Saturday, July 28, 2012

Documentary Discussion

Documentary films are great because they make you think. Common themes for them tend to be either political/social issues or the arts. I have liked this genre of film ever since the 1980s when I watched Michael Moore's Roger and Me, about the demise of a former booming GM factory town, Flint, Michigan. Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me had such an effect on me that I have quit eating McDonald's cold turkey ever since I saw it eight years ago. Not every documentary filmmaker inserts themselves into the film like Spurlock and Moore. Many prefer to exist behind-the-scenes only. Charles Ferguson is another of my favorite documentary filmmakers. He made No End in Sight and Inside Job. Some of my favorite documentary films have dealt with agriculture and food in America. These include Food Inc., Fresh, King Corn and more.

I have discovered the Documentary cable channel recently and have rented a few docs via Netflix. Here are some that I recently saw and enjoyed.

A Life in the Theatre

This is about a woman who is in her 90s, and she has been the owner of an off-off Broadway live theatre in New York for many years. It was excellent since it demonstrated how the love of art can bring people together. Those who work in the theatre have an amazing camaraderie. Developers want to destroy the theatre but she fight to save it.

Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead

This is about an Australian man who has battled obesity and the related health problems and comes to America to embark on a journey. He travels across the country, eating only a liquid diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables that he puts in a juicer. It is a look at obesity, health problems and the ability of humans to change their lives. The filmmaker ends up losing lots of weight, not needing any more medicine, and inspiring many others to do the same.

Music Man Murray

This is about an old man in Los Angeles who runs a record store. It is packed with thousands of recordings he has collected over a lifetime. He estimates that the store is worth a couple million dollars. The challenge is to sell the store and its content for a good price so his collection and his legacy will not be destroyed.

Map the Music

I enjoyed this film since it looks at the power of music to bring meaning to our lives. A woman is shattered after losing her father, so she embarks on a road trip to talk to everyday people and a few famous musicians about what music means to them.

The One Percent

This is an examination of the one percent of Americans who are ultra wealthy, and the 99 percent who are not. The filmmaker is one of the heirs to the Johnson and Johnson family fortune. He talks to rich and poor, about the distribution of wealth in America, despite the fact that his family does not want him to make the film. Relatives of Warren Buffett and Oscar Meyer also appeared in the film.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

This movie was a fascinating look at a comedy legend and her struggles to remain a relevant member of the show business world. Even though Joan Rivers is 75 years old and has had decades of success, she still has a fragile ego and she longs to be accepted. The film shows her performing stand up in New York as well as at an Indian casino in Wisconsin. It shows her doing a roast on Comedy Central, and it documented her opening a play in Scotland and England. She revealed that she originally wanted to be known as an actress not a comedienne. She is OK with people criticizing her comedy but has a thin skin if people are critical of her acting skills. She acknowledges that show business is challenging since rejection is a big part of the industry. The movie mentioned how Johnny Carson gave her her big break in the 1960s but later quit speaking to her when she took a job on Fox as a late night host. She mentioned how her husband Edgar was devastated by the failure of the Fox show and later committed suicide. Joan's daughter Melissa mentioned that stand ups are generally insecure people, craving attention and approval, and that her mother is no exception. Rivers seemed like a very lonely person whose main goal is to fill up her calendar with work so she does not have time to think about her life outside of her career.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Good Grief! Charles M. Schulz and the Philosophy of Peanuts

Above photos, from top:

This is an example of how Peanuts dealt with issues such as the quest for happiness.

The first Peanuts strip from 1950. Notice the absence of Charlie Brown's stripe on his shirt.

Peanuts kids dancing in the TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, music by Vince Guaraldi. The boy in the orange shirt is a minor character named 5. The twin girls on either side of him are his sisters, 3 and 4.

The Peanuts gang, main characters.

Cartoonist Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz.

I recently listened to a book on CD called "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography". It was a highly detailed account of the life of Charles M. Schulz. It is amazing to see the similarities between Schulz and the star of his comic strip, Charlie Brown. Schulz was a private, humble man from Minnesota who struggled with issues of insecurity just like Charlie Brown. He drew every strip himself, with no assistants, for half a century, from 1950 to 2000. Many cartoonists have assistance meeting their deadlines but Schulz insisted on doing it all himself. Once he was asked why he did not helpers, and he said, would Arnold Palmer have someone else hit the ball for him?

As a kid I had many Peanuts books and always enjoyed the strip. I think that it has remained popular, even for many years after the death of its creator in 2000, for many reasons. I see Peanuts as a cerebral strip, a thinking person's comic. It deals with issues that other comics do not, such as theology, philosophy, art and music appreciation, and psychology. Schulz realized that kids are much smarter than people think. Charlie Brown dealt with feelings of isolation, depression, insecurity, wanting to be liked. The comic is funny, but it also makes us think too. The characters enjoy being kids, but they also wonder about the meaning of life and the quest for happiness.

The characters were complex. Linus was the intellectual philosopher, who often would quote Bible verses, with his security blanket and his yearning to meet The Great Pumpkin. Schroeder idolized Beethoven and was oblivious to Lucy's admiration of him. Charlie Brown battled feelings of insecurity and tried to find joy in baseball and sought out advice from Lucy's psychiatry booth. Snoopy pretended he was a World War I flying ace. Schulz said this about Snoopy:

"Snoopy’s whole personality is a little bittersweet. But he’s a very strong character. He can win or lose, be a disaster, a hero, or anything, and yet it all works out. I like the fact that when he’s in real trouble, he can retreat into a fantasy and thereby escape."

Charles Schulz ("Sparky" to his friends and family), had regrets about not being there for his kids. His characters from the strip were more like his kids than his real life family. I admire anyone who is able to do the same job for a long period of time. The thing that is ironic is that Schulz had stopped drawing the strip due to battling cancer, and he died the day that the last strip was published in newspapers.

Here are some Peanuts trivia facts:

There was a character named 5. His full name was 555 95472. He has twin sisters named 3 and 4. I recall a Seinfeld episode where George said that 7 would be a good name. Maybe this was an homage to the Peanuts strip?

Some of the other minor characters included; Molly Volley, Tapioca Pudding, Truffles, Thibault, Lila, Eudora, and Peggy Jean.

Snoopy has seven siblings, from his early days at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. Their names are Spike, Olaf, Molly, Rover, Belle, Marbles, Andy. They were all featured in the Peanuts TV special, Snoopy's Reunion.

From 1950-1957, Snoopy walked like a regular dog, on all 4 legs.

Linus and Lucy are brother and sister. They have a little brother named Rerun. Charlie Brown and Sally are brother and sister.

Charlie Brown's dad is a barber, same as Charles Schulz's dad.

Schulz had his own ice arena, near his California home.

Charlotte Braun was a short-lived character, appearing in the strip from 1954-1955. She was bossy and loud, like Lucy.

Both Peppermint Patty and Marcie have a crush on Charlie Brown. He seems oblivious.

* Some information from Schulz and Peanuts, A Biography, by David Michaelis, and