town at the time and the owner, who Iʼm still very much in touch with to this day, was gracious enough to give us a little bit of shelf space.”

The two teen publishers sank some of their own money into that first issue. “We wanted to have a full color cover. So, instead of bootlegging this whole thing for free, we paid a dollar for each cover.” It sold out, at $1.75 a copy. “We made five cents profit for each issue once the store took its cut. So with that nickel times a hundred copies, we had five dollars profit to split between us.”

They hadnʼt become publishing moguls but they were hooked. They put out five 32-page issues every two months. Each issue sold out. They learned tricks along the way, including how to cut galley pages and even how to work the old Kinkoʼs copy center counting card system to their advantage. Theyʼd become classic do-it-yourself entrepreneurs.

Around the same time, Powell and some friends decided to start making music. He performed live and on CD with a series of bands throughout his teens and into adulthood. He even started up his own indie, DIY label, Harlan Records.

“Publishing my own comic books irrevocably changed the way I look at life and the way I navigate the world,” Powell says. “A lot of steps along the way, whether it was drawing comics or publishing them, or being in a band or running a record label, a lot of it was just problem solving. It was realizing I didnʼt know how to do something and figuring out the little steps along the way, or making friends who all of a sudden had some insight.”

He ran off tens of thousands of comics in the ʻ90s. “My band, Soophie Nun Squad, started touring across the US and I would sell my comics and zines at shows. I also would writes columns and do illustrations for a punk magazine called Heart Attack out of California. But I was spending too much time photocopying and assembling these books — I was printing maybe 1400 of each issue —  and could not save the money to step up and go to a real printer. So, I went to art school in New York in the late 90s, the School of Visual Arts, and I got a grant for a self-publishing project. I used that money to offset-print my first comic.”

Powell then set up a pro distribution deal. “That opened the door for me to get my books in comic book shops. That started in 2000.”

Eventually, Powellʼs career as a music executive was eclipsed by his graphic novel success. He explains: “From the time I was 2, pretty much, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was draw comics. That was certain. Things definitely got very serious as far as creating music and recording and touring with my friends but in a lot of ways we took a personal and creative stance against trying to make a career out of it. And, really, our band was sort of too weird and full of too many people, full of too many conflicting ideas to ever be successful. Soophie Nun Squad was sort of a ten-piece punk, hip-hop,n Muppet Show band, with costumes and occasionally puppets.”

Music from Powellʼs bands as well as that of bands his label issued can be found online.

Now, Powell continues working on the March trilogy as well as some other big-time projects. Itʼs not all that easy as just dashing off pictures in the snap of a finger, especially when Powellʼs illustrating a book written by others. “There are a lot of different ways to write a comic book script,” Powell says. “When I write and draw my own books, I donʼt even use a script. Iʼll have the big idea that I want the book to be about. Then Iʼll have a series of events, little vignettes, that I spend a couple of years rearranging and building a relationship between characters and events. Then itʼs a longer process of waiting for characters to emerge, from inside, that you actually care about. I know how a storyʼs going to be paced. I know how long itʼs going to be, but in terms of dialogue and text, that really comes out while Iʼm pencilling.

Book Cover

“My own stories are much more fluid and intuitive. Andrew and Johnʼs script was a classic, finished, comic book movie script, divided into scenes, panels. Originally, March was going to be a single graphic novel about 160 pages long. Within a couple of pages I realized that we were dealing with a 500-page book, just based on wanting to take the reins with my own narrative sensibilities, pulling out different focuses.

“A lot of it had to do with John Lewisʼs internal landscape as a person, but also as a character within this book. A lot of it had to do with looking in between the lines of the script and seeing what wasnʼt evident in the text. In Book Two, we cover the Freedom Rides. When John Lewis and other Freedom Riders are pulling into the Montgomery, Alabama, Greyhound station, something appears very wrong because there are only two or three journalists standing around, itʼs very still and very quiet. They know things are about to go horribly wrong, but they donʼt know when, how, from what direction, or who these people will be. So there might be this five-second window where everyoneʼs quiet, everythingʼs still, and then everything goes to hell.

“From my narrative standpoint, that is the scene, that five seconds. So itʼs a matter of turning that from one panel into two and a half pages. A lot of the fun and power of comic book storytelling is this control of time.”

March: Book Two is due to hit bookshelves around Thanksgiving. March Book Three should come out in the summer of 2016. Meanwhile, Powellʼs also working on another, albeit different kind of book. Heʼs currently inking panels for a spin-off of the wildly popular Young Adult novelist Rick Riordanʼs Percy Jackson series, entitled Heroes of Olympus. That graphic novel is in production and will be released in 2014.

Powell squeezes in drawing during nap times for his and his wifeʼs two-year-old daughter. Heʼs lived here in South Central Indiana since 2004 after tiring of living along the East Coast. Heʼd fallen in love with Bloomington after visiting here several times while on tour with Soophie Nun Squad. Plus, a good friend had gone to school here and had settled in Bloomington. “Here I am,” he says. “I love this town a lot. I have no plans to go anywhere.”

The Ryder ● March 2014


The Bloomington Chamber Singers’ production of Annelies is neither a simplistic swing through the musical genres nor a stylistic romp like the Beatles’ White Album, but rather a representation of the whole musical culture of Anne Frank’s Europe.

Our news abounds with examples of ways we humans harm each other: a contractor murdered in his isolated house, drive-by shootings, trivial religious conflicts that would seem just silly if people were not killing each other over them, political ambitions that become world-wide massacres. But as appalling as these seem, there is something bizarrely comforting in the pure irrationality of most of this mayhem. All of us have at one time or other been angry or fearful, then lashed out. Certainly, most of us stop well short of murder, but ultimately we’re on the same scale.

By contrast, consider the Third Reich. The expansionist desire to recover territory, wealth, and influence lost in the aftermath of World War I and the disasters of the Weimar Republic are understandable (and currently visible with Vladimir Putin, determined to re-establish the Great Russian Empire, Cossacks and all).

But the coldly deliberate and systematic madness of the Third Reich is an enterprise of a far more chilling sort. The motivating force may have been the paranoid and narcissistic schizophrenic called Adolf Hitler, but the final cause was the fertile German oil in which he and his collaborators planted their ideas. As John Cornwell shows in his splendid Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact (2004), the roots of Hitler’s racial “science” well precede Hitler’s rise to power. Yet this is the same culture that gave us Goethe and Kant, von Humboldt and Bethe, Bach and Brahms.

The mind—and more importantly, the heart–struggles to balance these wrenching contradictions and its obsessive thoroughness, detailed records included. Ghoulish or not, collecting gold-filled teeth is one thing, but seven tons of human hair?

It is this incomprehensible, contradictory world that swallowed Annelies Marie Frank. A fairly ordinary girl, turning into what may well have become a fairly ordinary woman, we are familiar with her in a casual way, but her ordinariness may keep us from confronting the conflicting horrors she and 11 million dead others suffered. If we have trouble getting our minds around the motivations leading to the vast expenditure of time and wealth dedicated so insanely to the Final Solution, how much more incomprehensible must it have been to those enduring it?

James Whitbourn’s Annelies is a profoundly moving meditation on the conundrum that Anne Frank’s final two years represents. The libretto by Melanie Challenger is based predominately on Anne’s famous diary entries, with a few appropriate additions from other sources, including the Psalms. Mostly they occur in their chronological order, so we see how Anne changes during her isolation as the war progresses. Whitbourn does not attempt to explicate these appalling circumstances; they may have to remain incomprehensible. Instead, his approach is phenomenological, as he lays them out much as young Anne experienced them, “in the blue sky, surrounded by black clouds.”

Annelies is a subtle and sophisticated work, yet it is marvelously accessible. A close analysis of Whitbourn’s compositional techniques would take many pages, yet those techniques never call attention to themselves. His musical approach is frankly comprehensive, showing us how deeply a part of European life Anne and the rest were. The material may be “Jewish,” but the emotional and moral force is deeply universal, presented in a variety of musical forms including folk song, chant (reflecting the traditions of both Christian plainsong and Jewish cantilation), popular entertainment, and militant marches. But this is neither a simplistic swing through the musical genres nor a stylistic romp like the Beatles’ White Album, but a representation of the whole musical culture of Anne’s Europe.

The work is fundamentally poetic, as he compresses time and concentrates emotion. A cheery music hall ditty relating how “one looks out of the window, and gazes at the endlessly amusing people” (29 September 1942) abruptly becomes “children … in thin shirts .. gnawing on a carrot to still their hunger” three months later, then in another three months, “One day … we’ll be people again, and not just Jews.”

His approach to the material is compassionate and thoughtful, but totally without rancor or stridency. In some true sense he does not take sides, since the enormity of the bare facts speak for themselves. Anne herself goes from telling her diary in the first entry “I hope that I can trust you … since memories mean more to me than dresses,” to the final, affirmative “when I look at the sky. I feel that everything will change for the better.”

The work is scored for chorus, soprano solo, clarinet, and piano trio. The Chamber Singers under Dr. Gerry Sousa need no introduction to Bloomington audiences, and they have never sounded better. The soprano soloist will be Elizabeth Toy, who also soloed with the BCS in Respighi’s Laud to the Nativity last December. Although still young, she has already amassed a impressive musical biography and is an ideal choice for the part, close enough in age to Anne herself to be comforting, yet with a mature and rich lyrical voice beautifully suited to the material.

[The performance will be given twice in Bloomington at The Warehouse, 1525 S. Rogers, on Saturday, April 12 (7:30) and Sunday, April 1 (3:00). Tickets are available at the Buskirk-Chumley box office and on line or from BCS members.]

The Ryder ● March2014

The Gadabout Film Festival

Instant Gratification and Goofing off for a Greater Good ● by Elisabeth Squires

A pair of young lovers are looking up at the sky. Their heads lean together and turn towards the sun. “See those stars?” the man says. “Well, I mean you can’t see the stars. But behind the clouds and far away there’s stars. I’m gonna name one of those stars after you.” She gazes at him adoringly, his words cutting to her very soul.

This is a scene from Eric Ayotte’s short film Crying Out Loud 4 — Official Trailer. Made for his monthly Instant Gratification Movie Challenge, it is a goof on self-serious indie films. Obligatory seriousness is a cardinal sin in Ayotte’s eyes. His two film projects, The Instant Gratification Movie Challenge and The Gadabout Film Festival, work to make the independent film world seem more inviting to would-be filmmakers.

The Instant Gratification Movie Challenge is open to anyone with Ayotte’s email address. Each month a theme is chosen, usually a cliched turn of phrase; Crying Out Loud 4 was made for the prompt “For Crying Out Loud.” People have one month to make a film, up to five minutes in length, based on the prompt. The goal is to get people making films regularly, without feeling pressured to make something exquisitely professional.

The Gadabout Film Festival is an annual program of short films curated by Ayotte. Anyone can submit to the festival. There is no submission fee, and no limit on the numbers of films submitted. Ayotte and his wife, Charlie Jones choose a program that will last 45 minutes to an hour; they tour the country with the films, bringing short films to people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a more traditional festival.

[Image at the top of this post: Charlie and Eric.]

“When people think of a short film program, maybe they have the expectation of the pretentious route of a bunch of art school sort of films, which have their own place and validity. But for some people that can be boring. Or maybe it’s not their thing. Or it is their thing, I don’t know. I don’t want to be too negative towards that.

This sort of sentiment is very typical of Ayotte. He is intensely focused on creating space for his style of short film, but at the same time leaving room for everyone else. Coming out of the punk and D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) music scene, Ayotte sought to create the same culture of support and encouragement around film.

The Gadabout Film Festival was founded in 2002, “mainly as an excuse to travel,” says Ayotte. With only 14 screenings in two months, “it mostly was camping and traveling, and being a tourist at the same time. And eating beans in a can.”

Booking that first tour involved cold calling venues across the country. Ayotte said it was more difficult back then “because the internet wasn’t the internet yet.” He would google (or AltaVista as the case might have been) a town and the words “art council” or “film theater,” hope the phone number was online, then plead his case directly whoever happened to pick up. “Not a lot of people were doing something like [a traveling short film festival], so a lot of people were interested in taking a chance.”

As the years went on, the tour became more organized. “Each year we have more and more venues, and more and more stops and fewer beans from a can.” This year the festival will tour sixty cities in America and Europe. But the festival has yet to lose the sense of irreverence, of silliness, that Ayotte injects into everything he does. He describes first forays into film in high school as “goofing off.” He never thought of film as a potential career. As time went on, however, he found himself spending more and more time goofing off. Eventually he and a friend were accepted to The New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, an experience that left such a bad taste in his mouth it prompted Ayotte to start his own festival.


Film-goers at the 2010 Gadabout Festival in Chicago

“We were actually kinda turned off by the whole pretentiousness of the film fest world…There was no sense of community, there was no sense of support or anything. It was the kind of festival where you pay to submit your film, and they keep asking you for more money. Like ‘Hey do you want an image from your film on the cover?’ ‘Do you want a table at the opening gala?’ All these things. I realized how much of a business it was.”

Ayotte says that, even though there were no awards or rankings at that festival, the whole affair felt very competitive. “It was just people passing out their cards. ‘Come see my movie! Come see my movie!'” says Ayotte. It stood in stark contrast to the music scene Ayotte was getting into at the same time. “The other part of my life was being into the D.I.Y. music scene, playing in bands and just seeing that world of inspiration and support and feeling like oh, anyone can play music and go on tour and do these things. And so with film I started thinking of it more like that, like you could make your own films, and you can share them with people, and you can try to support other people that are trying to do the same thing.”

The Gadabout Film Festival has shifted from playing in cinemas and traditional film venues to more unconventional spaces. “We’ve done people’s backyards, we’ve done local parks, we’ve done people’s garages, We’ve done people’s basements. In Hannover, Germany there was this attic of an apartment building that spanned the entire building and was just completely empty. We’ve done screenings in abandoned buildings where people have had access to power outlets somewhere close by, and we were like ‘yeah we’ll do it, see what happens.’ The outside of a school in California — that was technically trespassing.”

Ayotte sees these unique venues as integral to the success of the festival. When they’ve played in cinemas in the past, “people are going to a film venue and they’re seeing films. It’s what they expect. When we set up our own projector and screen in a music venue, or in a garage, or in a field, people leave and you can tell that they’ve experienced something.”

“Oddly enough my favorite compliment that we ever get is ‘I wasn’t expecting it to be good.’ I take that as a large compliment.”

[The 12th Annual Gadabout Film Festival begins on Sunday, April 6th at 8:00 pm at Rhino’s All Ages Club. The theme this year is “Speechless,” movies with little to no dialogue. Submissions are open for the festival until March 23. Submissions for the Instant Gratification Movie Challenge, also titled “Speechless,” are open until April 6th.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

So, The Body

● by Danielle McClelland

A few short takes….

Scene 1:

I’m driving my aunt back to the airport after we’ve both attended my father’s memorial service in Maple Hill, Kansas. It was at the old stone church on the hill. Cows walked over the rise as we filed out of the church to lay his ashes in a grave. It’s a long drive, to the airport from Maple Hill. We’re mostly silent, ‘cause we’re both from Kansas, and strangely enough, with all that distance all around you all the time, still, the biggest gift we seem to be able to give to one another is the wide open prairie of not saying anything when you’re riding in a car. Then, she suddenly starts talking, and she tells me about the phone call she got years before from her brother, my dad, the day after he received the letter in which I came out to him. How my father called her, wanting her to tell him what to do. I hadn’t known this. I didn’t have any idea he’d wondered, or worried, or questioned. He wrote right back to me. There were a lot of empty spaces on the page, but he said he loved me.

Dean & Danielle McClelland

Danielle, with the Personal Development Award at the 1986 Miss Teen Washington pageant, and her dad, Dean 

My aunt says he told her that he knew I was different from the first time he held me, he just hadn’t known how.

Then she’s quiet again, and I keep driving, but everything changes. My body gets heavier, looser, less… held. He’s been gone more than two weeks, but it isn’t until this moment that I feel his embrace, release. There is only me holding me up now.

Scene 2:

In the dim fuzzy light filtering through the hotel room curtains of a snowy Chicago getaway, I pull my too-old-to-be-doing-this body out of the warm cozy bed I’m sharing with my too-young-to-go-to-bed-at-a-decent-hour girlfriend and check my email. The news report tells me that someone back home in Bloomington is no longer someone, but now, simply, a body. Murdered.

Scene 3:

I’m sitting on the front porch on a sleepy Sunday evening in summer and I’m trying to explain my life to someone new. People always say it’s complicated, I say, but I don’t think so, I say. I think it’s simple. There’s cicadas droning on and on in the background. The old man across the street is mowing his lawn. The ice in her glass clinks. I say, it’s just that I don’t think anybody can own my body, and sharing it with whoever I want in whatever way I want is a fundamental right that the people I love don’t try to deny. She says, “that’s disgusting.” And she gathers up her things, leaves, never says goodbye. I still see her. We eat in the same restaurants. She knows most of the same people I do. I still want to yell at her. “It’s my body!”

Scene 4:

I’m standing in the balcony of the PRIDE Film Festival Dance Party, watching the crowd and talking to the DJ, who explains to me that being a DJ is like parenting a multi-armed and legged octopus-like creature, all the people on the dance floor become one body, inarticulate but immediately and ultimately demanding… you try one beat, and the creature falls listless and dull, another and it pulses with life, suddenly it changes and becomes distracted. It is us, she says, one organism, one body.

Scene 5:

In the film Switch, by Brooks Nelson, Brooks asks his butch lesbian friend if his transition from female to male has made her feel abandoned. She looks right at the camera and says yes. In that solemn, steady, butch way, she never ever backs away. She lets Brooks feel the space between them now, but she doesn’t leave.

As I’m walking home along the B-Line trail the night after screening that film, a huge silver moon lighting the way, a couple of young guys are walking towards me, trying to light a cigarette. They say, “Dude, you got a light?” And I light the cigarette for them, standing wide and keeping my voice gruff and my hands steady. “Dude, awesome. Great.” is all they say. My body is the same, but I wonder, who did I just betray?

[Image at the top of this post: Danielle in character for “the girl stories” performance, February 2008.]

So this is the thing. We think about the body ALL the time. My body, their body, that other body. Whose body is right, whose body is wrong? In my naked body, who will hold me? In my open body, am I safe? In my out body, am I visible? How is it that what I do with my body offends another? How can what someone did with his body against the body of another leaving us with nothing more than a body, not offend? And yet, it is through this body that we are linked.

I mean, okay, enough poetics: I slept with her, who slept with him, who tongue kissed that one, and then that one’s past lover who once dated my first lover from way back when and four other people had a play party and – get it? We are a small town.

My body is your body is our body. It sounds religious. I think it kind of is. We are a body politic. As lesbians and gays and bi-sexuals and trans people, we might think that we are a group unto ourselves, our little alphabet soup, but you better believe that everybody else is woven into this tapestry, too. They might not realize the connection, but that’s the advantage queer people have – of thinking about it a little more than average.

We’re a body convened in this place at this time, and one thing I think we know better than San Francisco or New York is that you just get the one body. You can rearrange some stuff and emphasize one thing over another, but in a small town, even a college town, you know that these are the ones we’ve got to work with. They’re not going away. You can’t just switch groups or decide these politics are not my politics and go across town to another kind of meeting. If we’re going to change anything, anything at all, it takes all of us. The whole screaming wiggling thousand toed multi-armed humanity of us. And every single one of those limbs makes up the embrace. The thing that holds us all up. To make that embrace, you have to stand on your own two feet. You have to claim your right to what you want. And you have to leave those wide open spaces between you and the next guy so that they have room to tell you their story. Because the body is just the connection. It’s our story which holds us together.

TEDxBloomington 2014

While bicyclists will be spinning around the track at Little 500 on Saturday, April 26, downtown Bloomington will be discussing “What Goes ‘Round” in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The third day-long TEDxBloomington conference will feature local and national speakers presenting ideas that are literally or metaphorically round, spherical, global, or cyclical. Designed to spark discussion and build larger, more diverse networks among participants, the event encourages attendees to be more active in their local and global communities.

Featuring live and video presentations, each lasting 4 to 18 minutes, TEDxBloomington will run from 10:30am-5:00pm on the 26th. Tickets are available now online through TEDxBloomington or the BCT box office, 812-323-3020).

[Danielle McClelland is a featured speakers at this year’s TEDxBloomington conference.]

PHOTO CAPS – try to use both images – let me know if you need more space
Danielle wins the “Personal Development” Award at the 1986 Miss Teen Washington pageant and is congratulated by her dad, Dean McClelland


The Ryder ● March 2014

Enrique’s Journey

Sonia Nazario’s Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother ● by Justin Chandler

[Sonia Nazario’s appearance April 16 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater is sponsored by the IU School of Journalism Speaker Series.]

In Honduras, and throughout Central America, the United States is referred to as El Norte. There is promise and hope in this simple title, fittingly so because every year adults and youths in Central America chase after that hope, trying their hand at reaching El Norte. They leave behind their families, sometimes even their children. They face down bandits, dishonest smugglers, corrupt police, and the trains themselves—the cause of countless deaths and disfigurements.

When he was five, Enrique’s mother left him and his sister in Honduras, recognizing that the only way she could provide for her family was by immigrating illegally into the States, finding work, and sending money back.

Sonia Nazario’s book, Enrique’s Journey, goes to great lengths to tell Enrique’s story. For more than twenty years Nazario has reported on social issues ranging from hunger, immigration, and drug addiction, but her work here is not merely a retelling but a reliving of Enrique’s journey; Nazario herself took the same journey as Enrique, retracing his steps in order to retell his story.

Book Cover

Nazario’s initial reporting on Enrique, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, won her the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 2002. The book’s accompanying photographs by Don Bartletti won him the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. She will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The talk is part of the IU School of Journalism’s Speaker Series and is free and open to the public.

In part, the book deals with Enrique’s journey to understand his mother’s decision, but the greater journey is the one Enrique makes when, at 17, he decides to leave behind his pregnant partner, travel to the States, and reunite with a mother he hasn’t seen in twelve years. This journey is 1,600 miles, and is accomplished predominately through Enrique riding the tops of trains along what is called called El Tren de la Muerte (The Train of Death.)

[Image at the top of this post: Sonia Nazario riding a train through Mexico.]

It’s only on his eighth attempt (and in his seventh pair of shoes) that Enrique finally crosses the border into the United States. But what is truly incredible about Enrique’s journey is that he wasn’t alone in attempting it, that hundreds of thousands of Central Americans attempt to reach—often unsuccessfully—El Norte. Enrique’s Journey manages to not only tell Enrique’s story, but also the stories of so many of Enrique’s fellow travelers and those along the way who hinder or help their progress. The book captures so many facets of these lives, and in its less than 300 pages deals so thoroughly with issues of immigration, worker rights, family values, and the creation of identity, that at times Enrique’s story threatens to be lost in the larger scope of history and politics that informs it.

It’s a big risk, leaving Enrique behind for pages at a time to tell the reader about Padre Leo, the incredible priest who has turned his church into a shelter for the refugees—despite the wishes of half his congregation—and who allows Enrique to make the phone call that changes his life forever.



By the end of the book the risk is worth it. Enrique’s journey doesn’t end when he hops off his last train, and it doesn’t end when he finally accumulates enough money to get ferried across the border, or when his mother pays the ransom and his smugglers send him to North Carolina and he finally reunites with her. In truth, his journey is one that never ends. It is a journey that only truly begins with the recognition that the past and its trauma cannot be forgotten, that it must be faced before healing can take place.

Called “the adventure story of the twenty-first century,” Enrique’s journey and the journey of thousands of other Central American refugees is an odyssey that never ends, an odyssey to bridge not just those gaps between us created by time and space but by abandonment and resentment, drug addiction and depression, inequality and injustice. It’s a journey to mend despite all that has torn one’s life apart.

And it is a journey not just for Enrique and not just for those who travel on El Tren de la Muerte. It is everyone’s journey: those who work toward reconciliation, those who perpetuate the failures of the past, and even those who ignore the fact that history is happening.

It is happening, and it is happening to all of us. As Padre Leo tells his congregation (which include many Mexicans who are resentful of Central Americans migrating into their country in search of a better life) “they, too, were once migrants. Saint Joseph was a migrant. The Bible was written by migrants. Running off a migrant…is like turning against yourself.”

The Ryder ● March 2014

Poetry & Technology

Poetpalooza 2014 ● by Richard Taylor

[Village Lights Bookstore in Madison, Indiana, will host Poetpalooza 2014: A Tri-State Poetry Summit, Friday and Saturday, April 11th and 12th, with hourly readings and signings by a score of nationally and regionally acclaimed poets. The poets laureate from Indiana and Kentucky are scheduled to appear. Featured independent publishers will be Dos Madres Press, of Ohio, and Broadstone Books, of Kentucky. Book launches by Ohio poet Michael Henson and Kentucky Poet Laureate emeritus Richard Taylor. Live music Friday evening and Saturday morning. Gallery exhibit of artworks by Richard Taylor. Community open mic poetry slam Saturday evening. 812-265-1800 or the Village Lights website for schedule and more information.]

Most poets have few illusions about what they do and don’t do. They are not, as Shelley once imagined, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” because even the poetry that is most moving does not mobilize us into collective social action. But the best poets are witnesses to the daily phenomena we all experience and often ignore. They provide us with insights — a first step toward wisdom — that we seldom get elsewhere. The level at which poetry functions best is individuals speaking to individuals about common interests, about the condition of the spirit, the mystery of our being, the unspoken dialogue that goes on between each of us and the world. T.S. Eliot raised provocative questions about the levels of communication that each of us encounter daily: “How much knowledge is lost in mere information? How much wisdom is lost in mere knowledge?” Most of us have neglected these higher regions of communication. Instead, we are bombarded with data, with often irrelevant facts, with news that is news only for moments. If we tuned in only to wisdom, there would be little on television and the world-wide web to hold our attention.

[Image at the top of this post: Calliope — Greek muse of epic poetry.]

We live in three worlds — the natural world, the man-made world, and the world of mind and imagination. The natural world we know is a landscape of rivers and valleys, farmland and mountain hollows with areas of mixed deciduous hardwood forests that are among the wonders of eastern North America. Increasingly, this primal world, the necessary condition of our existence, is being replaced by our man-made world of shopping malls, urban sprawl, and asphalt. These changes have been made possible by an unprecedented application of technology — through computers, through gigantic earthmovers, and through internal combustion engines that permit us to live farther and farther from the places where we work and more and more dissociated from the places where we live. In the process, we are rapidly erasing the old divisions between town and country, the natural and synthetic, the “developed” and the wild. Increasingly, the world we witness is a secondhand world presented to us over satellite dishes and the world-wide web.

The word “technology” derives from the Greek word techne, which means “skill” or “art.” The word “poet” derives from another Greek word, poeta, meaning “maker,” and by extension, creator. Technology demonstrates our skills, our mastery of techniques to alter the physical world for human purpose, but it provides little nourishment for the spirit. Art, as Lexington, Kentucky writer Guy Davenport has said, is “the replacement of indifference with attention.” Art, or artifice, provides us with the means to reshape the world in our minds and hearts, to reconnect ourselves with not just the surfaces of the natural world but the pulse, the mysteries of life itself. At its best, poetry reclaims the natural world for us. It focuses our attention from our distracted lives and, at its best, transforms our sight to vision. It offers a means of interpreting both worlds, and often it imparts a wisdom that we won’t pick up on CNN or the evening news. As the poet Ezra Pound memorably said, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

Poetry and other expressions of the imagination — fiction, the visual arts, drama, music, and dance — are one means by which we can re-connect ourselves with the natural world, the rhythms of the live around us. They are the means to reestablish linkages between the man-made world and the domain of wildlife and natural cycles that exists in precarious counterbalance with our own human destinies. The arts are one means to reunite us with our best selves in a more thoughtful relationship with the natural world. The third world of mind and imagination is in part the healthful connection all of us can make with the world of nature and the world we have made and are making, a world that is rapidly altering the balance between the human and the non-human, the subdivision and the ecosystems to which we are inextricably tied.

[Richard Taylor, Kentucky Poet Laureate (1999-2001) lives in Frankfort, Kentucky and owns Poor Richard’s Books. Author of eight collections of poetry, two novels, and several books relating to Kentucky history, he currently teaches creative writing at Transylvania University in Lexington. His latest book of poetry, Rain Shadow will have its launch on April 11th at Poetpalooza 2014.]

The Ryder ● March 2014

FILM REVIEW: The Lego Movie

by Adam Davis

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been used at least since 1860. A hundred and fifty-four years later — and after being the moral of a great many works of literature and cinema, especially children’s and family cinema — the phrase might seem cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. For example, The Lego Movie seemed destined by its very nature to be a one-joke film; a feature-length toy commercial passing itself off as a low-quality comedy where all the jokes essentially amounted to “ha, these people are minifigures and their world is made of Lego, isn’t that silly?” (for those not in the know, “minifigure is the Lego Group’s term for the small plastic people that come with sets of Lego pieces). That’s not to say that such jokes aren’t present, that they aren’t funny, or that the Lego Group isn’t capitalizing of the film’s success, but the film has more to offer for 90 minutes than just a single joke and constant marketing.

[Image at the top of this post: Emmet — a minifigure character.]

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is one of the many generic construction worker minifigures who populate Bricksburg, a city made entirely of Lego bricks. Bricksburg is quickly established as a highly conformist dystopia (everyone buys the same overpriced coffee (over $30), watches the same dopey tv sitcom (“Where Are My Pants”) and listens to the same catchy pop song (“Everything Is Awesome”) where the general public never question their tyrannical leader President Business (Will Ferrell). Conformist even by Bricksburg’s standards and viewed by his co-workers as completely generic, Emmet is lonely and friendless until he discovers a mysterious Lego brick called the “Piece Of Resistance”

Suddenly, a woman named Wyldstyle comes into his life and mistakes him for a prophesized figure called “The Chosen.” The wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freemen) claims that whoever finds the Piece Of Resistance is The Chosen; the most talented, important, and interesting person in existence and the person who can help the “Master Builders” free the Lego universe from President Business, so Wyldstyle quickly recruits the bewildered Emmet into the resistance.

The Master Builders, it turns out, are minifigures capable of disassembling the Lego bricks of anything around them and reassembling them into everything else. Aside from Wyldstyle and Vitrivius, the other Master Builders all seem to be characters that the Lego Group really has made minifigures of (i.e. almost every family friendly character you can think of), including Gandalf, Dumbledore, Milhouse, Shakespeare, the 2002 NBA All-Stars, an Abraham Lincoln with a rocket-powered chair, and various assorted DC comics superheroes. These individuals prove much less pivotal to the film than trailers might have viewers believe, and our heroes are unable to count on them for help. Thus it’s up to Emmet, Wyldstyle, Vitruvius, Batman (Will Arnett), a cheery unicorn named Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie), a pirate with a robot body named Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), and someone simply named “80s Space Guy” (Charlie Day) to travel other worlds made of Lego bricks on a quest to attach the Piece Of Resistance to Lord Business’ super weapon “the kragle” (a tube of crazy glue) before he uses it to glue everyone in place forever.

With the enormous success of Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, other major studios jumped back into animation in 1990s. Initially it was animation of the 2d hand-drawn variety – including all but one of the films created by the short-lived division Warner Brothers Feature Animation – whether it was drawn using pencil and paper or computer software. With the rise Pixar, many other studios quickly switched to over to 3d computer animation and found great success there, but WBFA’s one attempt at a film with 3d animated characters (Looney Tunes: Back In Action) bombed and forced the division’s closure.

Since then, WB’s animated output has consisted of tv shows (almost all about Looney Tunes or characters WB has acquired) and direct-to-video Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry films. Then, last year, they created an animation “think tank” to develop ideas for animated films to be written in-house and animated by outside studios. In the meantime, the Lego Group has produced films for the small screen (both the TV and direct-to-video markets) since 2001, generally based on licensed properties (such as Monty Python And The Holy Grail In Lego and Lego Marvel Superheroes: Maximum Overload) but sometimes on in-house creations instead (such as the Clutch Powers and Bionicle franchises). Lego Movie is a good return to theatrical animation for Warner Brothers and a good theatrical debut for Lego, and we should be grateful to both of those companies and co-producers Lin Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and Vertigo Entertaiment for bringing it to the screen.

The computer animation by Animal Logic (a company also responsible for the animation of other cg films like Legend Of The Guardians: Owls of Ga’Hoole and the visual effects for a diverse array of live-action titles including The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Great Gatsby) looks fantastic. The plastic texture of the characters and their world look much more believable than in cheaper Lego productions, and the cgi blends seamlessly with the stop-motion that’s purportedly in there at certain points (at all times, the characters are deliberately animated to move in the jerky fashion one would expect from a completely stop-motion animated Lego film). The voice work imbues life into these characters, particularly Chris Pratt’s likeably enthusiastic portrayal of Emmet, Will Arnett’s amusingly over-the-top grim voice for Batman, Morgan Freemen combining his authoritative voice with a dry delivery of blunt lines for a hilarious Vitruvius and Liam Nesson’s deep voice giving threatening dialogue delivery for President Business’ henchmen Bad Cop. The writing mixes parody of standard fantasy stories about a “chosen one” who will save the world with some genuinely sweet and moving character drama (such as Emmet’s sad desperation to feel special) that creates a more unique tone that a pure parody or drama would have (even if it does skew towards more comedy than drama because, well, it’s a Lego movie). The comedy is childlike without being childish, which is infectious and a big part of the fun of watching the film.

Is it possible the film is getting more praise than it otherwise would because critics and parents went in with understandably low expectations? Certainly. Is it a perfect story? Not quite. Characters like Wyldstyle and Vitruvius don’t leave as strong an impression as they should, and a plot twist near the end becomes a tad bit confusing if you think about it too hard. Nevertheless, there is a great deal more good than bad here, and anyone who is a child or hasn’t abandoned their inner child and can still enjoy goofy family films should have a blast watching this.

The Ryder ● March 2014