Life and Death of Michael Jackson – A Personal Reflection

June 26, 2009

michael_jackson1

June 25, 2009 – The day Michael Jackson died.  Reflecting on this is an odd experience for me.  This man is a huge personal hero, one whose passion and innate ability to entertain is accentuated by his irrepressible eccentricities.  Most of the world loved him for his magnificent voice and groundbreaking body-talk – the “weird stuff” was something they had to look past to appreciate the pop royalty.  But myself, and many others I’m sure, reveled in how strange he was -we loved him largely BECAUSE he was  totally isolated and misunderstood by the rest of humankind.

This misfit mystique permeated in the countless montages reflecting on his career, often alongside similar dedications to former Angel Farrah Fawcett, 62, who also succumbed to death today following a long and very public battle with cancer.  Her life in 5 minute video eulogies was characterized by a loving and committed romantic relationship with partner Ryan O’Neal, her persevering spirit, and a likable public persona.  She seemed like a genuinely sweet human being.

This was quite a contrast to Jackson, whose personal life was often harshly indicted by a probing public (including the crippling allegations of child molestation, speculation of his cosmetic surgeries, and a questionable parenting style).  He became known also for his lavish spending, which had resulted in incredible debts  – a perplexing feat considering he is responsible for the highest selling musical album worldwide.  On top of all this, the poor guy’s privacy was a thing of the past at age 5.  He knew nothing of a life outside of international fame.

His life was most unfortunate – He had the innate talents and workmanship that meant he was destined for fame, but he showed signs of this so early on it tended to undermine basic childhood development.  Even at 50, he retained a widely misunderstood man-child persona.  For a culture so obsessed with youth, it was puzzlingly unkind to a full-grown man whose life was characterized by his desire to retreat to something simpler, who had romanticized the notion of childhood more than anyone else.

I will always hesitate in making the bold claim that a person is in a better place once they’ve died, even if, as I believe, that place is no where.  But in Jackson’s case, I’m not sure where I stand.  His debts were growing.  His health was, apparently, and according to his own family, not very good.  It seems the world was too much for him.  I want to believe that, for someone who had such a hard time fitting into this life, there is an eventual promise of peace.  He spent a good portion of his adult life building and hiding away in Neverland Ranch.  His desire to escape, to uncover this idealized eternity of youth to him must have sounded like something close to heaven.  The glorified “childhood experience” must have eluded Jackson.  Indeed, being the King of Pop inevitably complicates things.  But I’ll be damned if anyother pop star had so thoroughly earned such a title.

Here’s to hoping he’s found his Neverland.


The New Golden Age of Animation

June 10, 2009

Up

The lovely big wigs at Disney, who’ve almost entirely homogenized animated film for the past 50 years, can once again reap the benefits of what is undoubtedly the industry’s smartest partnership of the past few decades.  Pixar’s Up, Disney’s saving grace in terms of commercial success and artistic innovation, proved to be a huge financial success, earning $68.1 million in the box office its opening weekend.  As of June 9, its domestic gross is a commendable $141.9 million.

The film continues Pixar’s tradition of exploring new narrative and thematic territory.  Between its devastating opening scenes and its jarring action sequences, it is undoubtedly the most poignant and emotionally exhaustive in the studio’s repertoire.

Since Toy Story, the first feature length composed using entirely Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) was released theatrically in 1995, Pixar have dominated in what some are professing is the new golden age of animation.

Wall-E

Wall-E

Last year, Wall-E set the standard with its daring script and painstaking attention to detail.  The remains of an unsustainable Earth are portrayed with arresting realism.  Everything, down to the dirt and rust on our wide-eyed artificial hero, appears tangible.

With Up, the rendering of the real-life has improved.  We see the intricate stitches and wrinkles of fabrics, the unkempt stubble on an old man’s face, and the incredible subtlety of shadows and lighting.  Never before has a computer animated film felt so full of life.

In terms of integrity, few commercially successful filmmakers present themselves as worthy contemporaries to Pixar’s animation team.

The most talked about is probably Hayao Miyazaki and his film company, Studio Ghibli (whose American distribution rights are controlled by none other than Disney).  Miyazaki’s introduction to the American mainstream, the wonderfully imaginative Spirited Away, was met with awe and enthusiasm in 2001.  In many ways he improved with 2004’s film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle.  Miyazaki’s latest, and purportedly his last, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is scheduled for American theatrical release this August.

While Miyazaki is undoubtedly the most celebrated of Japan’s animated filmmakers, U.S. audiences have been notably entranced by the genre as a whole.  Mad House studios is another buzzworthy contributor, specificially the work of Satoshi Kon.  In 2001, he unleashed an animated drama of epic proportions, the brilliantly concieved Millennium Actress.  As good as anything Miyazaki has ever made, it tells the story of a woman whose life in the “golden era” film industry is characterized by an unclear distinction between reality and fiction.  While arguably Kon’s masterwork, it was his follow-up, the offbeat Tokyo Godfathers, that really got American audiences talking.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist

Other parts of the world are contributing their unique visions.  In 2003, French traditional animator Sylvain Chomet achieved minor international success with The Triplets of Belleville.  He also has an anticipated new feature length in the works, The Illusionist, which features an unfinished script from legendary french mime and filmmaker Jacques Tati.  The realized feature is scheduled for release this year.

Fellow French animator/director Marjane Satrapi offered another unique, and markedly more adult perspective in the medium with the autobiographical and critically lauded Persepolis in 2007.

There’s also been a market for animation of the stop motion variety, largely driven by the work of UK-based Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run), and reaching a whole new level with Henry Selick’s magical Coraline, released in 3D this past February.

Despite high acclaim in film and animation circles, Pixar dwarfs these filmmakers in terms of monetary draw.  Dreamworks is the studio’s top commercial competitor.  Their Shrek series dominates the top 5 of the highest domestic grossing animated features of the past 30 years.  But when it comes to critical reception, the studio has mixed success.

That said, the influence of Pixar can not be understated.  And if their last 3 films are any indication, the mainstream moviegoer appears to be accepting a more grown up approach in animation – where things like death and personal loss are just as palpable as life and self actualization.  The possibilities in the field have not seemed so limitless since 1937.  Dare I say, things are looking up.