|by Jay Seaver
Animation is, arguably, the purest expression of cinema. An animated short starts with one person getting an idea and when he or she is finished, it's not outside the realm of possibility that what shows up on screen is exactly what the creator originally envisioned, and if it's not, it's because he or she made the decision to change it.
The trouble with that kind of independence is that it's difficult to get your film seen. I, personally, would pay a slightly higher ticket price to have the advertising before the start of a movie replaced with animated and live-action shorts, but even if theaters were amenable, who's going to pay to strike prints? The web offers some hope, but the sheer volume of what means you're stuck either sifting through a lot of crap on your own or relying on some sort of logarithmic recommendations system. Those are great as far as they go, but the better they are at suggesting something that fits in with the rest of your tastes, the less likely they are to lead you to something new, different, and thus really exciting.
That's where The Animation Show comes in. Modeled on previous touring animation programs like "Spike & Mike's Classic (and Sick & Twisted) Animation Festival", it was created by Don Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge after Hertzfeldt brought "The Don & Bill Show" (a program featuring shorts by Hertzfeldt and Bill Plympton) to Judge's hometown of Austin, TX, and the two decided to create something that could work as a broader showcase. The pair have the name recognition to get the show booked in medium-sized theaters and colleges, while showing a keen eye for selection, presenting a program of shorts that includes Academy Award nominees, the occasional rarely-seen classic, and short-short pieces by near-unknowns.
This year, a few things were different. First, the venue; while previous years the show's Boston premiere was at the Brattle Theater during the spring, with return midnight engagements at the Coolidge Corner Theater in the summer; the 2007 edition had a midweek two-night stay at the newly-renovated main screen at the Somerville Theater. Second, where I'm pretty sure that previous editions were distributed on film, this one was projected digitally. Presumably this is a cost-cutting move, although it did look to be high-end equipment brought in specifically for the show.
There was, happily, other things going on. Bill Plympton appeared before and after the show, answering questions, handing out prizes for trivia questions, giving free autographs and doing sketches for anyone buying a DVD. Even better, people arriving early to the Somerville shows got to see a presentation of animated films made by students at local colleges; I arrived in time to see a selection from Mass Art and Harvard University VES. It's an unexpected bonus, and it increases my respect for the organizers immensely, especially if it's something they're putting together at each stop. It's a sign that the show is interested in promoting animation, in all its forms, as a medium.
But enough about that - how are the movies? The flyer advertised twelve, plus "additional films and surprises". One of those surprises was a sequence from Bill Plympton's next feature, Angels and Idiots, due out in 2008; thre were also two shorts added to the schedule. All told, it's one of the year's strongest lineups. Where possible, I've included links to where the shorts can be found on-line, although the package as a whole is worth checking out if it comes to a local theater; as with anything, the relatively low-resolution versions found online aren't the same as seeing something on the big screen.
"Opening Remarks by Butt-Head" - This year, the job of introducing the show falls to Mike Judge's best-known creations. Butt-Head is in the Masterpiece Theater chair and jacket, and Beavis still likes fire.
"Rabbit" by Run Wrake - A little girl sees a rabbit bounding across her back yard. It's a storybook picture, with images made up of educational stickers straight out of the 1950s. Things take a turn for the strange when an image of a muff appears in the girl's thought balloon, and she pulls out a knife. It gets even stranger when she and her brother find a bizarre idol in the rabbit's stomach. It likes jam and can turn things into other things - like the flies it turns into jewels.
So begins an eight-minute fable about greed, with the added joy of cute, kid-friendly imagery twisted into something grotesque. It's a modern, but very grim, fairy tale.
"City Paradise" by Gaelle Denis - A young Japanese woman comes to London, bringing flippers and a tape recorder, looking to learn English and take up diving. It's a strange, surreal vision of London, though, one with an amazing underground world. It's a quirky little piece, with live action footage cut up and put back together so as to give everybody a funny, Chaplin-as-the-Tramp walk and dubbed with weird voices. It's cute, with some striking imagery.
"Everything Will Be OK" by Don Hertzfeldt - Hertzfeldt has had new material in each of the three "Animation Show" programs, and this may be the most impressive. 2005's "The Meaning of Life" had some jaw-dropping visuals, but there's something creepy and real about "Everything Will Be OK", which gradually reveals Bill, its everyman character, is being treated for some unspecified disease, and it's messing with his mind.
It's done in Hertzfeldt's familiar stick-figure style, although he's added a few new tricks to his arsenal with this one - integrating black and white photography and film, or separating the picture into various bubbles as Bills' thoughts fragment. Even with the relative simplicity of the individual bits, the total composition is complex. At seventeen minutes, it's Hertzfeldt's longest film yet, and it's packed dense with gags, often overlapping. There's also a real darkness to this one, compared to the more fantastical types in his other shorts.
"Collision" by Max Hattler - This one's a bit of an abstract piece, with colors and patterns from American and Islamic flags interacting like a kaleidoscope. Other shapes appear, making the idea of conflict between to two groups explicit. It's a quick, straightforward visual metaphor, and a pleasure to look at as well.
"9" by Shane Acker - Nominated for an Academy Award last year and in production as a feature, Shane Acker's "9" is an outright stunning piece of work, and eleven-minute digitally-rendered short that establishes a strange, barren world, introduces characters, and sets them out on an adventure. I'm almost worried about it becoming a feature, because it's so perfect as a wordless animated short.
In it, a tiny creature with a body like a burlap sack and mechanical limbs (and a numeral 9 on his back) sees his friend "5" captured and killed by a robot monster, and sets out to obtain revenge and free the souls that the beasts have taken from "1" through "8". This takes place in a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape, and Acker choreographs the action like a pro. The rendering is studio-quality, only it's rare that studios come up with a world this alien and cool.
"Davey and Son of Goliath" by Corky Quackenbush - To tell the truth, I never saw "Davey & Goliath" played straight; everything I've ever seen has been a parody or reference. I get the general idea, though, and from what I've seen, this take-off, originally a MadTV skit, captures the style to a T. Aside, of course, from Goliath commanding Davey to kill sinners, "Son of Sam" style.
"No Room for Gerold" by Daniel Nocke - The nifty thing about this five-minute digital short is it camera work. There's wit to be found in its subtitled German dialogue, as a group of humanoid animals tell alligator Gerold that he's being kicked out of the apartment, to be sure, but what makes it unique is how the look imitates an unscripted television show, one shot with eye-level handheld cameras. It's an impressive effect, one which makes its fantasy world more believable.
"Guide Dog" by Bill Plympton - This one's a sequel to Plympton's Oscar-nominated "Guard Dog", in which the title dog takes a job helping the blind. Hilarity and carnage ensues.
Plympton's work should be familiar to most fans of animation by now, and though he made the switch to digitally compositing his hand-drawn figures with "Guard Dog", his style hasn't changed much - the bloody cartoon violence is still there, and the Dog is still a thoroughly lovable character, innocently wreaking havoc despite his best attempts to be helpful. Plympton informed us that he's already at work on a third short with the character, "Fire Dog". I'm already looking forward to that one.
"Eaux Forte" by Remi Chaye - Every groups got to have one that doesn't make much of an impression on you, and it seems this is the one. It's quite pretty, and Chaye manages some impressive results with a color scheme made up of various whites, light greys, and blues. It's got a nice sequence of a tidal wave pummeling a city, but I'll be darned if I can remember the context.
"Versus" - The second unbilled short in the festival ("Davey and Son of Goliath" was the first), this one's an unabashed cartoon with a beautifully simple set-up: Three islands in a row, the ones on the end populated by red and blue samurai, each trying to plant their flags on the middle one. The characters are Japanese, but the filmmakers are, I believe, French, but that's no problem, because language doesn't come up: It's straight-ahead Chuck Jones style mayhem, with a hit rate of nearly 100% on the jokes.
I wish I could find some data on who created this (I foolishly was using my hands to applaud rather than write down names) and where it can be found on the internet. I'd greatly appreciate it if anyone with that information would make a post on the message board.
"Overtime" by Oury Atlan - This one's been making the rounds for a couple of years, so I'd seen it before, and the second time around it seemed more whimsical, somewhat less creepy. It's still got a premise out of a horror film, with a swarm of disembodied puppets jumping around and playing while their maker lays dead. The puppets are modeled on Kermit the Frog, albeit with all-white eyes and a visible seam. It's a black-and-white, digitally rendered world, with backgrounds that quickly sink into darkness once you get beyond the last row of puppets.
The obvious inspiration for this piece is Jim Henson, even if the dead puppeteer doesn't really resemble him that much. The message is clear, though - great creations outlive their creators, and while we must stop to mourn a genius's loss, it's just as important to start having fun again right away, and the quick switch to the upbeat music and gleeful antics is, in that respect, joyous rather than unsavory.
"Game Over" by PES - One minute and forty-fives seconds of early-eighties video games recreated using food and toys: From Centipede with cupcakes to Pac-Man with pizza, this quick and unabashedly goofy clip by PES - who also did "Fireworks" from the second edition of the fest - received a huge round of applause.
"Dreams and Desires: Family Ties" by Joanna Quinn - Before the show, Plympton told us that this short, along with his and Hertzfeldt's, was on the Oscar shortlist, and that if he was a beting man it's where he'd put his money. I'm not sure that I'd go that far, but this is a gorgeous-looking piece. Ms. Quinn's work is likely familiar from various commercials, and is striking - beautiful and detailed without necessarily trying to be photo-realistic.
Indeed, the story she chooses to tell - an amateur videographer adds to the chaos of an already frantic wedding - almost works against her. There are flat-out gorgeous individual frames and element moving too quickly for the audience to appreciate the work put into them. It's a funny film, and does a great job of conveying a feeling of chaos, but I'd like it even more if it would slow down a little bit and let me get a good look at it.
Not a dud in the bunch this time around. Some can be found online (whether legitimately or not), but few people will likely be looking in the right place to find all of them.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2057
originally posted: 01/23/07 05:05:36
last updated: 01/23/07 05:10:05