The Story Of Anyone’s Life


It’s a good time to write a biography, in case you’re thinking of doing such a thing. There are more people who’ve been alive now than there ever have been before. And that’s a trend that just isn’t going to change anytime soon. There’s already more than eight people ready to be biographied for every person able to write one. Or you can just write about Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, or Abraham Lincoln again because you thought of some more stuff about him.

You do have to pick some subject, though. You can get a ways into the book without having one in mind, if you focus your efforts on the preface. There you can point out how you’re interested in getting at the truth, and that you’ve been hard at work examining original documents. And that you’re grateful for the assistance of a long list of people with three names each. Maybe thank a university press while you’re at it. They need the support and almost nobody visits them just to hug. But a good preface can only go as long as 58 pages before even the people who’re looking to see if their names get thanked get rebellious and try to take over the book.

Once you’ve picked a subject you can fill out the first chapter, in which you describe the subject’s death. This is an important scene for any biographer because it assures the reader that at some point the subject dies and the book will end. Oh, electronic books have made it theoretically possible to keep on writing more book before anybody can finish reading it. But there are practical objections. People can skim faster than you can write, for example. If you want to keep ahead of them you’re going to have to start describing how the subject read other biographies. Then include those. It helps you out doing this trick if you remember there’s more biographies now than there ever were before. And that’s another trend that’s going to keep going. But at some point even electronic books are going to run out of storage space and you might have to end mid-word. This could embarrass someone who might even be you.

If your subject hasn’t died, you have to be more careful writing the funeral scene. Since it’ll be in the future, your description of the details of what the day will be like and what people will be doing will be kind of science fiction. This should date your book hilariously by the time the predicted date comes to pass or else you’re doing it wrong. That could be an opportunity, admittedly. If you can be really extremely dated at least people will go looking up the funniest bits about what you wrote. But they’ll only quote the funniest parts and not think to laugh at the rest of your biography.

A danger in writing biographies is you can come out thinking worse of your subject. That’s all right if you go in writing a biography of someone you don’t like. Critics might ask why you’re doing a biography of someone you don’t like. “Why hate-biography,” they’d ask, “when there’ve been more likable people now than ever before?” You can answer, “Shouldn’t we know everything possible about the person who single-handedly fed the moon to Truman Capote?” If you can’t get away while they’re working that question out you aren’t trying hard enough. Maybe you need advice from a professional biographers’ association. Maybe you need better sneakers.

But there’s still hazards even if you still mostly like the subject by the end. For example you figure on how Thomas Edison was a bright, perceptive man with a keen sense for what was possible and desirable. Then you remember he spent seven years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to make dolls stuffed full of record players. Maybe you can get back your esteem for him from that. If you forget that he went from the record-player-doll project to stomping around New Jersey rock quarries shouting “MORE MAGNETS!” at any ore that would listen. And you just know some of that rock was magnesiochromite.

Well. Sometimes you have to take the risk, and biography someone who turns out to be a drip. It’s an important lesson and a turning point in the biography someone’s writing about you. Good luck.

Krazy Kat in: Weenie Roast


Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:


There was never a time sound wasn’t possible for motion pictures. The earliest motion pictures in the United States were made by Thomas Edison and his staff; it would take a certain peculiar obliviousness to not think of marrying their sound recording devices to their moving-picture recording devices. But practical sound pictures, well, that’s a bigger challenge. Having the sound on a device separate from the film is an obvious practical problem: even if the picture is synchronized perfectly to start, keeping it synchronized, especially as the film breaks and has to be repaired, is hard to solve. Then, too, a moving picture can be presented to a larger crowd basically by projecting it at a screen farther away; for a record player to be heard by more people requires making it louder, which would have to wait for good amplification technology to come.

After several false starts sound pictures finally caught on in the late 1920s, and somewhat remarkably it changed cartoons as well as live-action pictures. Live-action pictures took a couple years to quite adapt to the new technology; early sound cameras were much bulkier and less mobile affairs than silent cameras were, and for several years as actors were learning to speak, cinematographers were learning how to let the camera not sit fixed at a scene. Animation had to adapt too; it’s easy enough to drop the intertitles or the word balloons that carried what dialogue couldn’t be pantomimed, but also, suddenly, cartoons could be set to music.

They’d always had music, of course, in cinema orchestras playing along, but now the animators could count on particular pieces of music and synchronize the action to that. And I think there’s a noticeable change between the late silent and the early sound cartoons: setting the action to music encourages planning out the scene ahead of time, so that the key events happen at the right moment. Silent cartoons have a tendency to flow from one event to another with a kind of dream logic; early sound cartoons are more likely to be made of individual scenes that make sense, even if the whole reel gets a bit baffling. It would take some time for the plot of the whole cartoon to be sketched out ahead of time.

And in the early days of the sound cartoon, yes, Krazy Kat got adapted to the motion pictures again. These cartoons, some 97 of them if Wikipedia is complete, were made by Charles Mintz — just as the previous run (also of 97 pictures; hm) was — for Columbia Pictures. And for this, the fourth attempt in fifteen years to bring George Herriman’s comic strip to the motion picture screen, we have … well, “Weenie Roast” here is peppy. It’s cheerful and a little weird, playful with a few bits of inexplicable cruelty. It’s built around some nice recognizable music bits and then goes riffing around the idea of things you might see at the seashore that I guess is near Coney Island or an equivalent park, to a conclusion which we might call arbitrary. Inanimate objects come to life and struggle against their own destruction. My love put it perfectly in describing this as “every 1930s cartoon”.

So it is. This is an early Mickey Mouse cartoon with an oddly-drawn Mickey. It’s a Max Fleischer Bimbo cartoon with Bimbo and Betty Boop way off-model. While the comic strip was still running as successfully as it might, a cartoon series that shared nothing but the title was as viable as anything else on the screen at the time. It’s probably nothing personal; the alliterative draw of a “Crazy Cat” seems to me likely to create a cartoon series even if there had been no comic strip.

Here by the way is another curious change that coincided with successful sound pictures, but that as far as I can tell has nothing but coincidence to do with it: the triumph of cell animation. From about 1930 hand-drawn animation would typically be done by drawing and painting characters on pieces of transparent cellophane, placed in front of backgrounds and photographed. Before then, though, the characters being animated might be drawn just on sheets of white paper, placed against white-paper backgrounds, with just as much as needed to change one frame to the next replaced. The edges of ripped paper can be noticed in these silent cartoons, looking like ghosts flickering around a character rubbing his hands. With a full cell there’s no edges to be seen. I understand why cell animation won out overall — it seems to offer great production advantages, particularly in making drawings reusable — but why it should have matched so well the introduction of sound pictures is a mystery to me. Maybe something in the new cameras suggested it.