Thursday, February 26, 2009

Claymation: Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers (1993, Nick Park)

Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers (1993)
UK, 30 min
Directed by: Nick Park
Written by: Nick Park (writer), Bob Baker (writer), Brian Sibley (additional screenplay)
Starring: Peter Sallis
There's no use prevaricating about the bush, Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers (1993) is a whole heap of fun! Having not seen the film in years, I'd almost forgotten that it was so uproariously entertaining. It was Creature Comforts (1989) that took home the Oscar in 1991, but Nick Park instead planned a sequel to A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit (1989), a short film that, in my estimation, showed far more promise. This next effort sees the pair with their feet firmly on terra firma, but in an adventure that is no less wacky than the last. Despite economic woes, Wallace has built a impressive contraption for Gromit's birthday – a pair of mechanical trousers. To offset his financial losses, Wallace opens up his home to lodgers, attracting the business of a creepy and silent penguin named Feathers McGraw. The sinister flightless avian soon sets about systematically severing the immortal bond between master and pet, in preparation for a devilishly cunning heist scheme.

Nick Park's films are held in reverence by the animation community, and with good cause. Rarely before had the claymation medium been utilised to create such rich animated characters; even previous successes like Closed Mondays (1974) couldn't evade the fact that they were produced using shifting masses of clay. The Wrong Trousers boasts but three characters – only one of whom can speak – and yet the relationship between the three is superbly authentic. Maybe it's the personal touch of recognising the animators' thumb-prints on every character, but somehow Park manages to capture every nuance of their behaviour, every tiny inflection of emotion. In half an hour, Gromit doesn't utter a single word, and yet he communicates his sadness, anger and excitement through an affectionate glance or downcast eye. Likewise, the sinister Feathers McGraw attains creepiness precisely through his silence. That he doesn't speak keeps his motives veiled in secrecy, and those beady, ominous eyes are probably enough to give young children nightmares.

Of course, most people love The Wrong Trousers for its humour, and there's plenty of it. That sparkling British humour is truly allowed to shine, and the gentle voice-acting of Peter Sallis has the sheer sincerity to carry the frequently-offbeat jokes. Whereas A Grand Day Out was a homage of sorts to the science-fiction genre, probably more in line with Georges Méliès than anyone else, this effort is an affectionate satire of the British crime films of the 1950s and 1960s. The evil penguin has the eccentric malevolence of Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955), though without the fondness for articulate speech. The object of the villainous heist scheme resembles the titular jewel in The Pink Panther (1964). With mock seriousness, amateur sleuth Gromit paces his way through the clichés of the genre, culminating in a hilarious madcap locomotive chase along miniature train-tracks, which our hero must lay down as he goes. This sort of impeccable entertainment deserves to run for far longer than thirty minutes.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Music: Les Berceaux (1935, Dimitri Kirsanoff)

Les Berceaux (1935)
France, 5 min
Directed by: Dimitri Kirsanoff
Starring: Ninon Vallin
As do most cinephiles, I first got onto avant-garde filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff through Ménilmontant (1926). Though I quite enjoyed this effort, the determinedly-disorientating editing style, for me, kept it from being the masterpiece many proclaim. Les Berceaux / The Cradles fortunately sees Kirsanoff severely toning down his erratic editing, and, indeed, you'd be tempted to believe that the director had forgotten his passion for Soviet montage in the intervening decade. This five-minute musical short film most strongly recalled Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov's similar Romance Sentimentale (1930), in that both films feature only singing female protagonists accompanied by a visual montage. But, as I mentioned, Kirsanoff's montage is slow, meditative; he finds a relaxing serenity in the woman's (Ninon Vallin) voice, as is conscious that quick-cut editing would likely interrupt the peacefulness of her song. Instead, he favours slow cross-fades and transitional wipes, and even utilises an imaginative visual technique to avoid some transitions altogether.

From what I gathered, Les Berceaux is about the dedicated sailors who venture out into the deepest ocean, and the wives who must await their return. The woman sits in her living room, gently rocking her infant's cradle as she sings, the movement mimicking the rolling motion of the ocean waves. Many men will lose their lives to the ocean's vast waters, but the juxtaposition of death and life (in the cradle) suggests an endless and noble cycle. Kirsanoff imaginatively places a rear-projection screen outside the woman's window, through which, as she sings, we can watch the ocean waves lapping up against the shore, or the ship charging majestically over the water. Also worth noting is that the film was photographed by Boris Kaufman, who later also shot On the Waterfront (1954) and 12 Angry Men (1957). In all, Les Berceaux is a pensive and peaceful ode to a life at sea, and fans of Kirsanoff should certainly seek it out.

Soviet: Ostrov / Island (1973, Fyodor Khitruk)

Island (1973)
Soviet Union, 10 min
Directed by: Fyodor Khitruk
Written by: Fyodor Khitruk
Starring: Elena Chepoy (voice)

I only recognised Fyodor Khitruk as the director of the Soviet Winnie-the-Pooh films, beginning with Vinni-Pukh (1969), but here is another of his pleasant animated films. Winner of the Grand Prize for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival, Ostrov / Island (1973) is a genial critique on the selfishness of modern society. Animated in a minimalist fashion that recalls a simple newspaper comic-strip, this ten-minute film uses the allegory of a person stranded on a minute desert island to explore the reluctance of others to lend a helping hand if it doesn't benefit themselves. This apparently suggests the moral degradation of society as a whole, symbolised by a floating newspaper than only features news of warfare, gory horror movies, half-dressed women and gunfire. As the main character patiently awaits his rescue, dozens of passersby either ignore his waving hand or exploit his unfortunate predicament for their own gain.

Ostrov takes a simple scenario and uses it to make an obvious point, but it does so in a pleasant manner – without hardly a hint of bitterness nor malice towards the society it is condemning; rather, it exhibits something closer to quiet disapproval. Produced at Soyuzmultfilm studio, the film seems like a political work, but not one specifically relevant towards the Soviet Union. Indeed, any Western country could be accused of the injustices featured in the film. While waiting on his island, the main character is interrogated by Interpol officers, conquered by an imperialist ship, loses his lone palm tree to greedy loggers, is consoled by a missionary who promptly abandons him, is thoroughly examined by impartial scientists, and harassed by journalists. He is eventually rescued, in a genuinely bittersweet ending, by somebody whose situation is just as hopeless as his own, suggesting that basic human goodness does still exist, however discretely.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Animation: The Man Who Planted Trees (1987, Frédéric Back)

The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)
Canada, 30 min
Directed by: Frédéric Back
Written by: Jean Giono (story), Jean Roberts (translator)
Starring: Philippe Noiret (voice) (French-language version) ; Christopher Plummer (voice) (English-language version)

Frédéric Back's The Man Who Planted Trees (1987) is the one short film that has been fervently recommended to me above all others, and I'm surprised that it took me so very long to get around to it {fortunately, my stubbornness proved beneficial, since I was able to hold out for a high-quality copy}. My only previous experience with Back was his first Oscar-nominated effort All Nothing (1980) in May 2007, and I enjoyed its artistry, even if the basis in Creationism kept me distanced from its central themes. This effort, arguably Back's most celebrated, tells the story of Elezeard Bouffier, an old shepherd who singlehandedly created a forest through decades of planting seeds. Though I initially assumed that Bouffier was a real-life figure, he was, in fact, a fictional creation of author Jean Giono, who apparently perpetuated the misconception. Either way, this shepherd's story is powerful and inspirational, Back's animation giving life to Giono's uplifting tale.

When I recall Frédéric Back's work, the first contemporary animator who comes to mind is Aleksandr Petrov, whose paint-on-glass animation allows similar dream-like visuals that morph from one image to another like a shifting desert landscape. The Man Who Planted Trees doesn't resemble a moving oil painting, as does Petrov's work, but instead bears a slightly more minimalistic pastel-sketching style. Even so, the attention-to-detail is simply staggering. For the film's opening half, the colour palette is largely sepia-toned, emphasising the sheer barrenness of the desert, with bare rocks and coarse weeds lashed by a dry, bitter wind. As Bouffier plants his trees, Back gradually introduces colour into his work, symbolising the physical and spiritual rebirth of the region. My single slight criticism with the film is that the narration should probably have been used more sparingly. As warm as I found Christopher Plummer's voice, I think that some scenes would have proved more powerful had the viewer been left to his own accord, to absorb for himself the breathtaking beauty of Back's animation.

The Man Who Planted Trees serves, I think, as a fine counterpoint to Back's previous short film, All Nothing. In the latter, a dissatisfied Mankind rapes and pillages the life that his Creator has placed upon the planet. In this film, Mankind gives back to nature; rather than destroying life, Bouffier creates it himself, even as two World Wars rage overhead. On at least two occasions, the narrator {Christopher Plummer in the English-language version, Philippe Noiret in the French} remarks that what Bouffier accomplished makes him something akin to God. Indeed, the government officials who arrive to observe his forest can think of no other explanation for the miraculous rebirth, declaring it an astonishing natural phenomenon. Nobody can believe that all this joy could have been created by the hand of a single man. I interpreted this as a touchingly humanist statement. After all, if an old shepherd like Elezeard Bouffier can give rise to such life, why, indeed, do we need a God at all?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Comedy: The 'High Sign' (1921, Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton)

The 'High Sign' (1921)
USA, 21 min
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Charles Dorety, Al St. John

The entrance of Buster Keaton's unnamed character in The High Sign (1921) is, in some ways, reminiscent of Chaplin's Little Tramp persona. The wandering vagrant, named only Our Hero, is booted off a moving train, and lands in an unknown town, the audience denied any back-story or unnecessary exposition. Wandering into a nearby theme park, Buster deftly snatches a newspaper from a moving carousel (done so casually that he doesn't look like he's even trying), and attempts to read the mammoth broadsheet. In search of a job, he happens upon an opening for a talented sharp-shooter, and, despite inadvertently gunning down a duck with his practice shots, Buster feels that he's qualified enough for the position. Chaplin's Tramp was never averse to breaking the rules if he wasn't hurting anybody who didn't deserve it, and Keaton's Hero is no different. By rigging an ingenious dog-powered bell-ringer to falsify the carnival stall, Buster fools his massive employer into believing that he is an ace with the rifle.

But, of course, if the plan had gone smoothly, then there wouldn't have been a story to tell. It seems that the employer is also a member of the Blinking Buzzards mob, a bold bad bunch of blood-thirsty bandits with a curious affinity for the letter "b." Buster is enlisted to assassinate one of the gang's enemies, and, by a curious turn of events, is also employed as that very same man's bodyguard (our hero, ever the hopeless romantic, accepts the latter job only to impress the target's pretty daughter, played by Bartine Burkett). When he steadfastly refuses to carry out the hit, Buster's reckless bid to escape the Buzzards' fists leads him on a farcical anarchic chase through concealed doorways and hidden compartments, a madcap comedic set-piece that never takes the time to slow down. Despite this memorable virtuoso finale, Keaton apparently felt unsure of the quality of his first independent two-reeler, and The High Sign was shelved until the following year, when a broken ankle slowed the performer's output.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Animation: Voyage to Next (1974, John Hubley)

Voyage to Next (1974)
USA, 10 mins
Directed by: John Hubley
Starring: Dizzy Gillespie (voice), Maureen Stapleton (voice)

Voyage into Next (1974) is a quaint little anti-war statement, the sort of laid-back, hippie-inspired short film that one would expect the 1970s to have produced. But it was also directed by John and Faith Hubley, a husband-and-wife animating team whose work is more subtle and understated than most. Many of the pair's films were produced by animating unrehearsed conversations (usually) between two people, and I had previously enjoyed their Windy Day (1968), which excellently utilised this free-wheeling technique. Voyage into Next was obviously more tightly-scripted, and that the film was to be an anti-war cartoon restricted the voice actors (namely Maureen Stapleton and Dizzy Gillespie) in which conversational paths they could take. Stapleton and Gillespie play Mother Earth and Father Time, respectively, as they observe the destructive conflicts waged between the human nations (represented here as floating boxes) and ponder why our species so unthinkably forgot the virtues of sharing that allowed our ancestors to progress beyond the Stone Age.

There's nothing particularly impressive about the Hubleys' style of animation – minimalist line-drawn human figures highlighted with soft shades of colour – but their style is distinctive, later influencing short films such as the Oscar-winning Leisure (1976). The two well-known voice actors are perfectly chosen (Dizzy Gillespie has one of the coolest-sounding voices ever), and the jazz musician's music is employed successfully to create the film's lighthearted mood, despite the grimness of the subject matter. Mother Earth and Father Time oversee their lilliputian creations, hidden amid mini puffs of artillery smoke, and contemplate their inability to alter human history. The future, it seems, is not in the hands of the gods, but in our own. Of course we have the ability to achieve peace and mutual understanding once more… but will we attain it in time? Voyage into Next was nominated for an Academy Award in 1975, but lost out to the inferior claymation Closed Mondays (1974).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Avant-Garde: All My Life (1966, Bruce Baillie)

All My Life (1966)
USA, 3 min
Directed by: Bruce Baillie

I can't say that the prospect of a 3-minute leftwards pan was appealing to me, but I actually found All My Life (1966) quite relaxing. A filmmaker should never underestimate the power of a well-chosen soundtrack, and Ella Fitzgerald's "All My Life" works perfectly, evoking a simpler time and place. I don't see any reason why a backyard fence, examined from right-to-left, should be nostalgic in any way, but it is. The camera follows along the length of the fence, sometimes tilting upwards to take into account the bushes, and ends the film by rising up into the sky, passing a telephone wire and losing itself in the emptiness of the blue overhead. Aside from the camera movements, there's no action and no story. Just a fence, that music, and the memory of a childhood you'd forgotten.

Many of the avant-garde films of the 1960s have a tendency to be unintelligible, and often very grating. All My Life doesn't really have an obvious point to it, but, whatever it's doing, it seems to make a lot of sense. Maybe the length of fence represents a man's life (the film's title seems to support this idea). The missing pickets represent our mistakes in life. The continual leftwards-panning of the camera is inspired by the idea that, though we move leisurely through our lifetimes, we are nonetheless constantly moving forward, never able to turn around and correct the mistakes of our past, having always to suffer the consequences of our errors. At the end of our fences, of course, we go to Heaven, completely removed from the life we'd lived before. It's a novel interpretation, perhaps, but I like it.