April 14, 2010
Jules Feiffer is a creative tour-de-force who has enriched our cultural landscape through his drawings, books, plays and screenplays. Insightfully snarky, always observant and wonderfully whimsical, I “discovered” Feiffer in middle school by way of two of his children’s books—The Man in the Ceiling and A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears—and later became totally hooked on the cartoons he produced for the Village Voice in the late 1950s. Those evergreen feelings of angst and fear of social conformity definitely made a world of sense to my high school self (and I suppose even now for that matter).
That said, I’m pretty psyched that Feiffer will be making an appearance at the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum this Saturday—although his chat won’t be about his work, but rather, about Bob Landry’s photograph of dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire. In Feiffer’s recently-published memoir, Backing Into Forward, Astaire holds a special place in Feiffer’s heart. “Whether it was family, school, sports, friendship, work, sex,” Feiffer writes, “I was accustomed to getting knocked down, picking myself up, and starting all over again (in the words of my guru, the immortal Fred Astaire.)”
Dancers crop up in his work, be it in the form of an aspiring beatnik performing an ill-timed ode to spring, or, for those of you who own a copy of The Man in the Ceiling and can turn to page 60, a direct homage to Mr. Astaire himself.
So, in anticipation of his upcoming appearance, here are five ways to get to know Jules Feiffer.
1. The Phantom Tollbooth
Many of you may already be familiar with this one. It’s a classic story by Norton Juster about a perpetually bored little boy who tries to restore harmony to a fantasy land was graced with Feiffer’s whimsical illustrations. Full of wit, wisdom and puns, this modern fairy tale is sure to entertain children and adults alike. (And if you don’t know anything else by Norton Juster, you owe it to yourself to check out The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics.)
2. Sick, Sick, Sick
This comic strip began running in the Village Voice in 1956 and put Jules Feiffer on the map. Equipped with a winning mix of whimsy and cynicism, Feiffer ribbed mid-century American living, casting his insightful barbs at a wide range of topics that included the atomic energy, consumerism and the Greenwich Village hipster set. Over the years this strip has been collected and anthologized a few times over, so it should be pretty easy to find in one iteration or another.
Since he was drafted into the army, it’s not surprising that some of Feiffer’s pointed remarks are aimed squarely at the military. And this animated short about a four year old boy accidentally drafted into the army has plenty of bite and charm to match—so much so that it garnered him an Academy Award.
4. The Man in the Ceiling
Most people I knew latched onto The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Catcher in the Rye when it came to dealing with coming-of-age angst. Personally, I could better identify with Jimmy Jibbett’s total self-immersion in creative endeavors to deal with whatever bothered him. This young adult novel is also wickedly funny.
OK, I realize that I’m going to get a lot of flack for including this one. Feiffer provided the screenplay for this 1980 film adaptation of E.C. Segar’s Popeye comic strip. Perfectly cast — Robin Williams plays the titular character — and punctuated by some memorable songs by Harry Nilsson, it’s one of those movies that has developed a cult following over the years after a less-than-stellar run at the box office. That said, if you have eclectic tastes, you might want to give this one a go. If you’re looking for a fifth, more mainstream way to get to know Feiffer, reading his memoir Backing Into Forward is about as direct a route as you can take.
The American Pictures series offers a highly original approach to art and portraiture, pairing great works of art with leading figures of contemporary American culture. Each event features an eminent writer, thinker, historian, or artist who speaks about a single, powerful image and explores its meaning. Jules Feiffer — cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter, and children’s book author and illustrator — discusses Bob Landry’s photograph Fred Astaire in “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1945). Feiffer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1986 and an Academy Award for his animated short Munro in 1961. Book signing follows.
McEvoy Auditorium, Tickets are free, but limited to two per person and distributed on a first come, first serve basis in the G St. lobby beginning one hour before the lecture.
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