An Impossible Journey: The Case for 'A Far Off Place'

By Jason Anders

"Don't look back." Nonnie's advice wasn't taken by Harry in 1993's A Far Off Place, and it won't be taken here as we look back fondly on Mikael Salomon's directorial debut for Walt Disney Pictures, an adventure drama film based on Laurens van der Post's works. This is not your traditional Disney fare, it is dark and disturbing, prompting critics to caution parents about the adult content. Set to a beautifully exotic score by James Horner, we will see elephants slaughtered and their tusks sawed off by poachers, parents will be brutally murdered and their child will discover their bloody corpses, an ivory smuggler will try and machine gun three kids to death with AK-47s, and Reese Witherspoon will blow up bad guys with car bombs and hold her parent's killer at gunpoint. It's badass. We will learn about family, friendship, culture, survival, nature, spirituality, revenge, and how to impress a girl by making her an antelope vest on the fly. If all that's not enough, the movie is paired with a brand new (or maybe it's from 1947) anarchistic Roger Rabbit short called Trail Mix-Up in which he accidentally destroys Mount Rushmore. This was just the night at the movies we 90s kids were pining for, and the critics just didn't understand. 

The first thing that we need to stop doing is comparing this to Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film, Walkabout. That movie is a masterpiece and you should watch it. Now, if you've never seen it. But no critic could seem to get through their review on A Far Off Place without mentioning it, always comparing the Disney film unfavorably to it. These are two completely different movies so let's stop holding them up next to each other. And as badass as I found this movie as a kid, let me be very clear that this is "Disney badass", it's not Goodfellas Goes to Africa. I have a fascination with Disney movies that go to dark places, challenging you or surprising you in some way, and this picture does both. It's so refreshing when Disney breaks out of its box and produces something that feels new. Walt was always breaking the mold with his projects, and that should be the standard for the company, not the rare exception.  
To fully appreciate this film we need to look at the people behind it, starting with author Laurens van der Post. The screenplay, penned by several writers, is based on his source material, A Story Like the Wind (1972) and A Far-Off Place (1974). Post was born in 1906 in the small town of Philippolis in the Orange River Colony, known today as South Africa. He introduced the world to the "Kalahari Bushmen", now known as Sān people, in the 1950s. Much of his life is still a subject of great debate, just how much of it did he embellish or flat-out make up? Take a look at his Wikipedia page and you'll see him described as an "author, journalist, farmer, war hero, political advisor to British heads of government, educator, humanitarian, philosopher, explorer and conservationist." In reading the New York Times article "Master Storyteller or Master Deceiver?",  biographer J.D.F. Jones says that, "When a doctor who knew him was asked the cause of his death, the doctor replied, "He was weary of sustaining so many lies." Allegations about his seducing and abandoning a 14 year old girl are addressed and confirmed by his daughter in the article as well. His daughter said in an interview that, "He was not a saint. He hurt people. He hurt me. But by God, he was fascinating." Post's 1963 book The Seed and the Sower, about his being a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp, became the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence starring David Bowie. Both the Bowie film and A Far Off Place were produced before Jones' revealing 2002 biography.

The film was originally set to be directed by René Manzor, but he was replaced by cinematographer Mikael Salomon at the recommendation of Steven Spielberg. What would this movie have been like if it had been completed by the French director? According to this Los Angeles Times piece, "Everyone involved, including Disney executives, were appalled by the work being done." A source said, "Things were out of focus and nothing was making any sense. They knew they had to get rid of him quickly." Sources close to the film insist "there's much more to the story" - cut to 2017, Reese Witherspoon opened up about her "true disgust at the director who assaulted me when I was 16 years old and the anger I felt at the agents and producers who made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment." Could this be why Manzor was quietly let go? And if so, why the hell was it quietly? Does this mean Kathleen Kennedy would have been one of those "producers"? Witherspoon has not confirmed which director from this timeframe assaulted her, it may not have been anyone associated with this production at all, but Manzor's sudden firing and the lack of documentation regarding his departure raises a huge red flag. It's a shame that whoever Witherspoon is referring to has been allowed a career since 1993.  
Before A Far Off Place, Mikael Salomon had been a Director of Photography for Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Richard Linklater, Ron Howard, and James Cameron, including 1989's The Abyss. He was originally being considered to replace the first cinematographer on the film, but when Manzor was fired Spielberg instead suggested that Salomon should replace him as director. "Within the same day of offering him the job as cinematographer," says a source to the LA Times, "they decided he should direct the film." Salomon was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1945 and photographed dozens of films in his native country. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1980s and found success as a DoP on films like Always, Arachnophobia, Far and Away, and Backdraft. Salomon would go on to direct only two more features, Hard Rain (1998) and Freezer (2014). I thought Hard Rain was so cool when it came out. It was also responsible for the success of Jars of Clay's hit single, Flood - I'll let you decide for yourself whether or not that's a good thing. 

Juan Ruiz Anchía was then brought in as cinematographer, fresh off Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), and did an incredible job. Roger Ebert wrote of his work on the film,"The scenes shot in the desert have an undeniable beauty, and the photography captures the forms of the sand dunes with real poetry." 

The screenwriters, some uncredited, were Robert Caswell (A Cry in the Dark), Jonathan Hensleigh (Jumanji, The Rock), Sally Robinson (Medicine Man) and David Mickey Evans (Radio Flyer, The Sandlot). I love the dialogue in this movie and that Witherspoon's Nonnie was written as a strong female character, especially for early 90s Disney. The film opens with her resenting having to "babysit some American boy" instead of going on patrol for target practice, sharpening her aim for capping poachers but "only in self-defense," of course. I really enjoy her banter with Harry throughout the movie...
Harry: "I can carry your bag for a while."

Nonnie: "Why?"

Harry: "Because it's heavy."

Nonnie: "... and if you carry it, it'll get lighter?"

Harry: "No, but..."

Nonnie: "... what? You're a guy?"

Harry: "I wasn't gonna say that."

Nonnie: "Then what? Bigger? It's my bag and I'll carry it."

A Far Off Place was Reese Witherspoon's second film, following 1991's The Man in the Moon. Her debut picture, directed by the legendary Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) in what would be his final film, is a criminally under-discussed masterpiece. Read Ebert's glowing review of the film here and add it to your "go watch it right now" list. Her co-star, Ethan Embry, went by the name Ethan Randall at the time. I love Embry's movies, having grown up with Dutch (1991) and All I Want for Christmas (1991), he went on to star in some of my young adulthood favorites like Empire Records (1995), That Thing You Do! (1996) and Can't Hardly Wait (1998). Pure magic for me was when Witherspoon and Embry reunited in 2002's Sweet Home Alabama. Seeing the two of them together onscreen again truly created a cinematic high for fans of A Far Off Place. Thank you to whoever's idea that was. 

One problem I had with Disney's marketing for the film was their largely ignoring Sarel Bok's character of Xhabbo, even the trailer boasted "two extraordinary people" when Xhabbo was, if anything, the most extraordinary of them all. It is a story about all three of them, and that's the way it should have been promoted. Period. He brings so much joy and soul to this picture, it's a shame this was his only performance. 
Ebert warned that young viewers would be "appalled" by the violence, but I loved it. This movie had an edge that, honestly, I wasn't expecting as a kid and wouldn't expect now. The kids, as well as the adults, cursed just like us. The opening scene observes animals as if it were a nature documentary, it's a beautiful moment, making the sudden killing of the elephants for their tusks all that more startling and upsetting. I really loved the scene with Koba where the explosion startles both her and the cat, it's a great jump-scare and fun character moment, especially when she says "bullshit", pinning her knowledge of profanity on Nonnie, to which her mom says, "I'll kill her." There's a lot of character crammed into that twenty seconds of film, and it works well. 

I'm a big fan of the kids' intelligence in the movie. They were definitely much smarter than I was at 14, but never to the extent of, "It's a Unix system. I know this!" 

Nonnie: "People need to stand up and fight for what they believe or nothing's ever gonna change."

Paul: "People need to sit down and talk, otherwise people won't change."

Nonnie: "If you were George Washington's father, we'd still be British colonists."

When Xhabbo is attacked by a leopard, Nonnie and Harry spend the night in his cave to help him recover. Meanwhile, their family is gunned down in the Parker's home after Paul poked his nose into the illegal ivory exporting being done by his associate, John Ricketts. When Nonnie stumbles across the dead bodies of her parents and Harry's dad, she loses her shit and blows up some bad guys with explosives. It's a great scene of suspense, especially when Nonnie gets trapped under a truck with the dynamite fuse already lit. It's one of those "OH MY GOD, GET OUT OF THERE" moments. She escapes, blowing the bastards up, but Ricketts is still out there and he's on a mission to murder her. It's time for our heroes to get the hell out of the desert and seek help, and so begins our 2,000 kilometer adventure. Nonnie says crossing the Kalahari is "impossible", to which Xhabbo replies, "Wind can do it, we can do it." An inspiring quote, even with its rebuttal, "All the wind is going to do for us is bury us." Xhabbo tells him that he will guide them on their journey, even though he doesn't have to, saying "As brothers, we go together, or we stop." There's also a wonderful "faith vs. science" balance amongst the three kids. 
Harry: "So, you really think we can make it to Karlstown?"

Nonnie: "If the wind can do it, we can do it."

Harry: "Don't give me that Bushman crap, I want a real answer."

Nonnie: "You want a real answer?"

Harry: "Let me hear the Bushman version again."

Does Xhabbo posses mystical powers? Harry refers to him as Doctor Dolittle when he communicates with the animals and he seems to drum up a sandstorm simply with the thumping of his chest. Or maybe it's all just coincidence. The movie leaves it open for interpretation which is probably for the best. Mystical powers or not, the kids still find themselves in a hopeless situation and at times on the verge of giving up. "I thought you said it wasn't safe to have a fire." says Harry. "We're dead now," says Nonnie, "we can have whatever we want." The kids learn to hunt for their food, gleefully being chased by an ostrich after stealing its egg...  okay, I'd probably be loopy at that point, too. Harry struggles emotionally with killing an antelope with a bow and arrow. He does the job, but can't quite let it go... 

Harry: "The herd of gemsbok have come back to our camp. They're not afraid. Xhabbo says they have accepted the death of one of them. He says only to kill when you must... what do I do face-to-face with the man who killed my father?" 

Ask Nonnie and she'll tell you to blow them all to Hell. 

I'm assuming if you've read this far you've watched the film and know how this all ends, but just in case, I won't spoil the ending. I like the way the picture ends, though there seems to have been some heavy editing to scale back the violence. There's also a note of friendship (and romance) that closes our tale which could have come off as cringe-worthy but actually works. 
Critics weren't all negative in their reviews for the film, one publication writing that it was "a sort of young people's Lawrence of Arabia." The same article comments on the film's "terrible violence that may frighten and upset young children." SOLD. 

Music fans should not hesitate for a moment to go find the collector's edition soundtrack, the score by James Horner is incredible. John Takis writes of it being a "dynamic, symphonic score that taps into the grandeur, romance, and adventure of Africa. Horner was a titan in his field, and this score is an example of why he will be so badly missed." 

If you're looking for a double-feature I'd suggest pairing A Far Off Place with 2014's Wild, another film in which Witherspoon must trek a long distance in the face of certain death. It's her all-time best performance and one of my top ten favorite movies, and any excuse to recommend it I always take. In the end I am ultimately bias, writing this essay with the picture built into my DNA since childhood, choosing to ignore its issues and buy completely into its magic. If you can do that then I promise you're in for a good ride. I'm not writing this to argue the film's importance, as always I am writing it for those of us who were impacted by it and its importance to us. It's incredible the ways that certain movies can affect us when we see them at exactly the right time, that's what this movie was for me, and it lives within us, becoming a part of us. Revisiting those movies feels like going home, just like Nonnie with her birds...

Nonnie: " I miss my birds. Had them ever since I was really little. My mother put them in my room to sing me to sleep, but I mostly think of hearing them when I wake up in the morning. I know it's stupid, but that's home to me - hearing them before I even open my eyes."

"In the Belly of the Beast: The Importance of the Psycho Sequels" by Jason Anders

"Cutlery. That line reading trumps all the Hitchcock shit right there." - Quentin Tarantino 

Psycho II is, to me, Anthony Perkins' best performance. Period. But this is not a critical film essay, nor is it a scholarly argument for the importance or relevance of the sequels to Hitchcock's 1960 picture, it is instead a journaling of what these movies meant to me, and the impact they had on my life. I can actually think of three instances where the phrase "that movie changed my life" applies to me in a major way, and Psycho was the first. A child's obsession with movies about a serial killer might seem like cause for alarm, but they helped me overcome an anxiety I had over horror (or anything remotely scary for that matter) when I was young. The first movie I saw in the theater was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and I emerged with eyes full of tears. Judge Doom scared the hell out of me, and that final confrontation between him and Eddie Valiant still gives me chills. When I was six I screamed my head off in Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion, I was terrified. Everything scared me.

Psycho was my first true horror movie love and it represented a conquering of the darkness... I walked into that "haunted house" alone and confronted my fears, and what I found was a therapeutic treasure. Anthony Perkins came to love playing, and even directing, the character of Norman Bates, and it was his raw passion for cinema that lit the fuse on film for me. Can one movie actually change your life? I can tell you that without Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece that I wouldn't be who I am, or where I am, without it. So let's toast some cheese sandwiches, pour a glass of milk, and dive into the belly of the beast.
"Don't go over to Jason's house, he'll just make you watch the Psycho movies," was an actual warning muttered to my classmates by a jerk named Cody during our 7th grade year. He came over to hang out one day and I insisted on a movie marathon featuring my favorite slasher, Norman Bates. I felt it was a calling that everyone in my life needed to see just how crazy awesome these movies were. I even went so far as to make edited versions of both films to show to my parents as a kid, removing the nudity and sex scenes so that my VHS copies wouldn't be taken away from me when they realized just how graphic they were. My friend Billy Cogdill said to me on more than one occasion at school, "Are you drawing the Psycho house again?" "Always," I'd say, "do you want one?" I sold my drawings of the Bates Motel for ten cents. Psycho wasn't the only thing I drew, nor was it my only obsession, I made oodles of nickels and dimes selling drawings of Darkwing Duck, Ren & Stimpy, the Genie from Aladdin, and my own original creation, Cowboy Bob, a ripoff of Saturday Night Live's Mr. Bill. I wanted to be a Disney animator one day, and all I cared about was drawing for people during school, which resulted in horrendous report cards.

Q: So what sparks an 11-year-old's undying obsession with two 80s slasher sequels in the first place?
A: Universal Studios Florida. 

There are two versions of Jason Anders, the one who existed before visiting the attraction Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies and the one who afterwards exited through the Bates Motel gift shop (with bags full of merchandise) during the summer of his 6th grade year. I first read about the attraction in the Universal Studios brochure at my great-grandmother's house and was obsessed with its promise of sending a chill down my spine. That classic drawing of Hitchcock's profile captured my imagination, and one of the souvenirs purchased that day was this coffee mug...
I spotted the Hitchcock building from the queue of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera. The attraction was rated PG-13, but I was not 13. My parents were hesitant as they did not want to expose me to horror films at such a young age, especially since they knew I was scared of literally everything, and this attraction boasted that you were in for some absolute terror once inside. I broke them though, being compelled by the imagery and description, and the next thing I knew we were inside the building being briefed by a hostess on the biography of Alfred Hitchcock (it was then that I realized he was that tubby guy I had seen on Nick at Nite.) We picked picked up 3-D glasses and headed inside the theater for what would be a wonderful screening showcasing Hitch's rich filmography and, at the age of ten, I could now boast that I'd seen Grace Kelly strangled in three dimensions. Suddenly, black birds began ripping through the movie screen for a grand finale to what served as my introduction to the Master of Suspense. It was also the first 3-D movie I'd experienced without running screaming from the theater, which happened on a previous trip to EPCOT Center at the reveal of Angelica Houston's character in Captain EO.

The attraction then shuffled its audience into the next room, where before us was a full stage set of the Bates Motel and mansion. It was beautiful, unlike anything I had ever seen. Something about that set struck a chord with me and I fell deeply in love. The gothic mansion on the hill above a seedy motel with flickering neon lights dimmed as Anthony Perkins appeared on a movie screen to discuss the importance of "the shower scene." The what? Hosts from the attraction proceeded to pluck volunteers from the audience to participate in an onstage demonstration of how the shower scene was filmed. I knew, at that moment, I had to see this movie. I even bought the Universal Studios souvenir video so that I could watch clips from the attraction at home. This was unlike anything that had existed in any theme park before or since, it remains my favorite attraction of all time. To describe its scope and scale to anyone who didn't experience it first-hand is difficult, though I tried on this blog a decade ago in an interview with Susan Lustig, a creative who developed The Art of Making Movies. These were only portions of the full experience, which included using binoculars to spy on people in a building "across the street" on a Rear Window set (my sister and I spent a lot of time at this spot, a video looping above us of Jimmy Stewart talking about the movie it was based on - guys, JAMES STEWART filmed a video for this attraction!) or filming yourself falling off the Statue of Liberty in a re-creation of the climax from Saboteur. I arrived back home in Tennessee after our Orlando trip and ran to open the Columbia House catalogue to order two movies, The Birds and Psycho.
(from Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies at Universal Studios Florida)
[R]. That rating glared on both the front and back of my VHS copy of Psycho. My parents weren't keen on my owning an R-rated movie, but considering it was so old it was most likely harmless in their eyes, I guess, so they allowed me to keep it. It felt so adult to place it on my shelf. My parents had actually spotted Hitch in person before I was born during a visit to L.A., his undeniable silhouette outlined through the window of a limousine. I watched Psycho alone late that night, deliberately waiting until it was dark. Beyond the shower scene, I knew nothing of the film. I didn't know who the killer was or how soon Janet Leigh would die. It was the purest viewing experience, which could have only been bested by erasing my knowledge of the infamous slaughter.

At Universal there was a large framed one-sheet for Psycho II hanging at the exit. "It's 22 years later, and Norman Bates is coming home." After seeing Psycho, this poster taunted me. I saw the VHS for II and III at Reel Collections, a video store at a Knoxville mall, but could not afford to buy them myself, refusing to ask my parents out of fear that they wouldn't allow me to watch them. Then, finally, I found them at a rental store called Movieland Video, where the clerks allowed me to rent R-rated movies. "What did you get?" my mom asked. "Rock-a-Doodle and Rover Dangerfield," I said. I finally had them, this was it, the sequels I had been waiting for months to see.
These movies were SICK. Demented. Suspenseful. Funny. Thrilling. I liked them better than the original and I still enjoy them more to this day. The scene of Mrs. Spool getting a shovel blow to the head kept my finger on the rewind button. To this day I still marvel at that shot, it really does look like this little old lady was brutally taken out for good. Psycho II was a nostalgic mystery, a character study of a sick man who has spent the last two decades restoring himself to sanity, a man who ultimately would have (likely) done no more harm if he would have just been left alone. You feel for Norman, you want him to get better, but too many people are so cruelly against this cause.

If this film were produced today it would have been a reboot, to pick a story up in 1983 in real time from where it left off in 1960 with the same actors simply never happens, with the exception of the new Halloween (a franchise notable for its multitude of Psycho nods). The film opens with a beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith as the sun rises on an empty Bates mansion, cut to a courtroom where some "legal hocus pocus" is going down. Norman Bates is being released, and Lila Loomis isn't happy about it. Another Tarantino quote I love regarding this movie is, "Vera Miles is back and she's a fucking bitch!" Right off the bat Norman thinks he sees someone in his mother's window as he returns home. Is he still crazy after all these years? Norman is trying his hardest to be a good man. Watch the brilliant and haunting way in which Perkins gazes at himself in the mirror, it's like you can read his mind but you also wonder what he's thinking about at the same time.
He befriends a co-worker named Mary during his first day of work at a local diner up the road. They form a close bond and later, in my favorite scene of the movie, she holds Norman in bed as he cries and offers up the oddest, most heartbreaking compliment...

Norman: "You smell good."

Mary: "I do?"

Norman: "Yeah."

Mary: "What do I smell like?"

Norman: "You smell like... like the toasted cheese sandwiches my mother used to bring me when I was in bed with a temperature. She used to do lots of nice things for me, before she went... before she became..." 

Mary: "Shh, just remember the good things she did for you. Only the good things."

Norman: "I can't. They're not there anymore."

Mary: "Of course they're there." 

Norman: "No, the doctors took them all away. Along with everything else. Except... except those sandwiches." 

Mary: "Just sleep, Norman. Just sleep."

The framing that scene ends on is surreal. This is not an 80s slasher, this is art. 

There are so many twists and turns in this story that it makes you start feeling a little bit crazy, capped with an ending we could have never predicted. That's the greatest thing about this movie, it's packed with so many surprises that when the picture ends you need to take a moment to reflect, just to make sure you really do have it all figured out. It's a slow burn that builds to a manic pace until you reach that booming music and iconic shot that cuts to the end credits, putting you on the edge of your damn seat to where you CANNOT get Psycho III into the VCR quickly enough!
Psycho III is even more of a character study, only this time Norman is examined through the lens of a noir-ish black comedy that wasn't afraid to go to the weirdest and darkest places. The movie starts, spoilers ahead, with a woman screaming into a dark void, "There is no God!" Being raised Christian, this made my stomach flip and was edited out for my parental cut of the film. III was directed by Anthony Perkins himself and, honestly, I don't know what he was thinking a lot of the time... especially during the filming of that sex scene. It's so odd and uncomfortable, and for a long time I thought that was how people had sex. Then there was the scene where Mother slits the throat of that girl on the toilet (played by filmmaker Katt Shea) and Norman proceeds to fall in love with her dead body. Theirs easily makes my Top 3 Best Onscreen Kisses list. So romantic.

For all its wickedness, this movie still teases you with redemption, especially with the Catholic overtones, though redemption seems far more unlikely here than it did in II. In fact, Perkins and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue tried to convince Universal to let them end it on a poignant note, but the studio refused and slapped on the strangest ending that, honestly, I loved as a kid, but knowing how perfectly it all could have ended it just makes me angry now.

There are some beautiful moments in III that you just don't see in your typical slasher film. The shot of Norman sitting in the dark playing the piano just so happens to be the film's haunting theme composed by Carter Burwell, which is my all-time favorite horror movie score. Perkins encouraged the cast and crew to watch the Coen Brother's Blood Simple from which he drew inspiration, another film featuring Burwell's work. We spend a lot of time alone with Norman, in the stillness and silence of his mansion, as he indulges in taxidermy and plopping spoonfuls peanut butter onto Ritz Crackers, feeling uneasy that the stuffing of birds is happening at such close proximity. We witness his struggles, the fighting of his own inner demons, and his sadness. There is unbearable weight of loneliness that Perkins has captured starting with since the first film - at his most conscious he knows that he must separate himself from people to keep them out of harm's way, but he also needs companionship, and dammit, he tries. There's a lot of remorse, captured both in quiet moments and in the screenplay.
Take for example the dialogue from the scene in Statler's Cafe where Norman discusses his past with a Los Angeles journalist who is writing an article on "the insanity defense and the rehabilitation of mentally ill murderers..."

Tracy: "We always hear the objections of the victims and their relatives, but in a way, murderers, who can't help themselves, are victims, too. Your point of view would be important to me."

Norman: "I understand. My cure couldn't cure the hurt I caused. My return to sanity didn't return the dead, there's no way to make up that loss. The past... is never really past. It stays with me all the time, and no matter how hard I try I can't really escape. It's always there, throbbing inside you, coloring your perceptions of the world and, sometimes, controlling them."

There's also a love story in III, not only with the corpse of the girl from the toilet but also with a suicidal nun-on-the-run who accidentally committed murder herself. This is classic stuff. You get to see Norman on an actual date in a restaurant, among actual people, attempting to be an actual human being... something that we know in our gut at this point in the series he is utterly incapable of. You can read in his eyes as they dance that he desperately wants love, but knows he can never have it. "What should we toast to?" asks Maureen. "Happiness." says Norman. The most heartbreaking dialogue is in the hospital scene...

Norman: "People should look out for each other, don't you think? We sometimes get lost, but if there'd only been someone looking out for us, to help us understand, maybe we wouldn't do some of the sad, awful things we do."

The movie continuously flips from heartfelt, to hilarious, to disturbingly bizarre. The drifter known as Duke is slimy and fun, and I really enjoy watching him go from cool to batshit crazy. The performance by Jeff Fahey is fantastic. Hugh Gillin as Sheriff John Hunt is a comfort in both films, you may remember him as the mayor in Back to the Future: Part III, he's great in thirds, I suppose. In both movies you feel he really cares for Norman. I just feel safe when he's around. Plus watching him unknowingly swallow bloody ice cubes is the funniest scene in all the Psycho movies. I also love seeing a college party happening at the Bates Motel, we rarely see the place overrun with guests and it creates all kinds of trouble for poor, crazy Norman. The movie is filled with great, dark dialogue...

Maureen: "I guess I did leave the bathroom a mess."

Norman: "I've seen worse."

Psycho III, even with the cryptic ending slapped on by the studio who was no doubt hoping for another sequel, is the perfect ending for this franchise. Free or not, Norman has exercised the demons and is going away. He'll never get out again.
Cut to Psycho IV: The Beginning. I never liked the VHS box art as a kid, it just seemed cheap, like it was straight-to-video quality. It was one step above that; made for Showtime. However, it was written by Joseph Stefano who adapted the Hitchcock original, starred Perkins, was introduced on cable by Janet Leigh, and featured Henry Thomas (Elliot from E.T.) as a young Norman Bates, Olivia Hussey as Mother, and... is that John Landis? Yep. The fourth installment was probably most significant to me because it was the only sequel filmed at Universal Studios Florida, and the Bates mansion still stood when I visited as a child, ironically right next to the E.T. Adventure. I was in awe standing in its presence. My family would frequent the old Hard Rock Cafe and my only request was always to visit the back patio to get a glimpse of the house on the hill. It was magic. That was my Cinderella Castle. At this point, Perkins had passed away and in my mind his soul inhabited that set.

Many years later I would stand in the exact spot where the mansion once resided, the house now gone and replaced with a Curious George playground, wearing a Universal Orlando name tag and spieling about the legacy of Psycho to my V.I.P. Experience trainers, David and Alina. Standing next to a Woody Woodpecker cutout, I connected the bird with Psycho III (Burwell's score even echoes and distorts Woody's theme song as the cartoon plays in the background of a scene, it's wonderful) in a passionate 10-minute speech that ultimately landed my job as a tour guide. I had made my way from the hills of Tennessee to working at the very theme park that made me a movie geek, and my new job was to talk about the things I loved. Life was good.

If I wouldn't have visited Universal when I was young, I wouldn't have experienced the Hitchcock attraction that made me fall in love with movies. Not only movies, but with filmmaking itself. In which case this blog wouldn't exist. My love for storytelling might have never been realized. That passion for entertainment exploded from within me right there in that theme park when I was a kid, and I returned from Orlando immediately wanting to consume classic films, that same week tuning into AMC and watching Tony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out with my mom, so excited to dive head first into movie marathons... there were so many movies to watch and I didn't know where to begin! The fact is that I wouldn't have explored films obsessively or moved to Orlando after college to pursue a career in theme parks, a road that eventually led me to Hollywood, without Psycho. The first film books I ever bought were on the making of Psycho (I also bought the Bloch novels, but I didn't like that his Norman was... gross.)

I'll never forget the day that I landed a job at the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. It was the greatest day of my life. Only a month prior I considered buying a very expensive VIP Tour ticket solely for the advertised photo op in front of the Bates house. From the top of the parking garage I stood looking out at the Psycho set and just took in the moment. That very house had inspired me since childhood, and there it was, now part of my workplace. Kids had made fun of me for loving those movies, but those films never stopped speaking to me. I moved around a lot as a kid and was at times quite lonely, I think it was Norman's loneliness that I related to. There's a poetry to his performance that hits me on the deepest level. I sometimes forget these are horror movies. My favorite single frame of film from any of the Psycho movies is when Norman returns to the house from his dinner with Marion in the parlor. He just sits there at the kitchen table, alone. What is going through his head? It's an incredible shot and I related to it.
On into my career at Universal, I was stopped by security late one night when I decided to venture out to the Psycho set after hours. It was midnight and I could see the security truck approaching me from afar. He shined a flashlight in my eyes and asked for I.D. I thought I was getting fired. He asked what I was doing and I told him I was walking the Lot trying to memorize my Studio Tour script in silence. He let me continue on my way and, after trekking through the War of the Worlds set in dark, I arrived. I sat on the steps of the Bates mansion reflecting, just staring up at that iconic piece of gothic architecture. I'm sure that the Studio Tour guides or Norman performers would have thought I was strange and silly to walk out there so late at night just to sit there, but it was a spiritual trek for me. Tradition soon became arriving for work early, Starbucks in hand, and enjoying coffee on the steps of the Psycho set before the Park opened... I have so many selfies and videos from the motel, it's ridiculous. I studied these films as a kid and now here I was, right where they were filmed it, even the Hitchcock original.

I had studied Perkins' life and career as a kid, reading biographies like Split Image and watching everything from Lucky Stiff to Edge of Sanity. I was nervous to rent Crimes of Passion in 8th grade, but I secretly did it anyways. Falling in love with movies is what created a dialogue with the people who I now consider my best friends. It has landed me multiple jobs and has ultimately shaped my life. Without a passion for film and theme parks, I honestly don't know where (or who) I'd be.

When I landed a promotion at Universal to Supervisor of Entertainment Operations, I quickly got myself in trouble with HR for filming a documentary about Psycho's legacy in relation to the theme park, which was intended to be used as a training video. I worried, once again, that I was getting fired. I was told to surrender the footage in which I interviewed the Park's creative director, John Murdy, and all the performers who played Norman. I even filmed one performer's set from every possible angle (even from inside the trunk of Marion's car) and edited it all together. I was told to cease and desist. So I did.

I'll never forget the first email that I sent to repair the rotting steps that the performers use at the house for Halloween Horror Nights as it became a safety concern, or the ribbon cutting to celebrate a trailer upgrade for the actors, complete with Psycho-themed Voodoo Donuts, or teaching day one orientation for new hires and educating them on the history of that set. There was also a failed attempt at an outdoor screening of Psycho at the Bates Motel, which I'm still hoping they figure out one day. We even had Janet Leigh's original body-double for the shower scene, Marli Renfro, on site one day and she autographed a photo for me that read "Be careful taking a shower!" Visits to the Psycho house on a daily basis was now officially part of my salaried job. What is life? Psycho screened at the Universal Cinema for one night only and I, of course, had to attend. Who was sitting behind me but the entire cast and crew of Bates Motel! The entire movie was spent listening in on Freddie Highmore making Norman jokes and observations with writer/producer Kerry Ehrin. What a magical night at the movies!

So now, here I sit, alone at 12:30 a.m. with the Psycho III Blu-ray from Shout! Factory spinning in the background. I've grown, as has the video presentation of both films. As bad as the Universal Home Video release was, does anyone remember that GoodTimes DVD? Ew. (At one point I even met with the Director of Universal Archives & Collections to inquire about what materials the studio had on hand from the sequels, but there was nothing.) I'm reflecting on my five-years spent at Universal, where I reached a high point donning suits and filling theaters on the Lot with an audience of Studio Tour guides to perform Q&As with cinema legends like John Landis (yes, we discussed Psycho IV), Joe Dante, and Tippi Hedren. With Tippi, surrounded onstage by fake birds, we discussed the magic of being on the Lot, and what her first job in the industry was like, starring in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Life had become surreal. This is what I had dreamed of as a kid in my bedroom, watching these same people interviewed on my DVDs and thinking, "I want to be a part of that."
(Me on the Psycho set)
As with most people who pack their bags and move to Los Angeles on a whim, I'm still searching for what it is I'm meant to do. I'm working on a novel, assisting with some studio projects, and feverishly using my blog as an excuse to continue talking to anyone in this industry who will open their door and drop some knowledge and inspiration.

Sometimes it's easy to feel lost and alone in that process of finding your place in the world, even when surrounded by people who love you, and in those moments it is vital to remind yourself how far you've come, and what it is that got you to where you are. For me, it was sitting alone in my bed at midnight as a child watching my brand new Psycho VHS, seeing the big reveal at the end of the film that truly shocked me, and while experiencing the high that I was on from being completely engrossed in movie magic, I knew I was ultimately, somehow, bound for Los Angeles. There were many other movies and filmmakers along the way that would become a new obsession, but I'll never forget the origin of finding my passion, in the belly of the beast, with the house that Hitch built.

The point of this post is, ultimately, to both remind and encourage you to celebrate your fandom. When someone puts you down for the things you love, or you're worried about how others might think of you as silly for indulging as a fervent fan in whatever it is that makes you happy, remind yourself of why you love those things and how they've helped you cope with life. They might call you crazy, but hey, we all go a little mad sometimes.

From Corman to Classes: A Conversation with Katt Shea

Katt Shea's death in Psycho III shocked me as a kid, not that I didn't see it coming, the movie makes sure to let you know she's Norman's next victim, but the knife to her throat as she sat on the toilet was so real it made me gasp. In a much cruder slaughter than that of Janet Leigh's Marion Crane in 1960, Shea's character is then stabbed in the stomach as she collapses to her death, grasping the toilet paper that drops with her to the floor, much in the same way that the curtain did in the infamous shower scene... the moment capped with Norman, played for the third time by Anthony Perkins in his directorial debut, using his knife to stop the roll from further unspooling, which always makes the audience laugh from its intended silliness. It only gets stranger and more perverse from there.

I had the realization that Norman's victim was director Katt Shea long after seeing Poison Ivy, and making the connection was a gleeful moment. I immediately sought out her other films with an appropriate amount of guilt for not being aware of her work sooner. She seems to have flown under the Hollywood radar, but how? She has such a distinct style as a filmmaker, which I'm sure is why Ellen DeGeneres is producing her next effort, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, and tonight the New Beverly Cinema showcases three of her films, including my favorite of hers, Streets starring Christina Applegate. To celebrate the occasion, below is my conversation with Shea from 10 years ago when I discovered her work in 2009. 

Jason AndersLet's start with your acting career, specifically with being directed by the legendary Anthony Perkins. 

Katt Shea: Anthony was under a lot of pressure as he was starring in and directing his first feature film. Not only that, it was for a huge studio and part of a franchise, and that was pretty difficult to live up to. Psycho was a masterpiece, and Psycho III was memorably brilliant.

Anthony was appropriately stressed out. I had a relatively small part, and I think I created a little bit of respite for him. I was using being on the set as a directing lesson. I essentially became his leading lady, although I was dead for 3/4 of my screen time. I tried to make him laugh as much as possible, and it worked. It was a very flirtatious, by the nature of our parts, and fun relationship. He didn't really fall for my character until after she was dead.

I actually had a lot of interaction on the set. I knew I was going to be directing Stripped To Kill, and that this would likely be my last acting job. Mike Westmore (The Raging Bull) was my makeup artist, and he was instrumental in my convincing Roger Corman to allow me to make Stripped To Kill, which required prosthetic makeup, which Mike was willing to build for me for cost. The movie involved a male posing as a stripper, this was long before The Crying Game, and Roger didn't think it would be possible. Mike was part of my arsenal that convinced him. So Psycho III was a key element in my directing career. How funny is that? The guy who won an Academy Award for makeup in Raging Bull, exploding eyes and such, was applying my foundation and blush! Also Bruce Surtees shot the film, and he was very open to my asking him questions regarding shots.

You worked with Roger Corman more than once...

I wrote Dance of the Damned with Andy Ruben. It was always a process of including the elements Roger wanted into the script and story that Andy and I envisioned. We always had very high aspirations. Roger didn't discourage that, in fact I think he was proud of it, but he wanted to make sure his style of commercial elements were included.

When did you know that you wanted to be a director?

I was directing plays I'd written in my backyard when I was twelve. I was a total misfit and didn't have any friends, so that's what I did instead. I recruited younger kids from the neighborhood, and their parents paid me to put them in my productions. I made some pretty good money, actually. Helped put me through college. Yay for being a misfit! Yay for not having friends! As for enjoying filmmaking, I love working with actors and working with the camera, getting the good stuff on film.

What do you feel has been your strongest moment as a filmmaker?

I don't know what my strongest moment on film is. I guess that's for someone else to judge. I'll bet it is either Streets or Poison Ivy, although there was a really strong memorable moment in The Rage: Carrie 2.

Actors seem to have such high regard for you as their director...

Actors know that they are the most important part of the filmmaking experience for me. Even if I'm doing an incredible shot that takes precedence for the moment, they still know that I am with them all the way and there to help them give the performance of their life.

Tell me about your acting workshop. 

The workshop is mind-blowing. It puts actors in touch with their instincts in a way that is more effective than anything they've ever done before. It frees them up. Acting becomes fun again, it becomes the amazing experience they expected it to be when they started, and then the pressure of the business is taken away.

One of the reasons I started teaching again was because Angelina Jolie came and auditioned for the lead in a script I wrote. She'd already done Hackers, but she just couldn't deliver in the room. She didn't get the part. I knew she was wonderful and I knew she could do it, but it wasn't happening. That experience inspired me to put together the exercises that would free up an actor to deliver under any circumstances. Actors in my classes find their joy and really have fun again. If they haven't worked in a while, they often book a job.

What are three of your favorite films?

Dog Day Afternoon, The Philadelphia Story, and Pale Rider.

What is one important nugget of knowledge you feel that every individual who is trying to break into the entertainment industry should know?

The thing that is most often criticized about you in the real world might just be your genius in the entertainment business.

Writing in Ink & Paint: A Conversation with Author Mindy Johnson

Award-winning author and historian Mindy Johnson drops by Fülle Cr. to discuss her critically acclaimed books for Disney, Tinkerbell: An Evolution and Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation. She also contributed to Taschen's The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies (1921 - 1968). In the latter, she writes poetically and in great detail about Peter Pan and Cinderella, her commentary being worth the admission price alone. We discuss all of the above and more below!

Jason Anders: I am sitting here with your book, Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation, overwhelmed by the exhaustive effort that went into this study - where did the idea to research the women of Disney animation come from, and what were your first steps in bringing it to life? 

Mindy Johnson: I had completed my previous book, Tinker Bell - An Evolution, and noticed that the portions I'd included on the Ink & Paint/color aspects of Tinker Bell's development were the most anyone had explored about that part of the animation production process to that point. I pitched the idea of a book exploring the world of Ink & Paint - to be honest, my editor and I both thought it would be a charming 'little' book. Happily, we were wrong! It quickly became clear this was an epic story and this couldn't be a small book!
Do you remember how your fascination with Disney began?

Sunday nights as a young girl fascinated with a certain fairy who darted her way across our television screen each week!

When did you decide to pursue writing as a profession? What challenges did you face from that moment to publishing your first book?

With a background in music, film and education, writing had been a part of my life for some time, but the notion of writing a book presented a new challenge. Researching any subject can present a wide range of 'rabbit holes' that take you down paths you couldn't possibly imagine, or lead to complete dead-ends, but that's the fun of the writing adventure!

In addition to being a writer you are also a musician, songwriter, playwright, and teacher...

I enjoy the diversity of each of these disciplines. Often diving into another creative avenue can offer fresh perspective on what you're pursuing in another creative outlet. 
Where did the inspiration to write Tinker Bell: An Evolution come from?

I was mounting a campaign for a re-release of Peter Pan for the Studio and was exploring the artwork at the Animation Research Library for something unusual -- a new way to tell the story of this animated masterpiece. A staff member mentioned there was a folder that held a number of fairy images and they were all possibly Tinker Bell, but when we examined the folder, they looked nothing like the Tinker Bell we know and love. Thus began a seven year journey to connect the dots on the 'evolution' of this tiny fairy. Since she's one of my favorite characters, this book was a complete joy to write. I traveled to London several times for research and had the great privilege of reviewing J.M. Barrie's papers, photographs and materials - including leafing through a number of the small notebooks - his 'Fairy Notes' that he carried in his coat jacket to jot down ideas and notions about his writing. You could still smell his pipe tobacco seeped into the pages! 

Your pieces in Taschen's Walt Disney Film Archives book are so masterfully written - did you select the subjects or where they assigned to you by the editor?

I received an email from the Taschen editor inquiring about the possibility of writing these specific sections. With my Peter Pan experiences and, as Cinderella is also one of my favorite animated films, it was a perfect fit, but my main purpose for writing these segments was the ability to be showcasing the brilliant work of Mary Blair! She made such delicious color and style choices on these two films. It was a great joy to examine her work further and to cast light on the impact her artistry had on these films!
What is your favorite Disney animated film?

Cinderella holds a special place in my heart, but the same can be said of most of the animated classics from Walt Disney. From my work on Ink & Paint, I have a new found understanding of the artistry involved with each production and there is something magic about each of these films -- it's too hard to choose just one!

You're referred to as a Disney Creative Consultant - what does that title entail?

That's an all-encompassing title which covers a wide range of things from creating original content on various projects, writing books and/or producing docu-series for the new Disney Streaming service Disney+!

Reading Ink & Paint it feels like this project must have been a true journey for you personally...

It was - and continues to be - quite a journey! It was about five years of extensive research, interviews and writing which involved such adventures as from digging under people's beds and into closets to find artwork, photographs and materials that had never been published before, to finding a number of remarkable women who became dear friends and who granted me the privilege of sharing their stories and artistry.

What is your advice for writers pursuing a career similar to yours?

Find something that you enjoy and keeps you curious - it'll be a constant presence and a large part of your life, but well-worth the journey!
Tell me about your new book due out next year, Pencils, Pens & Brushes.

Absolutely! This delightful volume has been a joy to work on! In the writing of Ink & Paint, there were some remarkable backstories to so many of these unsung artists. Telling their stories for younger readers has long been in my mind and I'm elated this treasure is happening. It's perfect for all ages and I'm thrilled to have the brilliant artistry of Lorelay Bove' featured throughout this celebration of these accomplished women!  Pencils, Pens & Brushes - A Great Girls Guide to Disney Animation releases August 19th!

Purchase all of Mindy Johnson's books HERE

Dancing Hippos in America: A Conversation with Author Mindy Aloff

Mindy Aloff has published essays, interviews, and articles on dance, literature, film, music, and other cultural subjects in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, and more. She is a renowned dance critic and scholar, analyzing dance in Disney animation for her Disney Editions book, Hippo in a Tutu. With her newest publication, Dance in America, she spans three centuries with the biggest anthology on American dance ever published. She stopped by Fülle Cr. to discuss these projects and more.

Jason Anders: So let's jump right into your newest work, a book called Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation, which studies dance in Disney's animated shorts and features; you have been a professional critic and teacher of dance for quite some time, and have even written a book called Dance Anecdotes, which contains stories about dancing all over the globe. So why Disney for the subject of your book, and when did the idea first come to you?

Mindy Aloff: The idea for the book, as such, wasn't mine: it was a longtime concept of an editor at Disney Editions, Christopher Caines, who is also a working choreographer - and, not incidentally, the author of the title, Hippo in a Tutu. He noticed that although there was a fair amount of published writing about music at Disney there was little about dance, and he thought such a study could fill in an important gap. Around six years ago he approached me with the suggestion that I might write the book; I drafted a proposal and the editorial director of Disney Editions, Wendy Lefkon, liked it... even though I didn't have an animation background.

However, the reason that Christopher tapped me was that nearly ten years before, in the early 1990s, I'd written two stories about dance in animated films. One, assigned by the dance editor of The Village Voice, was based on a festival of Warner Bros. cartoons at Film Forum in SoHo during which I saw 100 shorts in a row and stumbled into the street with the conviction that, as far as dance went, Disney exhibited more understanding and technical prowess. This story was never published.

The second, much more abbreviated, was one of the published Dance columns I wrote for the "Goings on about Town" section of The New Yorker, to which I contributed between 1989 and 1993. In 350 words or so, I evaluated dancing in Disney and Warner's and explained why, with respect to the dance passages of its animated films, Disney was my preference. Others in Great Britain had also written about dancing and Disney around that time: you can read the lovely 1989 essay "Disney's Dances" by Alastair Macaulay (now the chief dance critic at The New York Times) originally published in The Dancing Times and reprinted in Robert Gottlieb's new anthology, Reading Dance. The subject was in the air. I was just very lucky that Disney Editions reached out to me.
Tell me about the process of tackling this subject matter. 

It was nothing if not research. I began by going through the John Canemaker Collection at New York University's Bobst Library: a huge compendium of writings and art that John had used in the course of writing his many Disney histories and donated to the library. It was there where I first encountered some of the meticulous transcripts that recorded the story conferences of Walt Disney and his staff during the 1930s and early '40s. My favorite was one on Alice in Wonderland, which languished for several decades in development: in the transcript, Walt Disney spends a heartbreaking amount of time trying to figure out the psychological reasons why certain events in the Lewis Carroll books happen in the sequence they do. Reading it, I kept wanting to leap through time into the conference room and whisper into Mr. Disney's ear, "But Charles Dodgson was a mathematician, and these sequences play out certain math games." No one ever mentions that fact in the transcript, and it would have saved the team so much vexation!

While in New York, I also set up a 90-minute oral history interview at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with Marge Champion, the live-action reference dancer for Snow White, the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, the Twirling Blossom in the "Nutcracker Suite" section of Fantasia, and for Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia's "Dance of the Hours," which she also choreographed. (An edited version of that interview is included in Hippo in a Tutu.) And I began to buy the DVDs of animated shorts and features by Disney, Warner's, Fleischer, and other studios as Disney had none to lend. I also began to buy books on animation, most of them out of print and many of them not held by area libraries. Happily, one day, in two oversized boxes, a dozen relevant Disney histories arrived at my doorstep from Disney Editions: I could never have afforded them, even used. And I spent days at the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center researching related topics, as well as on the Internet, where I discovered that the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York owned a copy of the 1916 silent live-action feature Snow White, which Walt Disney had so enjoyed as a teenager, and that it was available as part of a DVD box set of American silents, which I was able to track down and (dipping deep into my savings) buy for study.

Disney Editions also set up three trips for me, each a week long, to the company archives in Burbank and Glendale. These were extraordinary experiences. On the first visit, I was able to interview animator Andreas Deja and the co-directors of The Little Mermaid, Ron Clements and John Musker and, over the phone, Kathryn Beaumont - the voice and live-action reference for Alice in Wonderland. I also spoke on the phone with Disney connoisseur Harry Arends and met film producer Les Perkins and other animation historians. Most of the week, though, was spent in the Burbank campus archives with the great Dave Smith and his excellent staff and at the Animation Research Library in Glendale, where archivist Fox Carney produced one treasure after another: inspirational drawings, live-action reference films. On the second trip, I spent all my time in the Burbank archives and at the ARL where archivist Ann Hansen, apprised of my research, brought to the table the full set of pencil drawings that Ub Iwerks made for "The Skeleton Dance", Disney's first Silly Symphony, as well as the art by another hand of Persephone dancing in another early Silly called "The Goddess of Spring."

On the third trip I touched base with both the Burbank archives and the ARL; however, most of it was spent at the Disney Photo Library in Glendale. And there were many conversations and interviews I conducted by telephone and online with the Disney historian Ross Care and most wonderfully of all, with the composer and Disney historian Alexander Rannie, whom I have yet to meet in person but with whom I have spent the equivalent of weeks in conversation through e-mail and over the telephone discussing Disney animation. Alex's unique combination of brilliance, respect for accuracy, collegial generosity, and optimism in the face of bleak doubt have been almost as important to the completion of this book as the spiritual contributions of my daughter, Ariel, and the editorial exactitude and imaginative sympathy of Christopher Caines. At one point, when I thought I'd hit a brick wall in my efforts to find out any information about the second half of the life of Hattie Noel (who served as the live-action reference for the body of Hyacinth Hippo), Alex got in his car and drove to libraries as well as through the neighborhood in which she lived. He sent me a report, which I've quoted in the book.

You cannot put a price on the kindness and intellectual curiosity of colleagues like Alex, or Jeff Kurtti, the Disney author and interviewer who, in essence, gave me the entire history of the Disney-Dali collaboration, Destino, and whose family opened their home to me to stay when I couldn't afford a hotel. In the event, the acknowledgments for Hippo in a Tutu spell out all the good souls who contributed to its realization.

Do you have an all-time favorite piece of animation?

For a long time my very favorite was Lotte Reininger's feature-length silhouette cut-out film from the 1920s, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which I saw in college. That is still a stupendous achievement and film of entrancing beauty. However, in the past decade it has been replaced by the animated sequence in the early Ingmar Bergman ballet picture Summer Interlude from the late 1940s. The animation consists of stick figures on the label of a long-playing record which, as the record turns, come to life for a pas de deux. It is both as simple and as profound as a pre-schooler's drawing, and I've never seen anything else quite as emotionally affecting. At one point I wrote to The Ingmar Bergman Foundation in Sweden to find out the name of the animator and the circumstances of the making of the passage and they kindly shared all that information via e-mail. However, when I changed computers, that all got lost. Jean-Luc Godard was once quoted as saying that he thought Summer Interlude was the finest film that Ingmar Bergman ever made; Godard and I agree on this point, and I'm a Bergman fan.

When I was in elementary school my favorite animated moment was when Disney's Lady and the Tramp enjoyed a spaghetti dinner together in an alley. As a very little kid, my favorite was when Peter Pan and the Darling children flew in the night sky.
Do you remember where your love and passion for dance began?

In the Philadelphia Academy of Music on an evening in 1956 when my father took me to see a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The love and passion were born when I saw a ballet by Heinz Rosen called La Dame a la Licorne, about the unicorn tapestries of Cluny. The ballet, I learned later, was a critical disaster, but the image of the ballerina unicorn pointing her toe shoe in a gesture that rhymed with the horn on her mask was the moment I threw in my lot with ballet and art and poetic association.

Let's talk about another book of yours, Dance Anecdotes.

Dance Anecdotes came to me at a moment when I was desperate for work and also had a two-year-old child and aging parents. It was part of a series that Oxford University Press publishes and most of the people who write those books have all the stories at hand. I didn't: I researched. And I had a vision; I wanted to include stories that would show theatrical and nontheatrical dancing as a vocation, even a mission, and I wanted stories that children as well as adults might find of interest. It's a luxury to hold a vision and the result was that the book took me seventeen years to complete. My editor at Oxford, the late great Sheldon Meyer, truly understood me and he waited, serving as editor even after he had retired from the press. I heard that mine was the very last book this wonderful editor worked on. The paperback edition is dedicated to his memory as well as to the memories of my parents, both of whom died in the time I worked on it.

Who are a few of your favorite dancers of all time?

Goodness, there are way too many! But one "dancer" you might not have thought of was the outstandingly graceful baseball player, Satchel Paige.

Are there any other films created by different studios that you feel achieved greatness in their marriage of dance and animation? 

Absolutely! Max Fleischer's studio, Disney's chief competitor during the 1930s, produced dancing sequences that were gorgeously musical, charming, and beautifully drawn. Betty Boop starred in several of them, such as her "Snow White" and "Poor Cinderella." I'd also cite the very simple slow marching dance of Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur, the amazing animations of Lotte Reininger, Alexander Shiryaev, and Wladyslaw Starewicz from just before or just after World War I, Gene Kelly's duet with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, and even the animated credits to The Pink Panther. But you must remember that I'm not an animation historian. I'm missing entire repertories, which I'm sure that your readers will fill in.

Which film do you feel is the prime example of cartoon choreography?


Where did the idea for your new anthology book, Dance in America, originate?

Dance in America is a compendium of other people's writings—seventy-one other people. I wrote an introduction, of course, but I'm not represented in it as a contributor: There was no room. 

In May of 2010 I sent a message to the Library of America's editor-in-chief, Geoffrey O'Brien, to say it was nice to see him at the recent reception for current and former fellows of the Guggenheim Foundation and to ask if he had any time to meet about the “dance writing project” that he and I had discussed at the reception. I had worked with Geoffrey on the reference book he used to edit, The Reader's Catalogue, in the 1990s, as the contributor in the Dance section, and I was teaching my annual “Dance in Film” course at Barnard at the time (Geoffrey often writes about film for The New York Review of Books), and so it was natural for us to speak about dance, film, and—since he was an editor—writing projects. 

At our first meeting in the Library of America offices, Geoffrey and Max Rudin, then LoA's Publisher and now its President, weren't sure that there was enough material for an anthology restricted to American writers and/or American dance. Robert Gottlieb had just published his landmark anthology of international dance writing in English, Reading Dance, and it was nearly 1,400 pages long. Was anything left? But I had some ideas about writings that Bob hadn't chosen. Also, I wanted to include genres of writing outside formal essays or articles: I wanted poems, letters, journal entries, and other unanticipated sources. And I very much wanted authors who are rarely if ever associated with dance as a substantial subject of their work. I've been reading a lot about dancing from the time I was in grade school, and I knew that dance writing is a genre of surprises. To find treasures, sometimes it's necessary to think unconventionally. I spent a lot of time reflecting on the collection and raking my memory as a reader, as well as actively researching and reading material new to me.
What challenges did you face in the research process?

The best part of the research was learning so much—including what the resources were to try to find out anything about whether dance writing existed anywhere from sea to shining sea before the United States of America did! And having to think so hard about what “America” means, especially now, was educational indeed. I also was introduced to the fact that my sense of myself as proficient at basic math was a preconception that had to be revisited. I made three different tables of contents over the years of putting the anthology together, and the first one was 2,000 pages long, with something like a couple of hundred contributors. That's when I learned that I didn't know how to count and had, in my wishful way, considerably overshot my allocated 550 pages of text. I was also introduced to the realities of permissions fees: For instance, the cost of anthologizing some poetry was simply prohibitive for an anthology from Library of America, a nonprofit press. Money counts: Who would have thunk it? 

So, I tried to narrow the collection's focus in every way possible. Early on, I cut the English-language writings I had gathered from Cuba and Canada and the English translations of South American classics, for instance, Jorge Luís Borges's reflections on the tango, the complex and evocative partnered dance of his native Argentina. I regretted that, as the tango has been quite popular and influential in the United States, sometimes in its supple, chess-like, improvisatory Argentinian form, sometimes in its regulated competitive ballroom forms, and sometimes as a staged choreography, such as the tangos that Rudolph Valentino used to do in silent movies or bravura dancers perform in tango revues. The fact that I'm one of those pokey readers who lingers over every word was a huge challenge. Hello, midnight espresso! And then there was the scanning of possible passages from hundreds of books and periodicals. I was very lucky there, as three wonderful Barnard students stepped up to help: Susanna Friscia (now a freelance journalist), Rhitu Risal, and Ariel Rivkin.

What is it that excites you most in writing about dance?

Truly? That I can do it. Dance writing involves so many perceptual skills and so much memory (the fun factor of taking notes in the dark without looking is quite overrated) and so much knowledge about how music and sound and movement and composition and running times for the chaos part and—OMG! What color were the bodices, and were there ten people on stage or twelve?—Well, as the novelist put it, God is in the details; you can see right here how the effort to write about dance can break down the English language and, in certain high-stakes platforms, the critic's very mind. The idea that one might have an opinion, too, and that the opinion is why you were assigned to review the show in the first place, can drive a critic out of the the dance-critic biz altogether and into a new career in sales. Every time, I sit down to the computer and think, “Aloff, you're sunk.”

And then I remind myself—I'm being absolutely literal here—of the most important experience I had concerning the solving of puzzles. For, ultimately, writing is a version of puzzle-solving, sometimes with just a few pieces and sometimes with thousands. Anyway, I was in the seventh-grade math class of the immortal Mr. Sewall at Philadelphia's Beeber Junior High. Mr. Sewall gave the class an assignment of solving a math problem that covered all the blackboards in the classroom and called upon every mathematical procedure we were supposed to have mastered to date. So, I duly copied it and took it home, sure that I'd never get it. I asked my father, an electrical engineer, to help me. But he was of the devil's party, that is, he told me that unless I did it myself it would never count in the largest scheme of things, whatever that is. So, I sat down with pencil and paper and started at the beginning, on the left, and went from required operation to required operation, until, after an hour or so, I arrived at an answer, which I remember to this day: 3/400. Would you think that was the right answer? The fraction was lopsided; it has no je ne sais crois. But it's what I found, and the next day it was what I turned in.

The following day, Mr. Sewall announced that two people in the class had gotten the right answer. One was in decimals, and the girl who had turned it in said that she'd worked on it with her father, and Mr. Sewall nodded approvingly. Don't even think of asking me how I felt! For the second answer, he said that he'd written it on a 3 x 5 card and put it in a sealed but translucent envelope and that, since he was standing next to me, I could read the answer aloud and would the problem solver stand up. He placed his thumb on the envelope so that I could see it was a fraction, and that the top number, the numerator, was a 3. I began to scream. And he moved his thumb on the envelope so I could see that the bottom number, the denominator, was 400. I've never forgotten that lesson: When you think you're lost, intellectually speaking, go forward step by step. It doesn't always get you out of the woods; there are puzzles where you have to somehow put yourself in the zone to provoke an epiphany from absolutely out of the blue to get clear. But step-by-step often does work, and the process has a comforting dimension. I used it the morning of 9/11, when I was on the subway heading uptown to work and my daughter had just taken the subway to her school, ten blocks away from Ground Zero. 

But back to dance reviewing: After re-running that junior-high experience as a talisman, I embark on my first draft. Most puzzles eventually have solutions, and just that knowledge—even if you yourself aren't the one who will solve them—removes the high anxiety attendant on the undoable. And, myth or wish or fiction as that may be for the most rarefied enigmas, the prospect of solution is exciting.
What is one thing you learned while writing this book that you didn't know before?

As the dance historian Joanne Barclay Skoller discovered and wrote about, between 1846 and 1847, the ballet Giselle was performed between 30 and 50 times in Boston, Massachusetts, alone. Think about that: Giselle was given its world première, by the Paris Opéra Ballet, in 1841. And in a mere five years it was being performed across the Atlantic, in just one city (that is, exclusive of the performances in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the U.S.), at least 30 times in a single year. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

What subject would you most like to tackle next?

An encyclopedia of the world's luxury spas, hotels, cruises, and Guide Michelin restaurants. If you're aware of an interested publisher, I'm listening.

Buy Mindy's new book, Dance in America, HERE!