GUEST ESSAY BY BERKELEY BREATHED
Last week, at the precise moment on screen that millions of screaming, tanned Angelenos tumbled down into a mile-deep cataclysmic crack in the planet’s exploding crust along with their high-rise condos and labradoodles, a man’s phone rang in the row of seats behind me. In a voice rising even above the sound of continental plates and Hummers scraping on each other, he discussed dining options with his caller.
“Szechuan!” he spouted. “It’s spicy!”
I looked around at my fellow multiplexers. I’d need help strangling him. I only had licorice twists. But the others didn’ t seem to notice his conversation. Worse: They didn’t care.
As I studied their faces, lit up with the shockingly realistic images of their own burning city disappearing down into the bottomless black depths of both hell and the accounting department of Columbia Pictures, I spied a common expression on them all. No, no, not rapt fascination or terror. But not exactly boredom either. Something else. It took me a moment to identify: Numbness.
Then this thought: HungryBoy behind me would not have taken that call in 1954 if he’d been watching the tentacles of a giant squid wrapped around the riveted tail fin of the Nautilus submarine, yanking James Mason toward its snapping, slobbering maw amidst a howling Technicolor typhoon. Sorry. No way.
In 1954, the only numbness in that theater would have been in beguiled eyeballs, extended out from skulls an inch more than normal.
With the release of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” 55 years ago, Walt Disney stumbled upon a mostly unexplored emotional response from movie audiences. This unique feeling had been lurking in cinema’s murky, black and white depths, waiting to emerge and attack moviegoers and their imaginations in a way that tears, laughter and fear – the emotions of radio, theater and books — could neither match nor compete: Awe.
As in Awesome.
Awe as in slack-jawed and struck dumb: The Red Sea parting before C. Moses Heston. Steven Spielberg’s mothership rising behind Devil’s Tower, reducing it in scale to an overturned Frappuccino. The Imperial Star Destroyer lumbering over our heads in the first seconds of “Star Wars.” Each provoked a collective, adolescent “whoooa” from dazzled audiences. Remember that sound? I do. Heard it lately? Many of you just watched Africa slide over and smash into Brazil on screen last weekend. What’d you hear?
I heard, “Szechuan! It’s spicy!”
Awe. From the latin Awesemonus, or Aw, man did you see that? A subjective reaction to visual stimulus that would, like that giant squid — the most tenacious of sea beasts — wrap itself around the Hollywood blockbuster until finally, reluctantly letting go in the late 1980s. It was hit square between the eyes with not a harpoon but something far deadlier: A pixel.
The blockbuster remains busting ever bigger blocks every weekend. But with the smothering ubiquity of magical computer effects in even commercials selling products to battle talking toe bacteria, too often we emerge from the modern action spectacular pummeled and numb, the only residual awe being in yawn. Or awful. Or prawfits.
By now, we and our children — flooded daily with pixels — have simply seen it all. Yawn.
Or too much. Numb.
The old school, spine-tingling adolescent movie wonder may have had its last gasp somewhere in the neon-lit hallways of Darth Vader’s Death Star… but I submit that it was born, fresh, new and exciting, in the dank blue steel passageways of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, decades before.
Now, it’d by churlish not to suggest that lots of respectable, fantastic stories had found their way to film by then. I’m sure you remember 1951’s “Flying Disc Man from Mars.” And no, I don’t forget 1933’s King Kong. Nor do I forget Willis O’Brien’s smudge of lunch peanut butter on Kong’s two inch shoulder in one shot. I can see it. Please don’t write me.
Without real movie stars, without meaty themes of war and loss and villainous angst, without saturated color and Cinemascope, without the budget, the exotic shooting locales and sweeping elegiac score and without much concern to hide the black wires holding the spaceships up … neither awe nor wonder nor even atomic-powered Victorian submersibles could fully surface below the lid of cheese that capped that era’s typical science fiction cinema.
That in mind, Walt Disney and director Richard Fleischer risked the entire fate of the Disney studio, as well the plans to build Disneyland, in rolling the budget dice — flinging them, really — at Jules Verne’s classic but plotless novel. It was Walt’s first live-action picture, his inexperience reflected by a talky, episodic script that couldn’t, for the first time, fall back on the crutch of a comedic sidekick cricket or dwarf.
All forgiven though, with the other cinema luxury he delivered that was otherwise unseen in the fantasy genre up to that point: razor-cool production design. Nemo’s outrageous ship, spontaneously carved from a foot-long piece of pine by Disney designer Harper Goff one inspired spring day. That marvelous, malevolent submersible of anti-war vengeance that looks like what every kid knows a proper submarine should resemble but does not: A pissed-off fish alligator.
Fifty-five years later, it’s what everyone remembers. Poor Kirk Douglas.
My mother — who remembers nothing from film — thinks that “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is a motto on cans of tuna fish. And she swears on the lives of her dogs that Spartacus simply could NOT have kissed a seal in any movie.
But she knows she’s seen that submarine before.
Kirk may have chewed up the scenery in every shot, but he couldn’t take a bite out of the dominating profile of Goff’s wonderful underwater sub — native warriors leaping off its electrified cannibal-repelling hull as it sliced through both the Pacific ocean and the movie-soaked cerebellums of young boys like me.
Full disclosure: The home office in which I’m presently writing this has been fashioned after the interior design of the Nautilus – all paneled colonial cherry wood, faux arched steel I-beams overhead, steam tubes, rivets, red velvet upholstery and flickering Victorian lights. A suitable creative environment for an arrested adolescent but one also compelled to cook up fantastic stories and call it respectable work.
Where better, I ask, than within the romantic innards of the Nautilus?
A padded cell, my wife would answer.
Alas, no pipe organ, but my outer studio doors feature a child-repelling electric current that is always switched on. (This is wholly believed within the family and I’d like to keep it that way.)
Ever anxious to bury an ironic lead, I should add that with the 55th anniversary of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Disney’s new studio head Rich Ross just sank the nearly-to-production revival of Captain Nemo.
It would have been stuffed like a haddock, no doubt, with CG spectacularityness. I sort of suspect it would have been all Disney could do to resist the temptation of showing Captain Nemo destroying, in photo-real detail, the entire solar system.
And maybe, just maybe, they sensed this. And maybe they came back up to the surface to take a breath and rethink just exactly whence the wonder of their new Nemo movie should flow: From the dazzling story, characters, production design and — did I mention story?
Or from its CG images of computer-processed, over-the-top liquid action?
Go. Hold your breath and dive deep, Disney. But remember, we’ve pretty much seen it all before.
And probably in a Depends commercial.
– Berkeley Breathed
Berkeley Breathed is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, illustrator, novelist and screenwriter. A Disney adapation of his book “Mars Needs Moms!“ will be released in 2011. He lives in Santa Barbara, and, in a home office designed in homage to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” looks out on the sea and waits for Nautilus to surface.
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Photos: Vintage images courtesy of Disney. Bottom: Berkeley Breathed and his dog and his bike. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times.
UPDATED: An earlier version of this post misidentified the author of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” but an angry squid fixed it.