Features

RIP November 2018


One of the greatest creative movie artists of all time died in November. We refer of course to Stephen Hillenburg, the animator behind Spongebob Squarepants. Nicholas Roeg and Bernard Bertolucci did their final slow wipes, too.

Stephen Hillenburg

Surprise, surprise – Steven McDannell Hillenburg (pictured) started out as a teacher of marine biology. He chucked in the teaching in 1987 and, a couple of years later, studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts, out of which came the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants, which has given me, and millions of others, enormous joy over the years since it first aired in 1999. Hillenburg was a natural creative genius who – like all such geniuses – made clever use of influences and had the knack of cross-fertilising ideas. Thus he used his early love of tide-pool creatures to write a comic book – The Intertidal Zone – to help teach children, and which he then used to develop Spongebob, Squidward Tentacles, Patrick and the other cartoons characters.

he continued to receive $1 million a year from the grateful company

Like all great cartoon characters Spongebob is not just a loveable zany nitwit but also a sideways commentator on society and humanity – rather like the character in Paul Driessen’s 1977 short, The Killing of an Egg, which Hillenburg saw when it came out and which he said he was “knocked out” by. Spongebob worldwide merchandising revenues are now way in excess of $15 billion – not bad for a show in which, as Hillenburg put it, the prime feature is that “innocence prevails”. Hillenburg died at the relatively early age of 57 from motor neurone disease.

Another comic book genius was Stanley Martin Lieber – better known as Stan Lee, who died on 12 November at the age of 95, a heroic age for a superhero creator. Lee was born to Romanian-Jewish parents in Manhattan just before the Great Depression and, after a variety of bitty jobs, started writing when just over 16 for a New Deal theatre project. He moved on to filling inkwells and performing other menial tasks at Timely Comics – which evolved into Marvel Comics, where Lee made his name through the creation of Spiderman among others. Even though he ceased regular duties at Marvel in the 1990s, he continued to receive $1 million a year from the grateful company.

she regarded Bertolucci as a “gangster and a pimp”

Movie directors are often unfairly divided into those who have a unique and personal recognisable style – the auteurs – and those who are regarded as little more than a creature of the studio bosses, churning out movies like sandbags. Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian director who has died from cancer aged 77, could claim to be an auteur although his films don’t reveal any particular common theme or style. He liked to say he was a Marxist, and his 1970 film Il Conformista, a chilly movie about a fascist murderer, seems to support that claim; but his later Last Tango in Paris (1972), which features lots of simulated graphic violent sex, including an anal rape, now seems objectionable on so many levels, whereas when I saw it in 1972 it seemed merely tedious. Maria Schneider, who played opposite Marlon Brando and was 19 when the film was made, said she regarded Bertolucci as a “gangster and a pimp”. Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, about Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the last emperor of China, arrived in 1987, and restored some of his tarnished reputation.

Mario Melo, a 56 year-old Argentine boxer, choked to death on a medialuna on local TV

De gustibus non est disputandum should be carved into the chests of anyone who wants seriously argue about art; we all have our own individual likes and loathes, but for me Nicholas Roeg, who made it to the age of 90, was a fantastically good movie director, with many more excellent and thoughtful films to his credit than Bertolucci. It’s the sheer variety of the movies, combined with their intrinsic interest and marvellous photography – Roeg started as a cinematographer – that place him head and shoulders above many others. One of the first movies I saw which made me sit up and think was Performance, a 1970 shambolic yet nevertheless intriguing sort-of crime thriller starring Mick Jagger. It made me aware that Nicholas Roeg was someone who was disruptive of the conventional – as he proved in Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bad Timing. Less well-known but equally creative was the Polish cinematographer Witold Sobociński, who was 89 when he died on 19 November. Sobociński had worked with some of the greats of post-war Polish cinema including Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Roman Polanski but for my money his most astonishing work was done on Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (The Hourglass Sanatorium) in 1973, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has, a marvellously surreal phenomenon best viewed while spaced-out on something because it defies rational explanation. Jean Mohr, the Swiss documentary photographer who collaborated closely with John Berger, made it to 93. Kitty Linn O’Neil succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 72. She was an American stuntwoman whose 1976 peak land speed record of 621 miles per hour still stands. She claimed her tiny physique – 5′ 2″ and 44 kilos – enabled her better to absorb impacts.

Dr Huetingen

There were a number of RPBs (Rich Privileged Bastards) who snuffed it, none more so than…

Mario Melo, a 56 year-old Argentine boxer, choked to death on a medialuna (a half-moon – as croissants are known as in Argentina) on local TV, during a medialuna eating contest on 4 November. That same day Serhiy Tkach, who was serving a life sentence in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, for the rape and murder of 37 women and girls over more than two decades, died from heart failure. His victims – and he claimed more than 100 – were aged between 8 and 18. Francesco Barbaro, a boss of the ‘Ndrangheta, the mafia organisation based in Calabria, Italy, died in prison in Parma aged 91, serving a life sentence for the murder of Brigadier Antonino Marino in September 1990. In the US the rapist and serial killer of sex workers, Andrew Urdiales, sentenced to death for the murder of five women, killed himself in jail. The Swiss downhill and alpine skier Gian Luca Barandun died in a paragliding accident, aged 24. Jonathan Cantwell was an Australian professional road bicycle racer who committed suicide on 6 November when he was 36; he had an operation for testicular cancer last year. Maybe suicide was in his genes – his father and a brother both killed themselves. Richard Philippe, the French racing car driver, died in a helicopter crash in the Dominican Republic on 22 November, aged 28. For those who like to believe that the Dutch are a kindly race not given to politically motivated murder, watch this video of 1969, in which Joop Hueting (pictured) speaks of the war crimes he observed and committed in the former Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1945-49. Hueting, who became a psychologist, died aged 91.

Of course there were a number of RPBs (Rich Privileged Bastards) who snuffed it but none richer, more privileged or more bastard-like than that former leader of the free world, George Herbert Walker Bush, who died on 30 November at 94. A millionaire by the time he was 40 (oil, naturally) he inevitably sashayed into politics and finally became President (the 41st) in 1989, aided by his promise – “Read my lips – no new taxes”, a vow that he almost immediately broke upon taking office. He’ll be remembered mostly for his half-baked invasions of Panama (once Manuel Noriega had served his purpose), Somalia, the 1990 Gulf War, for his faux geniality and fake folksiness, which his son, George W. Bush, took to fresh heights when President, and his appointment of Dan “Potatoe” Quayle, heavens help us, as Vice President. Trump is awful but let’s not forget that Americans have a long history of voting for the egregiously appalling.

Palden Gyatso

That same day Palden Gyatso (pictured), a Tibetan Buddhist monk, also died. There’s nothing wet or hippyish about saying that Palden was, in his quiet way, a much greater figure than Bush or indeed most of this month’s round-up. When China forcibly took over Tibet in 1950 Palden protested and for his pains was arrested and spent 33 years in prison where he was regularly tortured. He was set free in 1992 and fled to Dharamsala in India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is situated, and where he wrote his moving autobiography, Fire Under The Snow.

Don’t get killed by the Christmas shopping crowd crush!

Picture sources: Carlos Cazurro Burgos, Joost Evers, Christophe Cunniet