Well-Digger's Daughter: Video Treasure

Directed by Daniel Auteuil
Pathé, 107 minutes, Unrated, in French with subtitles.

Novelist, playwright, and film director Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) was one of the most respected names in 20th century French culture. Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were published collectively in 1963 as L'eau des Collines (Water of the Hills) and attained instant classic status. Few know that Pagnol also made twenty films and was his nation's first filmmaker elected to the Académie française.  Among his titles was 1940's La fille du puisatier (The Well Digger's Daughter). It was remade in 2011, directed by renowned actor Daniel Auteuil, who also stars in it. Auteuil (b. 1950) does Pagnol proud and his film rates as an overlooked gem.

Pagnol was prescient in his anticipation of World War Two. This film opens in the summer of 1939. Whispers of war are in the air, but the pace of life in Provence–the film's physical setting–unfolds according to time-honored rural patterns. Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil) is the titular well digger– a humble, honest, and exceedingly proud man who works hard at his craft. His is an important job in Provence, which is blessed with beauty and a Mediterranean climate, but cursed by exceedingly dry summers. At age 56, Pascal a bit long in the tooth for excavation work done mostly with pick and shovel–with assists from a bit of dynamite and a good-natured assistant named Félipe (Kad Merad). But what choice does he have? He's a widower with six daughters and only one has reached the age of majority: 18-year-old Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). She is Pascal's pride and joy–a considerate, comely lass who went finishing school in Paris, but returned to tend to Pascal and her sisters.

Bergès-Frisbey plays Patricia with a beguiling mix of sophistication and innocence. Her Parisian accent seems exotic to Provence locals, most of whom speak patois, yet she remains a Provençal rustic in all other ways. She is naively unaware of her natural beauty, or that she has acquired just enough polish to charm 26-year-old pilot Jacques Mazel (Nicholas Duvauchelle), the son of a merchant family. In village terms, the well-to-do Mazels are the equivalent of gentry, which places them well above the Amorettis on the social ladder. After just two meetings, Patricia surrenders her virginity to Jacques and finds herself pregnant.

As you can imagine, this complicates things. So too does the calendar. By October, France and Germany are at war and nobody knows what to expect. (For history buffs, the period between October 1939 and April of 1940 was a bit of cat-and-mouse jockeying sometimes called the "Phoney [sic] War." France will fall in June and Provence will eventually be under the Nazi collaborator Vichy government.) But one thing is certain: pilots like Jacques must report for duty–before he even knows about Patricia's condition, as it transpires. And let's not forget about Pascal's self-identity. It is 1939, after all, and an unwed mother-to-be is a synonym for whore. Who will save Pascal's pride? Maybe Félipe? Maybe not.  What ensues is a quintessential clash of wills–between the Amorettis and the Mazels, between Pascal and his equally pigheaded sister Nathalie (Marie-Anne Chazell), and between Pascal and himself. Further complications: Félipe also has his eyes on younger sister Amanda (Émilie Cazenave) and perhaps Patricia has ideas of her own. Plus, there's that pesky war to consider!

If this sounds like a typical French relationship film involving knots and naughtiness, rest assured that this one is a cut above. In some ways it plays like a mash between Far From the Madding Crowd and Ryan's Daughter, yet it's more innocent and playful than either. Although you might not know any of the actors other than Auteuil, it's very nicely acted all around. Auteuil makes us admire his principles one moment and wish to throttle him the next. Bergès-Frisbey deftly walks the tightrope between strong-willed and inexperienced, Cazenave is Auteuil's stubborn equal, and Rambert adds Falstaffian comic relief. Moreover, The Well Digger's Daughter is surprisingly sunny for a film about pride, ruination, betrayal, and war. Or maybe it's those sun-dappled, red-poppy saturated Provençal countryside. That alone makes this a worthy rental/download for a dark winter's night.

Rob Weir


Hanna-Barbera at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
Through May 29, 2017.

Remember the playground cartoon wars: Disney or Warner Brothers? It was a false debate, as those weren't the only two choices. "Woody Woodpecker" came from Walter Lantz Studios, Terrytoons cranked out  "Mighty Mouse" and Heckle and Jeckle," and the first important TV 'cartoon was "Crusader Rabbit" from Jay Ward (who morphed Crusader and Rags into "Rocky and Bullwinkle"). Back then, I swallowed the duality and fiercely supported the superiority of Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies) and I still insist that Bugs, Daffy, Road Runner, and Tweety kick the collective butts of Mickey, Donald, Goofy and other saccharine Disney offerings.

In truth, though, my childhood was shaped by Hanna-Barbera, as a new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum reminded me. It's subtitled "The Architects of Saturday Morning" and that's fairly accurate. Classic Disney and Warner Brothers productions were made for movies, not television. "Crusader Rabbit first aired in 1948, but fewer than half of American homes had a television until 1954. In 1956, Hanna-Barbera began airing cartoons aimed at Baby Boomers and ended up fashioning the Saturday morning experience of an entire generation.

William Hanna (1910-2001) and Joseph Barbera (1911-2006) came through the usual ranks–training as artists, working in studio animation units, and serving apprenticeships under the great Tex Avery–but they were also the Odd Couple of sketchpads and gel cells. Hanna was as plodding and unpretentious as Wally Gator, whereas Barbera was as plotting and flamboyant as Top Cat. Their partnership began on the silver screen with a short titled "Puss Gets the Boot," from whence Tom and Jerry emerged. They jumped ship just as the small screen went viral, but soon discovered that movie studios were better staffed than 1950s television. The Rockwell exhibit displays many of the original hand-drawn cartoon cells. It also reminds us that, at 24 frames per second, it took 10,000 cells for a single seven-minute cartoon! Watch some old 'toons and notice that backgrounds and chase scenes are often static or redundant. To hand draw changing backgrounds for each cell would have been a herculean task.

Suggestion: Look at a few cells and then do a fast walk through of the exhibit to get a sense of the scope of the Hanna-Barbera output. Here's a short list: Auggie Doggie, Atom Ant, The Flintstones,  Huckleberry Hound, the Jetsons, Johnny Quest, Lippy the Lion, Magilla Gorilla, Quick Draw McGraw, the Pink Panther, Ruff and Reddy, Scooby-Doo, the Smurfs, Snagglepuss, Snooper and Blabber, Top Cat, and the immortal Yogi Bear (and Boo-Boo too). Then spend time with your favorites and play with a cool interactive screen that gives data, short clips, and little known facts on the various characters.

Take a close look at the artwork and you'll notice deep similarities between characters such as Yogi, Ranger Smith, George Jetson, Huckleberry Hound, and many others. (Look closely as their jaws, muzzles, noses, five o'clock shadows, and eye alignments.) If it looks as if it might have been akin to assembly line production, you're on the right track. Past animation was the opposite of today's razzle- dazzle visuals that render storylines secondary. The Hanna-Barbera formula was to develop iconic characters and storyboard a compelling narrative, which gave them a witty, clever vibe that's hard to top. They were also sharper and more vivid. Digital technology is more flexible and (perhaps) more realistic, but it's not necessarily better art.

Seeing this exhibit is the most fun you're likely to have in a museum all year. There is also poignancy and sadness on display as well. Warner Brothers absorbed Hanna-Barbera in 2001, and Saturday morning cartoons officially died in 2016, though they had been terminal since the 1990s. The 'toons fell prey to misguided attacks on children's television, unwise content shifts in the cartoon industry, and diminished imagination.

You might recall Peggy Charren and Action for Children's Television. From 1968 on, there were relentless attacks on cartoons that yielded regulations. (Remember how "Road Runner" was deemed too violent?) Some of the new rules were wise (like banning direct advertising aimed at kids), but by 1973, children's programming was pared to just 12 minutes per hour; by 1996, all the networks combined could have no more than 36 hours per week. Must have been all those kids running off of cliffs like Wile E. Coyote! Or was it serious people ruining our world? (I'm gong with the second option.)

Cartoonists also bear some blame for forgetting that animal characters are time-tested; they are fabliaux on a gel cell. Making characters more "realistic" wasn't the best idea. "The Jestons" was beloved, but it was just a family sit-com set in the future. (It was also spawned the derivative "Flintstones," which exchanged the imagine future for a mythical past.) I know loads of Gen Xers loved "Scooby-Doo," but it too flunked the imagination sniff test. And then there was dreck like "Powder Puff Girls," "The Banana Splits," "Teen Titans," and "The Space Kidettes." The more "real" cartoons became, the less interesting they became. Kids watched 'toons because they were unrealistic; not because they wanted to work out anxieties or improve self-esteem.

The final blow came when cartoons ceased trying to be original. Many became cartoon versions of live shows (e.g. "The Partridge Family," "Bewitched"), extended advertisements ("G.I. Joe," "The Transformers"), or baby versions of older cartoons and were so inane they bored toddlers out of their diapers. By the late 1990s, the homogenized Disney worldview was triumphant and the salad days of Saturday morning existed only on cable Cartoon Network and not so much there either. It was fun while it lasted. I'm glad to relive those days, though I'm sad it was in a museum.

Rob Weir


Peter Paul and Mary Retrospective a Balm for Troubled Times

Directed and produced by Jim Brown
MVD Visual, 78 minutes, Unrated.

Let's start 2017 off right. My album and movie of the month are the same: 50 Years with Peter Paul and Mary. Feeling dispirited about life in modern America? Take a 78-minute dose of this outstanding documentary and you won't need to call me in the morning. This one is filled with all of the classic PP & M hits, a veritable potpourri stretching from "Blowing in the Wind" to "Wedding Song."

The film is a love letter to the trio and I will grant that it's an expurgated missive–one that only hints at downsides such as Mary Travers' four marriages, or Peter Yarrow's alcoholism battle and his 1970 conviction for making sexual passes at a 14-year-old girl. Mainly it deals with unpleasantness by showing the group's meteoric and confusing rise; and by placing them within the chaos of the era in which it occurred. The trio presaged other PR-created bands such as The Monkees and The Sex Pistols. If you never thought you'd see PP & M in the same sentence with such company, read on. Producer Albert Grossman created Peter Paul and Mary from nothing in 1961. Mary Travers (1936-2009) was a Red Diaper baby who was weaned on Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and union activism. She dropped out of high school to become a member of a group called the Song Swappers but, by 1961, was seen as talented but too independent; Grossman's first choice, Carolyn Hester, turned him down. Peter Yarrow was a minor solo artist at the time, and. Grossman originally wanted Dave Van Ronk, but chose Stookey–an unknown–when he decided Van Ronk wasn't commercial enough. Originally, being commercial was what it was all about. The Folk Revival was near its peak and acoustic music was white hot. Thus was born Peter Paul and Mary, a name chosen for its Christian/Biblical suggestiveness, though two of its central figures were Jews (Grossman and Yarrow) and Paul was only Stookey's middle name.

Grossman was such a brilliant promoter that PP & M were "stars" from the get-go­; their 1962 debut album contained two songs that charted: "Lemon Tree" (# 35) and "If I Had a Hammer" (#10). Word of mouth and glowing reviews led to a second album, Moving, in 1962 and a #1 single: "Puff the Magic Dragon." (As the video notes, it was just a cute song and the anachronistic pot metaphors are simply folklore.) The rest, as the saying goes, is history. From "Puff" onward, the trio recorded eight more albums and charted with 17 other singles. Their 1963 cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" reached # 2; Dylan's original didn't chart! (Little known fact: Dylan has never had a # 1 hit.) 1969, PP & M topped the charts once again with "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Peter Paul & Mary were the ultimate cover band; they only wrote a handful of their own songs: "Puff," "Day is Done," "I Dig Rock and Roll Music," and "Wedding Song" among them. Instead they performed what many listeners came to see as "definitive" versions of songs from others: "Jet Plane" (John Denver), "Early Morning Rain" (Gordon Lightfoot), "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (Ewan MacColl), "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (Pete Seeger), "There But for Fortune " (Phil Ochs), "Don't Think Twice" (Dylan)….

If you wonder why, the video answers with its glorious concert footage. PP & M made the successful transition from beatnik bohemianism to political folk and pop stars through sheer talent and evolving values. If PP & M strike you as sedate and overly packaged, watch and listen carefully. First, consider those amazing three-part harmonies. (If you think they're easy, you try harmonizing with Mary Travers!) Both Stookey and Yarrow were far better guitar players than most realize, each wielding their instruments with verve, command, and driving energy. And there is a reason why Ms. Travers gets credit for inspiring generations of female musicians. Watch it for yourself. Give Mary Travers a song in 4/4 and watch her sock the first beat with a right uppercut and nail it the floor with a left hook on the three. She has been oft imitated, but seldom matched. Say what you want about how they cleaned up songs, tamed Dylan's rebellious spirit, or made pretty music that was supposed to be angry. Say it, because you'll find yourself singing along and smiling the whole way through the video.

Whatever you do, don't label PP & M a bunch of commercial phonies. The video captures wonderfully the trio's political evolution–their work with Central American campesinos, their commitment to civil rights and peace movements, Stookey's deepening spirituality, Yarrow's redemption, and Travers' discovery of feminism. Name your cause–PP & M walked in the footsteps of musician activists such as Seeger, Ochs, and Joan Baez. After musing upon the chaos of the 1960s and 1970s, think also upon the grace they achieved moving forward. Try to stay dry-eyed as Yarrow and Stookey reflect upon Travers' death from leukemia in 2009.   

This is an uplifting video that blends interviews, anecdotes, recollections, and concert footage. Idealism is the glue that holds together changing styles, ideals, and the passage of time. It made me nostalgic, but also hopeful. Lord knows we can use all the hope we can get.

Rob Weir