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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Like a place your sight can knock on

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Walking to work this morning, I came upon the body of a little black cat who’d been hit by a car and left to die in the street. He wasn’t a tiny baby anymore, but he was still small, likely no more than 10 weeks old. I immediately teared up, and not just because I have a black cat of my own, now living with my mother. I love all kitties, especially the neighborhood strays I always make friends with, and he just looked so small and alone.

After I finished store opening duties, I called the pet shop just around the corner from my shop, and they offered a kitten box and some towels to me gratis, which was very kind. I walked back over with them, knelt down, gently picked him up, wrapped him in the towels, and placed him in the box. All the while, more people just continued to drive and walk by, just as before, clearly not giving a shit. I was crying while I did it, but I couldn’t help it. Fortunately, a dear friend was messaging with me a bit during all this, which helped me do what I knew I needed and wanted to do.

I tried calling Animal Control, but their line just constantly redirects you to nowhere (not an exaggeration; it’s an endless loop), and the more I thought about it, the more sure I was I didn’t want to deal with them, anyway. He wasn’t a diseased bird, or a big possum or raccoon, he was just a little kitten. They wouldn’t be able to pick him up for 24 hours anyway, and that was not okay with me. I kept a watchful eye on his box in the back room at work until I left for the night; I came home, my roommates and I grabbed some water to soften the ground and a gardening spade, and by the light of one of their cell phones, spent a half hour digging a little grave for him out behind our building, just under my bedroom windows. It’s a rarely trafficked space, and though I can’t have cats in our building, I liked the idea of him coming home to rest with me, in some way. He was left out alone in the street for hours, but here, he would be tenderly bundled and safe.

When I turned him over to place him in the ground, there was a little bloom of blood where his head had been resting before, the site of his only (sadly fatal) injury. When I saw his tiny little paws just barely peeking out from the towels, I started to cry quite hard, some tears spilling down onto him, though in the quiet way I always try to, in my knee-jerk attempts to always hide it. We filled in the hole, and packed it down carefully so it would dry nicely tomorrow, I laid out some red sunflowers I’d gotten earlier, and said a few words. I said I was sorry I couldn’t do more for him, and that even if nobody else had, I loved him. (And then cried a lot more, salting the damp, newly turned earth a little. But I couldn’t help that, either.) He deserved better, but I did what I could.

Rest easy, little one.

 

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

— “Black Cat” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

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The afternoon sun slants through the blinds; sometimes there is a birdcage hanging in the window, a towel covering most of it, obscuring a wildly excitable parakeet, and other times there is not. I sit in the stuffed chair, and the boy sits between my feet, on the floor, in front of the coffee table and the television, Toonami on the screen and a bowl of Rice Krispies cereal buried in brown sugar in front of him. He finishes off his after-school snack and his episode of Ronin Warriors, and heads upstairs to work on his homework. I’m left alone in the family room, waiting for Sailor Moon to come on, doing homework of my own. He is either in grade school, or junior high. I am in the latter; at other times, high school. Later, he’ll ask to go play outside at the round, dead-end of our cul-de-sac, by the communal basketball hoop, where I can keep watch from the living room window, while reading on the couch. Few of these details will change much, from one day to the next, year to year. The shadows fall and move across the wall as the day wears on, until his parents come home later, before dinner. The curtains are always open. No matter how familiar it might become, there is a certain kind of quiet that only surrounds your ears in someone else’s house.

Looking back on afternoons like these, I can’t possibly count how many there were. I babysat him for years. He was very quiet, and so was I; at his age, I spoke even less. His older sister played “Hummer” for me off her Siamese Dream cassette — by which I mean she let me hover in the doorway of her bedroom upstairs while it played, and she ignored me. When you are so habitually quiet, this is easy for people to do. Their parents let me use the internet on their home computer, years before we had one in ours. His father called me Nori. I’d sit in his office and chat with my best friend Matt on AIM while we played goofy online games. I possess — always have, still do — a very odd sort of sentimentality about things, and in a binder somewhere packed away, I still have a few printouts of some of those chat logs. (I couldn’t tell you why I printed them out then, nor now. I just did.) So much, of so little.

Maybe things have always felt as if they may slip away from me at any time, even when I was young, and I’ve always attempted to capture what memories I could in whatever strange places I could enmesh them. I’ve never been able to justify this feeling, but I think it must always have been with me. I have a very sharp visual (and aural) memory, almost eidetic. I have a couple of boxes hidden away in my room even now, in my 30s, associated with certain people, filled with such random objects and pieces of paper. When processing crime scene photos in college, I often morbidly wondered what a stranger would make of all the tiny, seemingly random little nothings that comprise a life and litter my small spaces in the world, when I would one day inevitably leave them behind; the things that shaped and tethered me, removed from context in death, left with nothing more to do but be thrown away, forgotten, to gather dust. There is a bittersweet little matchbook sitting one of my shelves of knick-knacks at home, and I can tell you exactly who gave it to me, and when, and how it felt to me then to receive it. Considering what a nothing object it is, long forgotten by anyone but me, this can seem awfully absurd. I have no explanations or excuses for my brain doing these things. I often wish it wouldn’t.

Slow afternoons as a child and young adult feel so different to look back on, let alone compare to what slow days feel like in adulthood. I suspect this is mostly to do with the same reason why any other passage of time feels so different the older you get, why time seems to fly through an hourglass the more it passes. When you are a child, an afternoon represents a much larger chunk of the time you’ve lived up to that point than it would today. Birthdays, holidays, vacations, they all seem so much further apart; and to you, at that time in fact, they are, in a way they never will be again. I don’t remember afternoons dragging, to me, as a child — but I’m sure that they must have! children can be some of the most impatient beings on earth — I only remember them now as if they are warm, quiet, heavy moments, like flies suspended in amber. This effect, which can only exist in hindsight, may also be tied in to the general lack of obligation that children can enjoy, up to a point — we do usually have to go to school, but until I began working at 15, that was the main structure around which my whole life existed; everything else was flexible, open, and so free to be wasted. I must have whiled away hundreds, if not thousands, of afternoons in that living room, with that little boy, with very little changing. And yet then, just as now, time was passing; my gawky limbs were lengthening and lines were already beginning to form on my face — we were growing up, growing older. Growing old. These days, any slow passage of time takes work to appreciate and enjoy, if my head is not in the right space. I can easily look at it as wasted, stagnant, lonely, and with regret. What other things could I have been doing? Productivity is such an ugly word. I imagine this may be one of the great things that kills so many artists once they begin to grow up. Productivity is where daydreams flatten out into nothing, where mindless doodling goes to die.

Summer is here now, which is a largely meaningless season outside the construct of school, as work doesn’t have an off-season (or at least, not for most of us). The air is heavy with heat, and the light is golden and sharp on the eyes. I wish I had grown to accept and thrive more in isolation then than it seems I ultimately did — it is a much more uphill battle now, sometimes, particularly as my solitude increases of late. This uncomfortable place between a restless mind and a peaceful one is likely the biggest place for my anxieties to hide and thrive. Whatever losses I did — and still do — mourn recently, I am much better at tackling it than I have been in several years, to be sure. There was definitely some adjustment necessary, learning to be alone in a much bigger, darker, more wide-open city. Walking around it alone is essential, and I always should be doing more of this. But there will probably always be a part of me that envies my younger self — she will crawl out of dark corners like a snake — and her ability to pay far less attention to time passing, most of all to those countless hours passed alone.

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They fell, down a mountain —
or was it a crevasse, a ravine?
Were they buried beneath the frozen white,
or when those hills were green?

My father falls after them, still, and slowly
I could not stay behind to watch
as it ate away at the both of us;
now he’s gone too far away to touch.

My desires, my wishes reach out to me now;
they’ll grasp my ankles, if I let them
My dreams of late are filled with waves —
from the deep, I hear their darkness beckon.

The sand is hot, birds wheel in the sky
while that old water calls out to me:
“Remember how I held you so many times…
remember how well you loved me?”

As a girl, my mother called me her little fish
and I wished for the scales of a mermaid
Forgetting that, were I ever to meet one
only death could follow her serenade.

So I fell last, not where or how I believed
could ever creep in and surprise
And now, at last, she beckons me, and I
am lost, falling through his warm eyes.

Just as before, the water is fierce
deep and strong and dark…
Below is ahead of me, above is behind
as her waves swallow my last little spark.

As a girl, I read of little Hattie
and the ocean she watched all her days
Now I wait, too, with these hopes like rocks
weighing me down, though he never stays.

 


 

Image © Barbara Cooney, 1990. I still own my old, well-loved copy of Hattie.

(And still, I am no poet. Apologies; I couldn’t sleep.)

She walked in through the out door

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© 1985 Time & Life

So, here’s the thing: If you’re a member of my generation (or a bit older, likely anyone born and/or raised in the ’80s), as a favorite blogger of mine put it back when MJ died, you either grew up in a Michael Jackson house, or a Prince house. That might have been true even if not for their (near as anyone can really know, mostly played up for publicity) artistic “rivalry” during that decade. I’ve been a dancer since I was four years old, and that means mine was a Michael Jackson house. It’s his feet and handwriting I’ve got tattooed on me, to try to remember my strength and beauty, to continue looking forward.

But the other thing is: I fucking love Prince, too. I always have.

I run all the social media accounts for my job, and when I saw his name trending on Twitter recently, knowing how brutal this year has been with musicians only four months in, my immediate reaction was, “Oh, HELL NO.” And then everyone calmed down; he’d had to cancel some shows, his plane had made an emergency landing, and he was ill, but he was alive. Thank fucking god, right? I was (and am) still in shock from Bowie. And I think we’re all still trying to brace ourselves for what’s shaping up to be a period in which a monster generation of musicians will be entering a risky age period, and anyone can go at any time. But Prince? 57 is young. I still considered, as I’m sure many did, Bowie young, leaving us for his home planet at 69.

When Michael died at 50, it seemed simultaneously impossible that he could ever die — the same way I imagine a lot of us, myself included, are feeling right now about Prince, collectively reeling — and seemingly incredible that he’d even made it to that age, after everything his own life and the culture that produced him had put him through, every decade of his life. James Baldwin knew, though he didn’t want to know, what would happen to Michael. I can’t recall now, in my shock, whether he ever wrote specifically regarding Prince, too, and if so, whether it was anywhere near as prescient. All I know right now is, when Michael died, Prince said he had loved him.

I can only respect how maddeningly stringent Prince was about the usage of his music, because it was his, too many Black artists have died penniless and out of control of their artistic output, and he had the right to do, frankly, whatever the hell he wanted with it. But I can’t say it doesn’t make me sadder today, knowing it’s going to be tricky for those who need his music now to find it. You won’t find him on Spotify, and if you want to hear him on Pandora, you’ll have to skip through a lot of other artists. I’m pretty sure the only place you can find his music without jumping through some annoying hoops is Tidal. He’s nowhere to be found on YouTube. He was infamously vigilant about taking down anything unauthorized on any platform, but particularly that one. (Hell, my favorite artist of them all, Peter Gabriel, is quite strict about where you can find his catalogue as well, and with good reason; streaming services, across the board, do not treat nor pay their sources well.)

Prince had a phenomenal amount of output. Because of its volume, there is much greatness within it, and also plenty you can pass on. He did baffling things with his self-branding, most notoriously going by a self-styled symbol for a time. He was a monster guitarist, and an all-around underrated musician, not just a great singer and songwriter. (I mean, he produced, arranged, composed and played all 27 instruments on his debut album in ’78. How in the hell.) An unreal, nearly alien amount of talent — like Michael, like Bowie — that I seriously doubt we’ll see again, at least not in my lifetime. Right now I kind of feel like listening to everything, and yet I’m stuck on a song that my own mother isn’t much of a fan of, despite being quite a fan of Prince’s herself, but that I’ve always loved: “Raspberry Beret.” I’ve never been able to explain to her why, exactly, I’ve been such a fan of it for so long — he has so many great tracks, particularly from that period, and I love so many of those, too — but this one just fills me with joy; it makes me dance. There’s something in it for me, lurking under the bass line, moving through the strings… I’ve had it on repeat for the last 20 minutes, and I don’t give a damn.

Turn on the radio. Go digging for the few tracks you might find hidden on DailyMotion, Vimeo, and SoundCloud. Put on your records, your cassettes, your CDs. Go do that thing we so often do when we just need to be out in public with strangers while the music of someone we’ve lost is piping through storefront windows and doors. Driving in to work today, as the news was breaking over the radio — and it feels appropriate that I did actually first hear the news from a DJ on the radio — I was the only car that had his music blasting out the windows, but hopefully as people find out, there will be tons of ’em driving around, all over the city. We’ve only got a handful of albums in stock at my record store, but I know I’ll be playing them all day.