The (Possibly) Great Unfinished Films – The Thief and the Cobbler

•September 1, 2010 • 3 Comments

The Thief and the Cobbler (1993); The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut (2006)

Dir. Richard Williams

The Thief and the Cobbler is in so many ways the very archetype for cult fandom, one of those impossibly true stories of a passion project getting yanked around for over a decade, only to be unceremoniously dropped in a brutally truncated fashion to an audience of none.  This just begs for a cult reappraisal, the very backstory that seems almost guaranteed for such a fate these days.

Yet, The Thief and the Cobbler, while the subject of a small but passionate following, does not seem to extend very far past animation buffs, and even then it seems a far cry from other cult oddities of the sort, such as the films of Jan Svankmajer or René Laloux (whose Fantastic Planet may or may not have influenced some architectural nuances of Williams’ piece).  Maybe the tone of the film in question figures greatly into the equation; The Thief and the Cobbler by no means intends to be some great avant-garde, expressionist achievement.  By all accounts, its director, Richard Williams, seems to be shooting for the bleachers, as in its core, The Thief and the Cobbler is as traditional Hollywood entertainment as they come, an heir apparent, if not to the most classic of Disney films, than at least to the slight but underrated legacy of Don Bluth (if anything, it seems to eerily predict Disney’s late 90s-early 2000s work, most notably The Emperor’s New Groove).  This, in its essence, is an uphill battle for cult admiration, as no one can quite envision an immense fan outcry for, say, The Jungle Book, if it were in an alternate universe some neglected passion project left for dead by Disney.  Cult fans tend to like their curiosities in any variation of one flavor: strange.  And strange, the jerkiness of the fan-created cut aside, is not the word to accurately describe The Thief and the Cobbler.

For some time now, I have had a casual obsession with The Thief and the Cobbler, but more so for its stunning cult of admirers, those folks who unwittingly took on the task of putting a massive sketchbook together and binding it into something resembling coherence.  Alas, however, there was frankly always the underlying dread that the film itself would be a crushing disappointment, another casualty of ambition left unfulfilled.

Ironically, the best assets The Thief and the Cobbler has going for it are its wonderfully dated qualities.  Its animation is indeed stunningly timeless, but its quaint traditionalism seem almost revelatory now, in the age of the pop-culture takeover in films of its similar ilk.  More time passing between this and Aladdin, while once its greatest curse, may even prove to be its most lasting gift, as I dare anyone to tell me which proves a more fulfilling and relevant viewing experience.

Williams may be a crowd-pleaser through and through, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of more subversive territories.  Let’s not forget, this is the man that drew Jessica Rabbit.  Take for instance a sequence involving the titular Thief, who’s greatest quest to conquer is to steal the “Three Golden Balls”, which lie atop the greatest shaft, er uh, temple in the land, and bring undying unity and safety to the town, so long as they remained attached.  Lest you think my perpetually juvenile mind is reading into this harmless kid’s film too much, I direct your attention to one of those unfinished sketches thrown into the mix, wherein the Thief steals the balls, and proceeds to hide them in his frock whilst tightrope walking.  Looks a bit like a swinging scrotum, does it not? Ah, but any even casual admirer of animation will tell you that this is a time-honored tradition…

The animation is deliriously creative, and mind-boggling, at times, a phantasmagoria of impossible shapes and architecture; the lazy man’s comparative reference would be Escher, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t seen a more appropriate use of that simile in animated film.  The floors shift like a perpetual puzzle, corridors become slides, and staircases begin where the last ones ended.  This is nothing new in animation, nor has it seen its last appropriation (see Tarsem’s The Fall or Inception), but Williams manages to achieve a particular nimbleness in his movements that prove more giddy with invention than with a penchant for simply showing off (and speaking of now-trendy visual effects, check out the climactic Rube Goldberg sequence; he may have a hit on his hands after all).  Williams’ sense of uniformity and symmetry is quite impressive as well, particularly in the moments involving a massive mechanical army, a kind of play on Disney’s sly piece of propaganda, Education For Death, itself a response to Reifenstahl’s haunting symmetry.  All of this is commonplace now in any science fiction story, the little hero against the allegorical Nazi army, but the level of detail and scope is impressive regardless of the feeling of déjà vu.

All in all, if it seems like I haven’t exactly delved into the meat of the filmmaking itself, i.e. the emotional involvement and storytelling, it’s because frankly, there isn’t much to tell.  The Thief and the Cobbler is completely banal on those fronts, at times cripplingly trite in its fable-making, particularly in moments involving the unbearable Princess (wise they left her name out of the title).  Williams is in fact the ideal cult figure after all, a man whose inimitable talent in animation is perhaps too profound to be spearheading a massive self-made project like this one.  His work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is some of the finest ever done by an animator, but that one had a remarkably clever storytelling mechanic provided by Robert Zemeckis.  The Thief and the Cobbler is unparalleled on the visual front, a masterpiece of composition and movement, but the storytelling is simply there to keep the money shots coming, and in that aspect we are not viewing one of the great visionary works of our time going unfinished.

What we do have here, however, is quite possibly the finest fan restoration ever committed to film, a remarkable study in cultdom that treats its material with not only reverence for what could have been, but positing itself as a potentially fascinating study on the art of editing itself.  How does one edit a film together to cohesion when one wasn’t involved in any aspect of production itself?  Not to mention one that only had a fleeting shot at cohesion in the first place?  What Williams’ film lacks in inherent narrative “sense” is purely the fault of the screenplay itself, because one marvels at the success achieved by Garrett Gilchrist in this “Recobbled” cut.  In its own strange way, viewing The Thief and the Cobbler in its jarring unfinished state serves as a reminder of the visual splendor of the partially completed cut.  It certainly never allows your gaze to wander too far from its complexity.  I hesitate to say that the film is better off including the myriad of sketches and preliminary animations that Gilchrist puts in for continuity, but it sure makes for a fascinating viewing and study, completely unique to my eyes (not counting the released abomination of Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote).  The film has a plethora of history to it, only some I have recounted here; a delay in proper production until 1989, botched releases (Miramax’s Arabian Knights, the Australian cut, featuring the aforementioned ill-advised title of The Princess and the Cobbler), and eventual disownership of Williams himself.

What stands out here though is that we have the rarest of the rare in unfinished film lore; a (relatively) happy ending.  A truly remarkable study in the technique of animation, if not advancing the art of storytelling, saved by a passionate fanbase that sees a film deserving of study.  The Thief and the Cobbler never seemed particularly destined for mass consumption, it had too much of that cultish allure, the peculiar passion project from an industry workhorse.  The critic in me wishes that Williams had the gumption to take this film to avant-garde heights, the play up the experimentation in form that would match the visual design, but in the end, the animation ultimately trumps any passionate criticism I may have against it.  Luckily there were those who felt the same way, and have given it a most fascinating second life, one that begrudgingly argues for a future in fan-based participation.  In discreet moderation, of course.

La Jetée

•August 23, 2010 • Leave a Comment

La Jetée (1962)

Dir. Chris Marker

The greatest short film ever created.

This is where I stand with this film, always and forever, but it arose with confidence once again in my mind after my much-delayed and deflating viewing of Nolan’s Inception. After Nolan quite simply broke his own rule of the logic of the film (to paraphrase a line of dialogue: “Dreams are about the feeling, not just the visual”) by delivering just that; a film devoid of feeling and purely about the visual, it couldn’t leave my mind throughout the remainder of the film… Nolan took nearly 3 hours to deliver a fraction of what Chris Marker did in 28 minutes.  Marker’s film is as visually stunning as they come, but it’s the emotional backbone that keeps the film eternally prescient.  And while I have a reason in Inception to share this film with you today, whether you’ve never seen it, or you’ve seen it 50 times, it’s always, always an ideal time to view the masterwork of short-form cinema, La Jetée.  Enjoy.

Great Shot of the Week

•August 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Close-Up (1990)

Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

A moment of sublime poetry in Kiarostami’s brilliant deconstruction of both narrative and documentary cinema, Close-Up.  As a journalist and two policemen enter the home of a family subject to the identity fraud of a devout cinema lover posing as a major Iranian film director, Kiarostami instead remains fixed on the taxi driver outside, acting as one of the myriad of details he places to the side that curiously paint a deeper picture of the story at hand.  As Kiarostami put it, the story must be completed by the audience’s imagination.

Helsinki, Forever

•July 20, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Helsinki, Forever (2008)

Dir. Peter Von Bagh

Helsinki, Forever is a lovely contribution to the budding micro-genre, the city symphony, and one that absolutely transcends the overtly scholarly implications that seem implicit in such a picture.  The city symphony is essentially a portrait of a city, one painted by the cultural landmark of film, and one using film clips, photographs, and other art works as an abstract exploration of a specific culture.  While Helsinki, Forever is not the masterpiece of the genre, as that would certainly be occupied by Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, it is by my estimate a shade lovelier and more moving than Terrence Davies’ film of similar nature about Liverpool, Of Time and the City.  Davies’ film is more than accomplished in its own right, but Von Bagh’s film feels certainly more emotional and wounded, not to mention downright giddy in its unearthing of a very generous portion of Finnish film archives, the vast majority of which have remained unseen by Western eyes.

Peter Von Bagh is quite possibly Finland’s most influential film critic and historian, and his masterful editing and archival work shown here is quite impressive indeed.  If nothing else, the sheer beauty of these often rare images kept me enraptured throughout the film, impervious to the sometimes wavering nature of the narrative.  Helsinki, Forever attempts to encapsulate the history and growth of Finland’s cultural epicenter through vast archives of film and art, and does so in the unenviable but noble window of 75 minutes. For some, the idea of an “essay” film is tough enough, so perhaps this is as acceptable a length as some audiences can tolerate.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few bones to pick… A particular note of interest is the film’s heavy inclusion of clips from arguably Finland’s most famous filmmaker, and certainly the one most recognizable to Western eyes, Aki Kaurismaki.  Helsinki, Forever contains a very generous smattering of typically gorgeous moments from the filmmaker (including one from one of my favorites, The Man Without a Past), but the editing within the film nags at me a bit.  While the clips used from Kaurismaki’s film certainly reflect the typically melancholy and wistful tone of the piece, it seems to me that what Helsinki, Forever neglects to mention is the warmth and exuberant humor that is so defining of his work.  Instead Von Bagh here almost paints his films as funereal and almost dystopian explorations of a burgeoning city.  And this is perhaps where Helsinki, Forever feels slight; the coldness and isolation of this particular city is felt and explored, but what of the humor that defines a society as well?

Naturally, this is a mountain to climb, and one cannot help but feel slighted in many manners by the truncated length of the film, but in many ways this is a blessing; the footage provides a glimpse of how a city views itself, and Von Bagh leaves us with an ambiguity that allows the viewer to decipher for themselves what Helsinki means to its inhabitants, and to the rest of the world.  In other words, this is by no means intended as a definitive view of Helsinki, but instead an idea and projection of Helsinki.  This is the city symphony in a nutshell, an exploration that cannot replace a lifetime of experience and immersion into a culture, but using its media as a mirror unto itself, trusting that this can speak volumes about how a society views itself and encourages its growth, and in some instances, its decay.

Great Shot of the Week

•July 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Le Samourai (1967)

Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville

One of the most perfect exercises of action in all of cinema.  A protagonist that defines cool and a sense of foreboding movement giving way to a staggering tension of visual depth as a showdown carefully and methodically comes to fruition.  When the tension finally breaks, its almost as if we accidentally stumbled upon it from afar, and the precision and calculation of the meeting that preceded was replaced with outright clumsiness and chaos.  This is almost a redefinition of Leone’s redefinition of the Western.

Animated Short of the Week – Quasi at the Quackadero

•July 13, 2010 • 1 Comment

Quasi at the Quackadero (1976)

Dir. Sally Cruikshank

Well here’s one of the most terrifying cartoons I’ve ever seen… And I’ll be damned if I can’t quite put a finger on why.  Maybe it’s the degradation of color, the scratchiness of an old film reel played to oblivion just as before being given a new life on the burgeoning home video market.  And just maybe, it’s because it exists in a vision of the imagined viewing of this film itself, on a dilapidated old 8mm projector in a wood-paneled basement while completely inundated with hallucinogenics.  Sometimes the things a film (or music, often inexorably linked) can evoke aren’t even of direct context to the film itself, haunting instead a facet of the subconscious that hasn’t even actually been literally explored.  Let’s call it the Ariel Pink effect.

All that aside, it’s a neat little independent short, a veritable phantasmagoria of colors and drugs, and of course more than a pinch of sadism thrown in for good measure.  This is a short that makes one triple-check to see if Ralph Bakshi’s name is floating around somewhere in there; its particular brand of psychedelia and satire owe much to the animator’s earlier work in particular.   But what illuminates the film to a particularly elevated platform amongst animators and historians (after all, this film was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2009, right alongside Once Upon a Time in the West, Dog Day Afternoon, and most importantly, The Muppet Movie) is the perpetual movement and shape-shifting that is the trip through the time travel amusement park.  The sense of movement and dream logic during this sequence is really a marvelous accomplishment of animation, but one that does not exactly extend much further than that.  Quasi at the Quackadero is by definition style over substance; it’s a feast for the eyes, and really, in the end, I’m probably just way to goddamn sober at the moment to truly appreciate its abandon.

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Great Trailer of the Week

•July 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Crime and Punishment (2002… But actually 1993)

Dir. Menahem Golan

Menahem Golan is no stranger to prestige, having started the company synonymous with class, Cannon Films, home to such masterworks as Over the Top, Death Wish 3, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, and oddly enough, Godard’s allegedly insane (haven’t, um, gotten to it yet) King Lear. But the man is a director to boot, having seen such a kinship in the tale of competitive trucker arm-wrestling as to have helmed Over the Top himself, but this one, wherever it is, might just take the cake… So dear readers, I ask of you, can anyone hunt down a copy of this film and share it?  Pretty please?  Nathan Rabin over at the A.V. Club today posited that someone should really try to hold a Golan/Globus retrospective; I tend to agree, and none would seem more perfect a centerpiece than this one.

Filmed in 1993, but left un-released until 2002 (and even that seems a stretch), Golan’s Crime and Punishment adaptation would seem to be yet another direct-to-video sleeze that we’re all well past used to… If of course it weren’t so packed with grade-A thespians… How did he manage to get Vanessa Redgrave and John Hurt exactly?  So I share this with you, in hopes to hunt this down and see its very splendor unfold before my very eyes.

Besides, shit, Crispin Glover looks amazing as always in this one.  Enjoy.