Friday, February 9, 2018

5K with Dr. Seuss: A finger per film

Sometimes a milestone is just another movie.

For a few weeks now I have been imprisoned by my ticking movie clock, which has been steadily counting down toward one of the most epic milestones I have ever crossed. It wasn't just another increment of a thousand movies; it was the fifth increment. You would certainly agree that 5,000 movies is more epic than 4,000 was, or than 6,000 will be. In fact, this is probably the most epic milestone I will have until I get to 10,000, if I ever do. (I will also want to watch a really scary horror movie for 6,666.)

But sometimes you just can't find the perfect way to recognize it, no matter what you do. Sometimes, you just need to watch a movie.

Oh, I still recognized it, but that perfect movie that felt equal to the occasion just never materialized. You could say I've spent the past 5,000 viewings making sure that there was no egregious classic oversight that was just waiting to be corrected when the time came. These days, I don't even have an immediate title in mind if asked what movie I am most embarrassed never to have seen. Sure, there are great movies, classic movies, I've never seen. But one important enough to enshrine it with #5,000? It just never presented itself.

And as I was dicking around, worrying about what I would watch, I wasn't moving forward with the regular day-to-day business of watching other movies. As I said, I was imprisoned.

So I went with the thematically appropriate choice, not to mention the one that was available for rental on iTunes.

That's how, on February 8th, 2018, at approximately 9:29 p.m., I came to watch Roy Rowland's 1953 children's musical written by Dr. Seuss, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, as my 5,000th lifetime viewing.

It felt like an admission of defeat on some level. After all, for my 4,000th movie, I had made that definitive choice on a classic that I had not yet seen: F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Whether that was truly worth of a thousandth viewing, I don't know, but it felt right and I never doubted it.

I was consumed with doubt this time around. And there were some classics I considered. I don't mind telling you now which ones didn't make the cut. Two in particular I considered very seriously.

The first was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A few years ago I saw both Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America in the same year, making me realize how much I had been neglecting the brilliant work of Sergio Leone. If you can believe it, I haven't seen any of the Dollars trilogy, but my father-in-law's girlfriend gifted them to me for Christmas, so now I own them on BluRay. The timing seemed provident.

I ultimately didn't go with that choice because it's the third of those movies, and I felt I needed to watch the other two first. A friend almost convinced me that I didn't, as TGTBATU is actually the earliest in the chronology. But just as I would never tell a Star Wars neophyte to start with the prequels, I think it's important to watch the movies in the order they were released. And after finishing a long and regimented period of watching 2017 films, I didn't feel like using three of my available five titles before 5,000 on those movies.

Then the other contender was Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, a good choice also because Bresson is one of the filmmakers I will watch as part of this year's Audient Auteurs series. It was #16 on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll and it's the second highest film on that list I haven't seen. (I guess I could have also considered the highest on that list I haven't seen, Man with a Movie Camera.) Furthermore, it's available for rental on iTunes.

Which is also a reason I didn't go with it. It's not available on the Australian iTunes, only the American. And while I have access to both, I'm running through two gifts cards that only work on the Australian store, so it felt silly to spend my hard-earned money at the American store when I have $80 in Australian credit. (Besides, the same friend who suggested I could watch TGTBATU first also said that Balthazar would make a very depressing 5,000th movie.)

Dr. T was indeed available from Australian iTunes, and it had been hanging around in the background ever since I jokingly suggested it to close out this post. So the joke turned into reality and that was the choice.

A choice I remain not entirely happy with, as I've said. But there are a couple good things about this choice, as I am in a rationalizing mood, and it's over now so I can't do anything about it anyway.

For one, this may be my last opportunity to celebrate a milestone like this with a themed viewing. When I hit 3,000, I watched Mr. 3000 -- easiest decision I ever made. Five thousand actually had a number of choices beyond this one, not all of which were readily available, but I probably could have pirated them if I were really desperate. But 6,000? Seven thousand? Eight thousand? I can't readily think of any movies with those numbers in their titles. If I didn't select the thematically appropriate option this time, I might never get the chance again.

Plus there's the fact that this allowed me to see a movie I absolutely, positively never would have sought out otherwise. Not because it's completely outside my interests -- in fact, quite the opposite, as having Dr. Seuss as a writer gave me a natural curiosity about it. Rather, I'd just never heard of it, and it's hard to seek out something you've never heard of.

Ultimately, I determined there's a reason this isn't a more prominently discussed part of Theodore Geisel's illustrious history. The story, screenplay and lyrics were all written by Dr. Seuss, but they catch him in a really raw and unfocused place. It's the story of a young boy (Tommy Rettig) who has an extended fantasy about being trapped in the castle of his evil piano teacher, the titular Dr. Terwilliker, played by Hans Conried. His mother (Mary Healy) and a kindly plumber who becomes his mother's love interest (Peter Lind Hayes) also factor in.

To be clear, it's got Seuss coming out the wazoo. There are fantabulous musical instruments, including a piano that wraps and curves around a whole room (at which the 500 boys and their 5,000 fingers are eventually meant to sit). There are a pair of men on roller stakes joined in the middle by their interconnecting gray beards. There are ladders to nowhere set against instantly recognizable Seussian buildings and other backdrops. There are holes in floors leading to hidden staircases and dungeons into which all other players of all other types of instruments have been banished. It's enriching in a very real way to see Seuss' concepts in a live action film, years and years before the abominable live action Grinch and Cat in the Hat movies. In fact, in many ways this serves as a preview of where Seuss would go in the future, rather than a rehashing of ideas already debuted in his books. Nearly all of his classics came after Dr. T; in fact, the only one of the dozen or so Seuss books we own that was written before this is Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. 

Still, even with a great like Seuss involved and working out some of the best sides of his fruitful imagination, this is a pretty difficult sit. Although I'm sure these actors were doing other things and had successful careers, I didn't get an ounce of charisma between the four of them. The story lurches along with very little forward momentum; the young Bart Collins' goal is to try to prevent Dr. T's musical academy, where he's imprisoned, from opening, but it's unclear why Dr. T's plan to have 500 boys play piano simultaneously is inherently evil and must be stopped. (His plan to execute the plumber is a bit more sinister, and reflects just one of the ways this movie is a bit more explicitly about the potential death of major characters than a movie aimed at this age child would be today.)

As a musical, it's pretty much a total failure. The first song does not come until the movie is nearly 30 minutes old, feeling especially abrupt as the staging of the first number involves the plumber and the boy sitting in a chair together. Then there's a weird dance where the plumber and Dr. T are pantomiming cursing each other. There's one truly inspired number with a whole bunch of dancers in the dungeon, which also features the Seussian instruments and a man on a swing ring a bell at the apex of his arc. But to give you some idea of its structural failings as a musical, the final number is a song called "Dressing Song," in which the villain whimsically orders his minions to dress him for his big performance. In most musicals, a song like this would be third or fourth and would serve as a kind of introduction to the villain. It would not be the final song in the whole movie. I was put in mind of another disastrous Dr. Seuss-related musical I haven't seen, Seussical. That was not received particularly well. Maybe Seuss just isn't meant to be set to music.

Anyway. I'm glad I will saw it. It's completely inconsequential and I will never watch it again.

But sometimes, milestones are just another movie.

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