Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Everything's Got 'Em: On the Point of Harry Nilsson's Animated Feature The Point!

(Fred Wolf, 1971, USA, 74 minutes)

Two years before the publication of William Goldman's The Princess Bride, in which a father tells his son a bedtime story that takes up the bulk of the book, singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson used a similar format for his own bedtime story, The Point!

Fourteen years later, Goldman's adaptation of his book would form the basis for the big-screen version with which most people are probably familiar. And Rob Reiner's film isn't bad, but as is often the case: the book is deeper, darker, and more fulfilling. Nilsson's narrative feature, however, lived on the small screen before it took shape in other formats, including a stage musical (with Monkees Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz) and a home-video release.

For this hand-crafted project, Nilsson did everything he possibly could. He hired a screenwriter (Norm Lenzer) to adapt his idea, a director and animator (Fred Wolf) to bring it to life, a producer (George Tipton) to conduct and arrange his songs, and a narrator to tell the tale; Dustin Hoffman, post-Midnight Cowboy, for the TV broadcast and his close friend, Ringo Starr, for the version that appears on most video releases, including the 50th anniversary Blu-ray MVD will be releasing next year (Nilsson won a Grammy for Midnight Cowboy's Tipton-produced theme, "Everybody's Talkin'"). It's Nilsson, however, who narrates the album version with which I grew up, and I believe it's definitive. Starr has an engaging style, but his narration can be a little drowsy, whereas Nilsson's has more pep.

The Nilsson who came up with the story, which hasn't lost one iota of resonance over the years--hippy-dippy trappings aside--is the same Nilsson who grew up without a father, wrote songs about fatherlessness, like "1941" and "Daddy's Song," and would go on to father seven children, none of whom would experience the same degree of abandonment--though it's fair to say that his youngest children saw more of him than his oldest son, Zak.

In the film, Oblio (voiced by The Brady Bunch's Mike Lookinland) begins life in a medievalesque town full of points. As Nilsson's song would have it, "Everything's Got 'Em"--except for Oblio, the sole round-headed citizen. As the narrator notes, "He had no point. He had no point at all." Always a fan of wordplay, Nilsson extracts as much meaning from the word "point" as any human conceivably could. Anyone who's ever felt different from the rest, for whatever reason, can see themselves in Oblio, not least because he's a regular kid. He's polite, he's well mannered; he's just pointless.

In order to help him fit in, his mother makes Oblio a pointed cap. His head remains perfectly spherical, but now he looks more like everybody else, though I don't think it's completely accidental that the other kids look like what we would now call poop emojis. Instead of befriending any of his orange peers, Oblio finds a soul mate in the blue-hued "greatest dog in the world," which leads to "Me and My Arrow," a sublime, two-minute pop song in which Nilsson describes a friendship in the first person, just as he did in his Tipton-produced theme for ABC's The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, while simultaneously expressing adult fears of abandonment in lines like, "And in the morning when I wake up, she may be telling me goodbye." It's a completely unexpected detour in a song that seemed designed expressly for children and animal lovers, but that was Nilsson's modus operandi in a nutshell: to subvert pop-song expectations at every turn.

With Arrow's assistance, Oblio becomes a formidable player of Triangle Toss, the town's boomerang-like game, but just as the other kids are warming up to him, he beats the Count's purple-hued, sore loser of a son. The Count can't have the town see its future ruler as a failure, so he convinces the King, not exactly the brightest bulb, to banish Oblio to the Pointless Forest.

The Count is a Dr. Seuss-grade villain to rival the green guy in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which preceded The Point! to TV by five years. Whether Wolf, best known for his work on The Flintstones, took inspiration from Dr. Seuss, I couldn't say, but there's a similar sensibility at work in terms of the quasi-surrealistic look of the thing. Other possible inspirations include George Dunning's animation for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine (1968) and Terry Gilliam's animated collages for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974). Considering that Nilsson was friendly with members of both groups, it's unlikely that the similarities are wholly coincidental.

If it wasn't clear that The Point! is a parable about prejudice, one villager at the tribunal spells it out when she tells another, "If we let one of Oblio's kind stay, before long the whole village will be crawling…" She doesn't finish her sentence, and nor does she need to. Oblio stands for anyone who doesn't look, speak, or act the same as the majority of their community.

As Oblio and Arrow, found guilty of criminal conspiracy, enter the forest, Nilsson's Rube Goldberg ballad, "Think About Your Troubles" soundtracks their departure. The second-person song begins with you at the breakfast table, thinking about your troubles. You shed a tear that lands in your teacup, which ends up in the river, where it travels to the ocean to get eaten by fishes that are swallowed by a whale "who grew so old, he decomposed!" The cycle begins again as the body merges with the ocean, which flows into the river, which comes out of the tap, and ends up in your teacup.

Oblio, on the other hand, has no time to think about his troubles. He's just hoping to make it through the Pointless Forest in one piece, the first of his kind to accomplish the feat. To his surprise, it's full of points, although as the Pointless Man cautions, "A point in every direction is the same as no point at all." Oblio also encounters a swarm of bees and the Rock Man, who utters the best lines to a bass-driven bebop beat, "You see what you want to see," "You hear what you want to hear," "You don't have to have a point to have a point," and my favorite, "You been goofin’ with the bees?"

Just when it seems as if Oblio and Arrow won't meet any women along their travels, they come across the Fat Sisters, three tomato-shaped ladies who live to giggle and groove. Wolf has drawn them in such a way that they appear to lack clothes, and yet he's kept things G-rated by depicting them in a smeary, smudged manner as they bounce around like beach balls. "I really don't understand this," Oblio admits, ultimately deciding that understanding isn't necessary. The Fat Sisters exist simply to inspire joy and merriment.

The Pointless Man as depicted in the illustrated booklet.  
They next meet up with the Leaf Man, a malapropism-spouting businessman obsessed with leaf production. Frankly, he's a bit of as bore. It's possible that his conception sprang from the bankers and record company accountants Nilsson met during his career, but he's the least interesting character by far.

After an encounter with a prehistoric bird who takes Oblio and Arrow on a trip through the sky before bringing them down to Earth, hatching an egg, and then flying off with her chick, the two weary travelers decide to take a nap. Before, they drift off into unconsciousness, Oblio comes to a realization: what's in your head is more important than whether there's a point on top of it. With that, Nilsson croons "Are You Sleeping?," which picks up where "Me and My Arrow" left off as he continues to wonder whether a relationship, possibly his marriage to Zak's mother, will last. "And in the morning when I wake up, she may be telling me goodbye," he says with one breath. With another, he assures her that, "I'll be there by your side."

It's that unique combination of the expectedly childlike, the surprisingly adult, and the just-plain weird that makes The Point! work as well for me now as it did in grade school when I'd play the album over and over again, flipping the pages of the illustrated booklet all the while. In fact, I didn't watch the movie for the first time until this year (it's streaming on Fandor). If I've always felt as if I'd seen it, it's simply because I've memorized every line and image from the booklet and every lyric from the album.

There may be better children's films, but there are few that are more personal and less condescending to young people. And if there's a better soundtrack to spring from this genre, I've yet to hear it. As a song cycle, The Point! stands alongside Nilsson's finest albums, like Nilsson Schmilsson, to the extent that it loses nothing when un-tethered from the film. They're simply great songs about finding your place in the world.

In William Goldman's Princess Bride, there are two sets of fathers and sons; the father who read Goldman the original book--but "only the good parts"--before bed, and Goldman's son, Jason, who rejects it as boring (in Rob Reiner's movie, Peter Falk and Fred Savage play a version of the first pair). In truth, The Princess Bride was wholly the author's invention. His father, an alcoholic who killed himself while Goldman was in high school, never read him any such book, and nor did Goldman track down a rare copy for Jason, because Jason doesn't exist; Goldman and his wife had two daughters.

Through The Point!, Nilsson, the boy who grew up without a father, got to live out his fantasy of having one who was there for him, just as The Princess Bride allowed Goldman, the boy who lost his father, to live out his fantasy of having one who was happy and healthy. In Alyn Shipton's 2013 biography, Harry Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, Fred Wolf says he's "unsure that the story is deliberately autobiographical." In 1970, when Nilsson was working on the project, just a year after he'd had his first son, he may not have seen it that way, but in hindsight: it sure looks like it.

Click here for the trailer (it's unsharable). 

The Princess Bride Quote-Along, part of SIFF's annual Holiday Favorites series, plays SIFF Film Center Dec 6, 7, and 8. For more information, click here. MVD releases The Point! Ultimate Edition on February 20, 2020.

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