Other Worlds

A visit to the movies usually means about 90-120 minutes of a fictional story involving human beings playing characters other than themselves.

I took a break from that routine on Saturday, October 1, 2011, when I took in a unique double feature at the Detroit Film Theatre and the Redford Theatre. The DFT showed a gritty documentary about street life, while the Redford screened a collection of old cartoons.

The power of the 1956 documentary On the Bowery and the entertainment of the dozen or so cartoons from the 1920s to the 1960s both came from the contrast between our own lives and what appeared on the screen.

On the Bowery showed alcoholic street people in New York City, in all their despair and decay. As I watched it, I wondered, how should I feel after watching it?

I went away feeling more thankful about my own life; more understanding about the effects of alcoholism; and more convinced of the fact that ultimately, you have to take responsibility for your own life. You might need a little help, but you still have to take that first step toward recovery.

The cartoons had many entertaining moments when the audience was surprised by characters using the cleverly creative powers of animation to defy the laws of nature to either cause problems or to escape them.

My favorite cartoon of the evening was Scrappy’s Art Gallery (1934), starring “a near-forgotten 1930s cartoon star,” according to the program notes. Scrappy engaged in various adventures with characters in paintings in an art gallery, including Whistler’s Mother, Mona Lisa, and Rodin’s Thinker. I was amazed and impressed by the efforts made by the animators to reproduce the well-crafted details of these masterworks for a short cartoon.

Opening Remarks

Both presentations had special introductions by guest speakers.

On the Bowery was introduced by Karen McDevitt, a Lecturer in the Wayne State University Department of Communication. She is also a board member of the Friends of the Detroit Film Theatre, which recently made a group trip to the Toronto International Film Festival with DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm.

Karen talked about the three themes of On the Bowery: Art (for the intimate, insightful artistry of the film); Architecture (for the once-elegant surroundings where On the Bowery was filmed); and Alcoholism, which was battled by many of the street people, often with the help of mission workers and other street people.

At the Redford, the second year of Animation Rarities was again hosted by Detroit Free Press movie writer John Monaghan and College for Creative Studies Assistant Professor Steve Stanchfield (who provided the cartoons from his private collection). They talked about animation techniques involving cell layers, backgrounds, and other elements. They also talked about the different studios involved in animation through the years, and their individual styles. To read about the first year of Animation Rarities, see Cartoon Fun.

The DFT and Redford shows were a welcome relief from a bitterly cold day that felt more like winter than fall. As I walked from the DFT late on that Saturday afternoon, with pleasant memories of that visit, and growing anticipation for my evening trip to the Redford, I enjoyed some of that beautiful angled golden light of autumn. It pierced through some dramatically moving clouds.

I thought, wouldn’t some director and cinematographer just love to have this dramatic light?

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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