An American Tail

Boy, did this one dredge up a lot of thoughts in me. A LOT.

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I hadn’t seen this film, in full, since I was a child. I know it always affected me strongly back in the day, even if it wasn’t my favorite of Bluth’s (that honor still probably belongs to Secret of NIMH), but I honestly can’t imagine a more affecting — or upsetting — time to be seeing it again than our current climate. And frankly, as the child of an immigrant (albeit a voluntary one) who got into trouble at school due to discomfort with the entire concept of being forced to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, my own relationship to — and discomfort with — America and patriotism has always been… complicated.

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It’s just… it’s so goddamn hopeful about America, it was painful to take in now. It’s a film about the plight of refugees so earnest and blatantly (and deservedly) sympathetic that I honestly can’t imagine it being made today. In one scene, Fievel is literally caged by the cats, and watching that as American border agents are caging living children was almost too much to bear. I found myself thinking back on Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece MAUS more than once — a parallel it’s tough not to draw (and apparently inspired some litigation at the time of the film’s release), given the presence of evil cats killing mice; in this case, the only difference, really, is that the cats aren’t literal Nazis — the mice are still (Russian) Jews. They arrive at the port immigration authority, and their family names are changed; they’re then confronted by opportunistic vultures lying in wait, taking advantage of the poor and desperate new arrivals wherever they can, to put them to work in America’s longest, most successful grift: cheap labor off the backs of its most hopeful dreamers. The set palette, between Russia and America, it’s worth noting (and I’m sure is no accident) does not change; New York is just as grimy, dangerous, crowded, and threatened by fire and death as the homeland they left.

Don Bluth is a filmmaker I’ve always had a complex relationship with. The films of his I love, I love deeply. (Hell, I even have a soft spot for the duds; Rock-a-Doodle is like a drug-addled fever dream from an Elvis fanatic on acid, but that didn’t keep me from watching it more than once, back in the day. Thumbelina is a mess, but it’s so beautiful to look at, I was charmed by it anyway.) I believe I saw NIMH first, at about age 4 or 5, and it blatantly traumatized me, I know — it gave me recurring, vivid, horrific nightmares — and yet I returned to it again and again.

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Animation is an art form I have always adored and revered, mostly due to my deepest childhood dream of being an animator. I discovered I lacked the discipline as an artist to ever achieve such a thing long ago, but animated films still hold a power over me that no other genre of film does, and I love film. In a way, it could be argued they’re film, as a storytelling medium, in its purest form. There are visuals and scenes in animated films that never fail to move me to tears, and have influenced me in so many unconscious ways. I’m fairly sure I’ve been dyeing my hair red for nearly half my life now mostly because I was more obsessed by Ariel than any other fictional character during my formative years; seeing this film again, I can’t help but wonder whether I ultimately picked out a blue newsboy cap recently because it’s the color Fievel wore.

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Bluth’s films include a darkness that no other animator really dared explore for audiences including such young children. He isn’t the greatest animator of my time, in my book — I would personally give that honor to Miyazaki — but when he succeeded, he produced the stuff of unmistakable brilliance. The widow Brisby holding literal fire in her hands, upon finding her real self and true courage in order to save her children, marked me as a young girl; Littlefoot’s mother’s death — and the entire theme of inescapable death in All Dogs Go to Heaven — articulated the inevitable end of life to me at my most impressionable in a more profound way than any other fictional tales I can recall. Hell, even Anastasia — handicapped though it may be by Bluth’s growing over-reliance on awkward Rotoscoping in his animation — is irresistible to me; I will belt the fuck out of “Journey to the Past” and feel like I could do just about anything while doing it (and part of me always wanted to steal Anya’s newsboy cap-wearing, cropped-reddish hairstyle, too).

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Bluth’s violence is direct in a deeply un-Disney way, and I often wonder how much he pushed himself toward that darkness after walking out of those studios (taking half of Disney’s animation staff with him, arguably the greatest coup he ever achieved). There is visible, stark blood in them, which you will find in almost no other works by his contemporaries. There are knives, daggers, swords, needles glinting in the dark, stabbing into lab rats, bones of cannibalized characters litter the ground; the terrors and pain he animates look real. (The huge robotic mouse they build to scare off the cats onto the ship? Holy shit, I had somehow forgotten how terrifying it is.)

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Bluth’s nightmares are the stuff of genuine nightmares, honest to god hellscapes — when they literally go through actual hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven (apparently a tamer version of the original cut, if you can even imagine what it might have otherwise been; I never dared to), it will fuck a child up. The water that washes Fievel off the boat to America, that floods the old New York streets and sewers is not blue; it’s dark and dirty and appears bottomless; it really does look like something you would drown in.

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This applies to the grief in them as well: Disney films are full of missing (typically presumed dead) mothers; The Land Before Time has you witness the mother’s actual death. And all of this, within animation, is as unique as it is visionary. Bluth did many things, not all of them great, but he certainly never shied away from confronting the children in his audience with true fear, darkness, or sadness.

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“Ah, America. What a place!” Fuck me, but this line made me want to cry (and it repeats later!). The most painterly, loving frames in the entire film appear in its closing, when the camera pans slowly, reverently around the freshly built Statue of Liberty, still resplendent in all her original, pre-oxodized copper glory, shining like a true beacon in the sunrise: “Isn’t she beautiful?” She was. She still is — even as a brave black woman, an immigrant herself from the Congo, scaled her feet just a week ago, in protest of our government literally stealing children from their parents and abandoning them in cages — even as the American dream continues to rot at its very core. This film’s title is no accident; there is no story more American than that of the immigrant and the refugee.

I’m nearly 32 years old, and Don Bluth can still fuck me the hell up. LACMA is running a full series of his works all month long. I’ll watch them all, and they’re all going to fuck me up.

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Reminder

Don’t forget,
There is no version of the story
You told yourself that was ever true.

Don’t turn around,
There was never anything to turn back for.
Your anger that day was real,
And had more than enough reason to be.

Remember,
Whichever version of the truth you choose:
Never good enough, never wanted, never needed, never worth the effort…
One or all were and still are true;
There’s no need to turn back to check; you know.
You already know.

Just keep walking.
You have nowhere to go, but you are coming from nowhere, too.
Glancing back over your shoulder won’t make that space any less empty, and all you threw into it any less of a waste.

No one is behind, and no one is waiting;
Alone is alone, and all you’ve ever known,
So just keep walking.
When there is no one expecting you,
After all,
There’s no need to hurry.
Don’t forget.

Equinoxes

It was the end of April, and I was blooming in the riotous peak of spring.

The curls that had framed my frazzled head from pre-puberty through my depressed and searching 20s and the very beginning of my 30s were leaving me, replaced with relaxed, natural waves — the kind I’d always dreamed of having when I was younger, but could never achieve. My skin was slowly healing, evening out in tone. My body no longer felt like such a betrayal, such an ugly stranger.

I had brought a new little familiar into my life; the first time I’d be caring for an animal entirely on my own. I was becoming more myself than I’d ever been.

I was falling in love again, not quite as much in denial about it as the one before, and while simultaneously losing that first ever love — the one who’d both helped me to grow, while also putting me through more than I knew how to take; who’d both said some of the most wonderful things I’d ever heard, and yet so many of by far the worst things — and I needed to finally be honest and open to both. The one I was falling into in its place might very well have been as hopeless as the one preceding it, but it was beyond too late to stop it; I could only accept it.

I was beginning to write my memoirs. I needed to both let go, and embrace whatever my future held. I had to let go. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I needed to create, to move on, to move forward. I needed to finally see myself.

Llorando

Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite films, but it can also plunge me into the depths of truly unique melancholy. I remember once standing in line outside a different theater than the one I watched it in tonight, unable to avoid overhearing some young guy haughtily attempting to “explain” what the movie means to the poor, trapped girl with him. In the moment, I just had to laugh to myself about the likelihood that such a conversation would piss off no one more than David Lynch himself. Still, the older I get, the more I work through and survive, the more deeply the film seems to affect me. Maybe it’s a film which has threads that are only navigable if you recognize the feelings explored through them.

If you’ve come to a city, full of dreams, the place itself often described the same way, and watched them all shrivel away. If you’ve had something creative that you felt was yours wrenched out of your control, twisted beyond recognition. If you’ve attempted, feeling buried and trapped by the best and worst of your memories, to re-write your own history in a far better, softer light. (Naomi Watts’ incredible duality cannot be under-praised in this respect. The smiling, big-eyed idealism and breezy confidence of her fictionalized Betty persona, compared with her brokenhearted, bitter and raw, gaping wound of a real Diane is something to behold.) If you’ve ever wanted to imagine yourself as an arrival on a film set who commands the attention and drops the jaw of the director himself, as opposed to the one more invisible nobody that you are. If you’ve ever, hopelessly naively, given your heart to a charming, flighty, selfish Camilla. It’s all there, all at once. It’s beautiful, and dark, and hopeless, and overwhelming.

Walking out of the theater tonight, though it was already after 10:30, I knew I couldn’t go straight home. My life in general has felt almost completely unmoored of late — my family, my work, my measly personal life — and all I felt able or driven to do was continue walking. Which I did, for well over two hours. I reached a point where my legs, particularly the injured one, were protesting enough that I wondered if I would make it home, though I kept on. I think I was looking for something, anything, out in the night to help me feel less alone, or at least as if I still belonged here.

I only encountered things that came across as the opposite of encouraging, naturally. Even the little feral cats I used to visit in their yard, who I had particularly been hoping to see, were nowhere to be found; perhaps I’ve been away too long, and am just another stranger to them now, though I didn’t even see any slinking silhouettes in the dark. What I did see: a dead rat; broken bottles galore. Winding my way back west, I passed a man clinging to a pay phone, one of the few remaining that still functions, pleading and sobbing over the phone line, with someone who was not here with him. I knew how he felt, too.

Perhaps the time when there may have been anything or anyone out there for me to find comfort or encouragement from is over. Maybe the time before now, even, was — as the band leader reminds us in Club Silencio — “all an illusion.”

There is a stretch of Fountain Avenue that crosses briefly over the 101 freeway. It is so dark, late at night, along this particular piece of road, no one — if there even is anyone around, which there rarely is — can see you; it’s a struggle to even see the sidewalk ahead of you. It is a safe place for someone like me to cry when she never wants anyone to see. It’s a place where, though I’ve personally never quite reached suicidal feelings, even at my most depressed, I can briefly understand the impulse that drives people to jump off highway overpasses. It is loud, and bright, and nothing beneath you will stop, even when everything stops for you. It would be over quickly, if one were to do it. It would be forgotten maybe an hour or two later, afterward. The cars will keep on driving.

Naturally, I eventually made it back, only to discover I’d worn a hole through a favorite pair of socks. A fitting end to a meaningless journey in the dark.

The scene when Camilla leads Diane up the hill in the night, through a “secret path” in the brush, and Diane looks down and smiles to see her hand holding hers, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score sweeps through you… I’m not sure any other scene in a movie can make my heart ache more. It is the last moment she still believes in the illusion of her life, and her love, as if any of it was real.

It doesn’t last, of course. Not long after, she goes mad with grief and guilt; she kills herself. But at least, for that one final moment, the fantasy of what she’d thought she once had still feels like it might have been real.

Is one of us supposed to be a dog in this scenario?

(Afraid so, Sally.)

I think I’ve finally accepted that if the same damn dog completely wrecks your house enough times, you just have to put him outside and not let him in the house anymore.

Worst part is, with dogs, they just wreck things, and will just keep doing it, if you let them. They’ll expect you to handle the mess after, conveniently forgetting how it even got there, and there’s certainly never an apology involved.

I’m sure some people might take issue with that approach. Maybe this is why I’m more of a cat person — I’m not just hard to know; fuck me over enough times, and I can be just as cold and unforgiving as they can.

There is a house.

There is a house.

There is a house, and it is out in the woods, or up in the hills, or beside a lake, or alone in a sprawling valley. It is late morning, it is early afternoon, it’s late at night and the stars are out.

There is a house, and I know this is a dream because I know that it is somehow mine. Nothing when I am awake ever belongs to me, but this house is mine, and this is a dream. This should make it a good dream, but it is all a trick, it is an illusion.

I am running up the stairs, in the house, and they change direction, or orientation, or the light falls on them differently, when it is there, and when it is not, the dark swallows them up behind me. I run up the stairs as they disappear behind me, falling away like dominoes. I don’t see them, I don’t turn around, they make no sound, but I feel them pulling away, almost still beneath the backs of my heels. I run up the stairs; there are so many stairs. I am dreaming, and so I do not count the stairs, like I always do when I am awake, and so I know it is a dream.

He is there with me, or he was, until he wasn’t any longer. The house is mine, and it is in my dream, but still, nothing can stay; the stairs, the walls keep moving around. We are in bed together at first, every time, tangled in warm sheets, without a care in the world. He is smiling down at me, stroking my hair, he is happy to see me, and so I know this is a dream. The more I realize none of it is real, the more it unravels, the way that dreams do.

He says something he seems to find funny, but it is harsh or cruel; there is a tapping at the window; there is a knocking at the door. I know who it is, I don’t know their name, but I know who it is. It is the same person it always is, face changing like a shape-shifter; I know it is someone better, someone more beautiful, more compelling, more talented and vibrant, stronger and worthy than me; it is someone lovable. When you have never been good enough, there are an infinite number of better someones out there. That will never be me, because I am none of these things, so of course he is gone, if he was ever there with me at all. He is walking up the stairs, he is walking down the stairs, all those stairs, wherever they go, I can hear his voice, but where did he go? No, he is gone; he doesn’t speak to me, not anymore. The rooms keep moving, the walls fall away; I do not know where he went, I will never know, I only know I’ve been left behind.

There are no stairs, there are no walls, there is no bed. There was never a house. There was only ever me, the same in waking as I was as the nightmare always closes: only ever me, alone in the dark.