I love how this asshole died eight films ago and here we are, looking at his “Eminem through an Instagram aging filter” face in yet another one. I love how Saw 3D was marketed as “the final chapter” and three new sequels have been made since then. Saw has devolved into a Weekend at Bernie‘s farce where the creators have ended the series multiple times—and I mean publically murdered it, dynamited the corpse, and fired the ashes into the sun—only for the studio to carry on making more Saws anyway, like nothing happened. Kind of funny. I guess it’s our fault for seeing them.
I realize I’m watching a Saw movie in 2023 and the joke is on me, but can’t they try? A movie is an unexplored frontier: 60-180 minutes of blank space, and you can fill that space with anything. There are no rules. Tape doesn’t care what you put on it. With that in mind, why are we doing this again?
X is better than most movies in the Saw series, but that’s not hard (there will never be a Better Than Most Movies in the Saw Series award at the Oscars) and it still struggles with the fact that the franchise killed its one and only idea 620 minutes ago. Without John Kramer, there’s nothing, so they need to keep bringing him back, using increasingly contrived methods. Saw X is actually Saw 1.5: set between the events of Saw and Saw II. Kramer, you will recall, is dying of cancer (which I believe: Tobin Bell looks 20 years older than he did in the first film), so he undertakes an experimental new treatment procedure at a clinic in Mexico. The clinic turns out to be a fraudulent scam, preying on the desperate and gullible. Kramer decides to get revenge on them before he dies.
Setting the film in the past creates its own set of continuity problems (didn’t the Mexican Federales notice such gruesomely distinctive crimes, and draw parallels to the American Jigsaw killer?), but it doesn’t matter: the franchise long ago abandoned realism. In particular, Kramer is absurd. Once he was merely a super-genius, now he’s literally God, possessing perfect omniscience, knowing everything about everyone, and predicting the moves of others six steps ahead. While dying of cancer he designs and builds room-sized torture machines that would take a team of MIT undergrads six months and millions of dollars to construct. He’s such an unbelievable figure that it destroys what was interesting about the first movie: its sense of psychological realism.
The franchise has changed since the James Wan days. The first Saw had little gore, and was a “smart” horror/crime thriller in the mould of Se7en/Silence of the Lambs. Later entries dipped their toes into various horror fads such as splatterpunk, and found footage. Now we’re in the era of tedious “prestige horror”, so we get hokey scenes of Kramer fixing some Mexican kid’s bike, just to show he has a heart. I liked it more when he was a bad guy.
But that’s the problem with any horror franchise: the monster eventually becomes the hero. In the first Saw, your sympathies lay with the poor schmucks screwed into John Kramer’s machines. They were flawed, but redemption was possible. But now? Kramer is the star of the show, so they make his victims loathsome scum who basically deserve to die horribly. But if I no longer care if they live or die, what’s the point?
The Mexican setting is a waste—the film is as visually bland as ever—and aside from the expected “Hello Zepp” drop the music sounds like temp tracks. The plot makes little sense. Greutert directs like he’s assembling Ikea furniture. No inspiration exists. The Saw franchise is beyond dead and beyond a joke and they should either stop making them or be forced to stop. At least the title is accurate: this sawx.
One of Calvino’s later works, Under the Jaguar Sun aims to do the thing that’s hardest for the writer: touch the reader’s senses.
Books have a distancing effect: to read one, we imagine ourselves out of our bodies, and into the scene depicted on the page. Under the Jaguar Sun wants to short-circuit us back into our meatsacks using specifically-written stories about taste, smell, and sound. Not sight and touch, notably. Calvino never completed those. In an afterword, his wife urges us to think of the three written stories, and forget the two unwritten ones. (In any case, there are more than five senses).
The first story in the cycle is “taste”, or Sotto il sole giaguaro. A pair of tourists explore Mexican locales such as Tepoztlán and Monte Alban, eating local cuisine such as chiles en nogada and guajolote con mole poblano while reflecting on the history of the region. Conflicting flavors are used to symbolize religious and political strife, as well as possibly their own sexual tension. Calvino focuses on the exterior state of the characters: we’re meant to infer things from Olivia’s flaring nostrils, or the pause of her lips. Soon the narrator isn’t staring at his partner’s eyes, but at her teeth.
He suspects that she may want to eat him, driving fangs through the softness of his skin, as a jaguar might. His mind fills with bloody images: cut-out hearts, and blood steaming upon temple altars. I wonder if there are things not said: and that food is a distraction for something unspeakable about their relationship.
The prose of William Weaver’s translation is itself a bit too rich at times, evoking those terrible cooking blogs (“…somewhat wrinkled little peppers, swimming in a walnut sauce whose harshness and bitter aftertaste were drowned in a creamy, sweetish surrender”). I could have done with less of that, but I was relieved that the characters can’t remember if cilantro is the same thing as coriander.
Eating is described as an act of travel. You are digesting a country and its history—and if that history is a bloody one, what effect will eating have on you? Calvino (through his narrator) scorns the poor imitations of “regional” food found in big restaurants, which he considers as fake as stage dressing on a movie set. But Mexico isn’t what it once was. The narrator imagines the hot, ancient land that Cortez once walked through…but that place doesn’t doesn’t exist anymore. He’s just summarizing ruins, inventorying echoes of echoes. He prizes “real” food because that’s the only form of reality available to him.
Un re in ascolto is the next story, themed upon “hearing”. It’s a lot of fun, much better than the first, with some great writing and the same twisted fairytale quality of Marcel Schwob. It also reminded me of the Truman Show.
A king sits upon a throne, a virtual prisoner. His crown is uncomfortable but he cannot move his head to adjust it. His scepter is heavy but it must never leave his hand. His throne doubles as a bedpan so he can relieve himself without ever being out of sight of his adoring subjects. In short, he might as well be made of glass. He’s inactive, defunct, just a monarch-object who exists to sit and be admired by the court until his death.
Which might come sooner rather than later. Despite existing under such pitiless, endless love, the king knows he is surrounded by enemies. Whether he’s right or merely paranoid doesn’t matter to us. He’s convinced that men are plotting and scheming in court: the palace is full of his spies, but they cannot catch everyone, and although reams of surveillance and interrogation are piled at his feet, there is too much of it to read.
With his eyes useless, he relies on hearing. The king learns to enjoy the sound of the wind blowing along the corridors; the sound of the guards slamming rifle butts in salute on the battlements. And soon, beyond the baldaquin of his hollow coffin-throne, the king hears a woman singing a love song…
It’s a good one—maybe a great one—about paranoia and suspicion and obsession. It made me feel closed-in and itchy. Uneasy hangs the head that wears the crown? No, it’s the ears beneath the crown that are the trouble. They keep complicating things.
Lastly comes Il nome, il naso, or “smell”. It’s a wild, decadent romp, braiding together three separate stories and letting strange things happen from their union. We get the perspectives of a wild beast, a French decadent rather like Huysmans’ Jean des Esseintes, and a drug-addicted musician. They are united by search for sensation, which is most potent in the form of olfaction.
It’s the shortest but also the messiest of the stories, and I can’t say I understood much of it. But that might be entirely appropriate: smell is the most fragile and easily overwhelmed of the senses, for me. The eyes see endlessly, the ears hear endlessly, and both touch and taste . But scents, however, quickly go dead. I’m not sure that I’d want to live in a world where the nose is king, but that’s the point of the story, we once did. And maybe there’s something latent there, hidden in our DNA and ready to become manifest.
This is an intimate and voluptous volume, and the fact that it’s incomplete reveals something important about senses: they often go away. A single lesion in the brain might take one (or more) of them away, silencing a world of meaning. In this book, we are blind and anaphiac. Sometimes we understand. Sometimes we grope in confusion.
It’s worth reading if you can find it cheap, and it encapsules much of what made Calvino great as a writer. It sets fires in the mind, and opens the imagination to worlds and words beyond, barely glimpsed off the margins of the page.
Living dolls are an ancient obsession, storied wherever there are stories and sung wherever there are songs. Pygmalion’s ivory bride; Hephaestus’s automata; Hidari Jingorō’s statues; the golems of Prague; Pinocchio; Sir Cliff. We are fascinated by the idea of sculpting a soul, of lacing gears together so finely that sparks of life glimmer between the teeth. The creation of life could be considered the final goal of art. Mona Lisa smiles because she has to. Imagine a painting that smiles because it wants to.
No artist has succeeded at this task, unless God is an artist. According to Genesis, he formed us out of dust from the ground, so in a way, we’re his toys. But why would you want to give life to a toy, assuming you could? Toys are defined by a relationship with their maker: in Aristotle’s classic schema, we are agents (actors), and toys are patients (acted-upon). A living toy is a paradox, inhabiting both and neither role. Children’s movies can bring toys to life, but they always raise existential implications that are never properly dealt with.
Long before Alan Menken brought Broadway to Disney, there was Richard Williams’ Raggedy Anne and Andy: A Musical Adventure, an animated film from 1977. Toys are preparing for their owner Marcella’s seventh birthday when a pirate captain breaks out of a snowglobe and kidnaps Marcella’s birthday present, a bisque doll called Babette. A loyal Raggedy Anne doll goes on an adventure to rescue Babette.
The film was a box office bomb that ended up as airtime space filler on CBS and the Disney Channel. It has a thin plot, and relies on Williams’ animation and Joe Raposo’s music to carry it. But again…toys are alive in the film, and conspire to make the life of children wonderful. Are they slaves? Do they have free will? Do they have the ability to judge? To hate? The point of toys is that they’re not alive: they’re a tabula rasa you fill with your personality and wishes. Researchers at the Kibale National Park have observed adolescent chimps using sticks as toys, but the males use them as weapons or tools, while female chimps cradle them like babies. That’s what a toy is: a shadow of the one who makes it. The idea of a living, talking, thinking toy, with a will insubordinate to your own, is a weird one that seems to naturally slide toward horror, like a stone rolling downhill.
The toys in Raggedy Anne and Andy exhibit Nietzsche’s slave morality. They are fully subservient to Marcella, not because she’s nice or worthy, but because she’s a girl and they’re her toys. They seem to possess awareness and introspection. Raggedy Andy is ashamed that he’s owned by a girl. The Twin Pennies are curious about what life is like outside the playroom. Most disturbingly, Raggedy Anne feels pain and discomfort at Marcella’s rough playing—the first thing she does is complain that she’s popped half her stitches. However, they seem to be at peace with their place in the universe. They can’t imagine freedom. The only characters who rebel are Babette and Captain Contagious, the villains.
The movie is charming, and beautifully animated by 1970s standards (until the production ran out of money—believe me, you’ll notice when this happens.) Of special note are Tissa David’s sensitive Raggedy Anne and Andy, Art Babbitt’s Grecian-tragic Camel With Wrinkly Knees (with each of his humps embodying a different personality!), Emery Watkins’ voracious sucrose ocean Greedy, and the typical brilliance displayed in Richard Williams’ “No Girl’s Toy” sequence.
It’s also shamelessly schmaltzy, and feels decades older than 1977. I’d always assumed Raggedy Anne dolls were based off Anne of Green Gables (red hair + freckles), but this is not true. This is a movie based on a doll patented in 1915, and then a children’s book written in 1918, and you really feel those years. Raposo’s music is straight out of Tin Pan Alley.
The film was (possibly) funded by the CIA. Did you know that?
It was distributed by the ITT Corporation, a shady manufacturing conglomerate with ties to the US executive branch: their involvement in Augusto Pinochet’s coup is now well-established. This was around the time the CIA was waging a so-called Cultural Cold War, which involved promoting “American” forms of art such as Broadway musicals. The source of funding was apparently an open secret among the film’s production team. Here’s a second or third hand story shared by Steve Stanchfield (by way of Garrett Gilchrist):
(Not speculation at all). Talked with Dick [Williams]. A friend had visited him and talked about how the CIA had funded the film. When I was talking with Dick about Emery [Hawkins] being fired, I asked if that was the CIA. Dick’s hands went in the air and he said loudly “those were the guys!!” and started to tell a story. His wife quickly came over and said “we’re not going to talk about that right now”. Later, while I was at the national archives searching for Private Snafu materials, I made a request to see material related to the CIA, ITT and Raggedy Ann and Andy. The freedom of information act is a wonderful thing. ITT was in trouble in GB and the states for being a front for the CIA. This led to the assassination of a candidate in South America, leaving egg on the face of ITT. They produced some childen’s programing to show they are a solid company with family values (and, of course, that idea is as ham-handed as it sounds). The programs were the Big Blue Marble and the animated feature Raggedy Ann and Andy. Raggedy Ann was to be released, at the latest, in the summer of 1976, in time for the big celebrations for the Bi-Centennial of the US. ITT bought Bobbs-Merrill for this purpose. Once the film was finished, they sold the Raggedy Ann film for $10 to Bobbs-Merrill and, somehow, allowed their assets to be sold back to itself. It is now owned by Random House. This is public record, and there’s many, many pages (thousands). I’ve just seen a handful.
If the ITT Corporation was indeed a spinnerette for taxpayer money, this could imply that part of the film belongs to the US public—ie, it’s public domain. As a pundit joked when obscenity charges were brought against a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of a flaccid penis, it probably won’t stand up in court, but I definitely feel less guilty than usual about giving this film the Captain Contagious treatment, if you know what I mean.
I’ve watched it once, and may watch it again. I maybe I won’t. Raggedy Anne and Andy is pleasant, but it’s not an unsung masterpiece.
The pacing is terrible. The film larded down by musical numbers—we get SEVEN songs before the first vestiges of plot emerge, and I’m not joking. It’s a “Musical Adventure” with MUSICAL in all caps and (adventure) in a tiny-sized font. What little story exists is episodic. Raggedy Anne and Andy make a new friend, get into trouble, escape somehow, then repeat as often as needed.
But the movie’s flaws—the leisurely pace and incidental storytelling—curiously work. It perfectly captures what it’s like to be a child, cooped up indoors on a rainy day, playing with your toys and making up an adventure for your head. Or rather, what it once was like to be a child.
What would a kid born in a year starting with “201” think of this film? Would it provoke wonder? Or would it simply seem as an alien relic, undecodable and indecipherable? When I see children today, I am struck by how few of them still play with toys. Instead of Raggedy Anne, their hands are wrapped around a glowing shard of magic glass. It sings to them, enchants them, dreams for them, hurtles them algorithmically into an adulthood they’re not prepared for. Young girls are memorizing rules on how to diet and dress and say correct words and have correct thoughts. Their brothers watch aspirational lifestyle videos by a bald sex predator. The past depicted seems strange, but that’s not true: the world of 1977 is set in stone, remaining the same forever. We’re the ones mutating. The film thinks we’ll recognize ourselves in Raggedy Anne and Raggedy Andy, when actually we’re the Greedy.
In the future (if not the present), this movie will look like footage of a rare jungle tribe. Or maybe research notes of those chimps in Kibale National Park. It depicts a way of life, a piece of the past that’s coming unravelled in memory like Raggedy Anne’s stitches. For this reason alone, it’s worth watching—or at least, knowing about.