Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cartoon: The Old Mill (1937, Wilfred Jackson)

The Old Mill (1937)
USA, 9 min
Directed by: Wilfred Jackson
Written by: Dick Rickard (uncredited)

Walt Disney's series of "Silly Symphonies," which ran between 1929 and 1939, was originally envisioned as a testing-ground for many of the elaborate animation techniques that would eventually be utilised so effectively in the studio's feature-length films. The cartoons, running less than ten minutes, began as brief vignettes of dancing animals and plants (and even human skeletons) set to classical music, such as The Skeleton Dance (1929) and Flowers and Trees (1932), but eventually expanded towards adapting classic fairy-tales, as seen in Three Little Pigs (1933) and both versions of The Ugly Duckling (1931 and 1939). Thus, throughout the ten years that Silly Symphonies were produced, the emphasis was always on visual innovation, and dialogue was always kept to a minimum. Wilfred Jackson's The Old Mill (1937) is perhaps Disney's all-time greatest achievement, and certainly my favourite to date, and was originally conceived for artists to experiment with the animation of animals, rain, wind, lightning, ripples, splashes and reflection, and was the debut of Disney's revolutionary multiplane camera.

Interestingly, that The Old Mill was essentially a trial-run for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) probably contributed to its greatness. Unburdened by any notion of a solid narrative, the film allows the viewer to simply sit back and lose themselves in the atmosphere of the nature scene. The loose plot concerns the wildlife inhabitants of an old mill situated in an isolated swamp, and whose quiet night is suddenly violently interrupted by a terrifying and immensely-powerful storm that threatens to tear their home apart. The cartoon's attention-to-detail is simply staggering, every character lovingly drawn, their every movement and gesture almost poetic in its execution. Disney's radical and expensive multiplane camera, used here for the first time, allowed the artists to communicate animated depth like never before, and the richness of their creation feels so genuine that you could almost step into the cartoon and explore for yourself. The storm effects had come a very long way from those seen in Springtime (1929), and the lightning streaks across the sky with frightening authenticity.

Though Yuriy Norshteyn's Tale of Tales (1979) holds the official title as my favourite work of animation, Jackson's The Old Mill certainly comes a close second. The meticulousness of the animation work is such that I can almost feel the wind and rain beating across my face, and the miniature dramas of the rainstorm – the bird protecting its eggs from the spoke of the wheel, the owl shielding itself from the elements, the mill pitching over in the gale – always keep me gripping my seat in anticipation. The choice of music, too, plays a pivotal role in developing the required atmosphere. The musical tone early in the film is lighthearted and bouncy, with the chorus of croaking frogs forming a melody that sounds a bit like "The Sorceror's Apprentice." I'm unsure of the piece that plays during the storm's onset, but it is wonderful, bringing a frighteningly ethereal tone that suggests something epic and supernatural about this force of nature. A "silly" Symphony this is not; The Old Mill remains one of the most majestic and heartwarming cartoons ever made.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Soviet: Time Out (1984, Priit Pärn)

Time Out (1984)
Soviet Union (Estonia), 9 min
Directed by: Priit Pärn
Written by: Priit Pärn
Priit Pärn's Time Out (1984) is as nonsensical as a Terry Gilliam cartoon, but with even more randomness to spare. The story, such as it is, concerns an overworked cat who wakes up and is immediately engaged in a flurry of stressful morning activities, eventually working himself into a nervous breakdown. At this point, the cat enters an imaginary inner world that temporarily removes him from the chaos of his daily routine, similar to the reveries of Jonathan Pryce's character in Gilliam's Brazil (1985). At this point, any semblance of narrative is thrown out the window. What I found most interesting amid all this craziness was how Pärn accentuated the surrealism of the cat's fantasies by toying with visual perception, a bit like M.C. Escher's tessellations – an apparent river is revealed to be a dwarf's blue hat; a bird rotates its beak to become a wizard's hat; a crow tries to take off, only to find that its tail is a turn-off in the road.

Eventually, the cat reawakens from his daydream and falls back into the chaotic routine to which he's become accustomed. His "escape" into fantasy, oddly enough, was no less hectic than his usual schedule, though he does admittedly have a greater control over the elements of his environment. Priit Pärn's visual style is a departure from the traditional Soviet animation of earlier decades, decidedly less graceful and with a slap-dash quality that suggests the animator was basically making it up as he went {visually, one might venture that the film is closest to the "Nu, pogodi!" series (1969-1993)}. There's even an appearance from a giant stamping foot, probably indicating that Pärn was, indeed, influenced by Gilliam's work on "Monty Python's Flying Circus." I usually enjoy Soviet animation for its gorgeous visuals, so I'm not sure that Time Out was necessarily my sort of film – but, even so, that was a wild ten minutes. I'm sure I'll be revisiting Pärn's other work at some later date.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Avant-Garde: Puce Moment (1949, Kenneth Anger)

Puce Moment (1949)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: Kenneth Anger
Written by: Kenneth Anger
Starring: Yvonne Marquis
Puce Moment (1949) is, oddly enough, my first film from director Kenneth Anger. As soon as it began, I realised I'd discovered a filmmaker who stood well ahead of his time. Is that folk rock playing on the soundtrack? Surely, I told myself, such a song has no place in a 1949 film – but the technique has since become commonplace in movies and music videos. The film's vibrant colour photography clashes uncertainly with the shaky hand-held filming style, suggesting the rising experimental movement of the 1960s. It's peculiar that Anger wasn't even attempting to be "trendy" or "modern" with his film-making style. Puce Moment, originally intended as a feature, was supposed to be emulating the opulent Hollywood lifestyles of the silent era. The film opens with a 1920s movie star (Yvonne Marquis) lavishly searching for a suitable dress from her extensive wardrobe of flapper gowns, before applying perfume, languishing lazily on a chair, and then taking her four dogs for a walk. Strangely, it all barely feels like the 1920s. Does this mean that the film failed in what it was attempting? Maybe, but it's a glorious failure. Anger's condemnation of the movie star's decadent daily routine preempts Billy Wilder's critique in Sunset Blvd. (1950), and his film-making style clearly influenced the experimental cinema of the coming decades. This was my first film from Kenneth Anger, but it certainly won't be my last.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cartoon: Frolicking Fish (1930, Burt Gillett)

Frolicking Fish (1930)
USA, 6 min
Directed by: Burt Gillett
Frolicking Fish (1930) certainly isn't Finding Nemo (2003), but it's likely that Pixar received at least some inspiration from this early Silly Symphony. When it came to Disney's basic musical cartoons, which sacrificed story for anthropomorphised movement, few directors were more adept than director Burt Gillett, whose finest effort is Flowers and Trees (1932). Here, he takes us beneath the ocean, where life is great. Fish and crustaceans coexist harmoniously, dancing and playing musical instruments; that is, until the evil black octopus arrives to spoil everybody's fun – never trust a mollusc! The Disney animators were fond, where exotic creatures were concerned, of zooming in on their gaping mouths, perhaps to create the sensation that the cinema audience is being swallowed up by those massive jaws. Here, it happens with a fish; in Hell's Bells (1929) it was a demon of some sort, and a lion in Cannibal Capers (1930). This was Disney exploring the unique artistic possibilities afforded by the animation medium, since such shots would have been virtually impossible to replicate in live-action. The cartoon finds some semblance of narrative in its final minute, when the octopus tries to hunt down and eat a terrified fish, which wriggles out from between the octopus' big white teeth (no horny beak on this one) and drops a hefty-looking ship anchor onto his attacker. It's a bloody – or that should be inky – end to one of the most sinister Silly Symphony villains.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Soviet: Conflict (1983, Garri Bardin)

Konflikt / Conflict (1983)
Soviet Union, 7 min
Directed by: Garri Bardin
Written by: Garri Bardin
Having seen all sorts of anti-Cold War films from the United States, it was refreshing to watch a film from the other side in the conflict. At the very least, it's reassuring to know that both sides were equally terrified at the prospect of nuclear war. Garri Bardin's Conflict (1983) is similar in principle to Norman McLaren's Neighbours (1952). However, instead of animating real-life people for an anti-war protest, Bardin uses matchsticks – an appropriate metaphor given that even the slightest spark of conflict could very well have ended in the destruction of our entire race {take the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, for example}. In the film, two groups of matches are separated by an arbitrary boundary line – obviously representing the Berlin Wall – which is guarded vigilantly by armed soldiers on either side. When, by no fault of anyone, the boundary shifts slightly, a minor territory dispute escalates into a globe-shattering altercation.

Conflict has a simple point to make, and it makes it well. The matchsticks from both territories initially emerge from the same matchbox, suggesting that they're merely fighting with themselves over arbitrary distinctions. McLaren's Neighbours had a peculiar quirkiness that, I thought, was counter-productive to the serious message that was trying to be made, but here Bardin makes it work with something similar. But the little visual gags – the cavalry, weapons and vehicles, all made from matchsticks – give way to horror in the final minutes, when the conflict climaxes in a nuclear strike, which leaves armies of matchsticks flailing in the flames. The final shots are not unlike the post-apocalyptic sequences in the Terminator films. Charred matchsticks stand lonely against a barren backdrop, an environment utterly devoid of life. For a long time, that's where we were headed. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Avant-Garde: 21-87 (1964, Arthur Lipsett)

21-87 (1964)
Canada, 10 min
Directed by: Arthur Lipsett

If you've ever thought that the human race was a great thing, then you need to be taken down a peg or two. Why not try some Arthur Lipsett? 21-87 (1964) might just be the bleakest, most pessimistic snapshot of society that I've ever seen, presenting the director's dissatisfaction with and even disdain for contemporary 1960s culture. A seemingly-random collage of urban footage, both scrapped from the archives of the National Film Board of Canada and photographed by Lipsett himself in Montreal and New York City, is mixed with an unrelated soundtrack that muses on the "importance" of religion in everyday life. The end result is to emphasise the emptiness, dehumanisation and alienation of modern man. Footage of a street performer imitating robot movement is followed by a robotic factory arm performing human chores; fashion models mechanically strut the catwalk with blank, impassive faces; middle-aged women browse shop windows, coveting superficial fashions forced upon them by greater society, rather than by their own independent minds.

Lipsett captures ugly, anonymous faces in the street. Each person seems to be lost in the chaos of living, disconnected from his fellow man, staring off into space at something that we do not see. Several spectators spot the camera filming them and gaze uncertainly at it; one man, coming up an escalator, raises a newspaper to obscure his face. These instances of self-awareness could easily have been edited out, but are instead given prominence. Lipsett's camera – and, thus, his film – is showing these people the mechanical emptiness of their everyday lives, but they're in denial, unwilling to exhibit their depravity for the impartial eye of the camera lens. One sequence perfectly encapsulates this distorted self-perception, as men and women playfully grin at warped reflections of themselves in a carnival mirror (one little girl apparently isn't fooled, and recoils tearfully from the grotesque image of herself). Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930) contends that only through the personal suffering of the artist can a beautiful work of art be created. If so, 21-87 is the suffering of its creator.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Comedy: The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, Clyde Bruckman)

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
USA, 21 min
Directed by: Clyde Bruckman
Written by: W.C. Fields

They say that W.C. Fields was unique among comedians, and I'm not going to argue. The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), generally ranked among his best efforts, wasn't as consistently hilarious as I'd been hoping, but one does certainly recognise that Fields had a style that was all his own. The film opens in the frozen Yukon goldfields, where a prospector sits huddled in the primitive shelter of a wooden hut – I immediately thought of Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), but then the characters started speaking and the spell was broken. The loose plot concerns a simpleton prospector whose son travelled to the city and was consumed by the bottle, eventually winding up in prison for three years. It all unfolds in mock seriousness, with every character shamelessly hamming their lines to the camera in broad, ridiculous accents. From Fields' apparent contempt for his own storyline, I'd say he was satirising a type of film that was relatively common in the early sound era, the sort of sombre morality tale about the corruption of the Big City on impressionable rural minds.

Perhaps Fields' type of comedy takes some getting used to, and his absurdist style of wit might easily be misconstrued as sloppy or stilted. Are those rear projections supposed to look so ridiculously fake? I'd like to think so, but, then again, I've seen many movies where obviously-bogus backgrounds have been used with a completely straight face. A lot of the time, Fields' lack of subtlety works perfectly. There's absolutely no reason why getting hit in the face with snow after saying "and it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast" should be funny the sixth time around, but I laughed every time it happened. There's also a droll self-referential moment when Fields chokes on the artificial snow and declares, "tastes more like cornflakes." Even so, while good for the occasional chuckle, The Fatal Glass of Beer feels oddly sparse in terms of laugh-out-loud jokes, and I certainly wasn't rolling in the aisles. Straight afterwards, I watched Buster Keaton's Cops (1922), and that actually did have me laughing my head off – but that'd be opening a whole new can of worms, wouldn't it?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Soviet: Welcome! (1986, Alexei Karaev)

Welcome! (1986)
Soviet Union, 10 min
Directed by: Alexei Karaev
Written by: Dr. Seuss (book), Yuriy Koval (writer)
Starring: Anatoli Barantsev, Aleksei Borzunov, Lyudmila Gnilova, Evgeni Leonov, Klara Rumyanova (voice)

Dobro pozhalovat / Welcome! (1986) is an (unauthorised) adaptation of Dr. Seuss' 1948 story "Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose." This ten-minute animated short film features stunning paint-on-glass animation, and, not surprisingly, involved the talents of the two Soviet animators best known for the technique – Alexei Karaev {The Lodgers of an Old House (1987)} as director, and future Oscar-winner Aleksandr Petrov {The Old Man and the Sea (1999)} as art director. The latter would make his co- directing debut two years later with the Mickey Mouse tribute Marafon (1988), and his solo debut the following year with the Oscar-nominated Korova (1989). The paint-on-glass films with which Petrov made his name utilised an animation style that might be described as romantic realism. Welcome! takes inspiration from its source material, developing the inherent zaniness of Dr. Seuss' tale to produce character animation that is slightly goofy; the moose, for example, has a long, thin legs and a head slightly too big for his body, with large, sad eyes that accentuate his emotions.

In the film, a kind-hearted moose on the prowl for vegetation is talked into allowing an insect to hitchhike on his antlers. The bug invites a spider to share the ride with him. A wood-pecker soon joins them. Having already opened up his antlers to one free-loader, the poor moose can't bring himself to refuse any additional requests, and soon he's carting about an menagerie. When, in his search for more food, the moose decides to cross a lake, his passengers choose to exercise their democratic rights, claiming that they should have a say as to the movements of their new "home." Thus, the moose loses his autonomy. I don't want to overstate the political undertones of a children's work, but Theodor Seuss Geisel (penname "Dr. Seuss") was, in his early cartoon career, a passionate opponent of Hitler's fascist regime, and this story suggests to me how dictatorship can arise through seemingly democratic means, and without citizens realising until it's too late. Perhaps Alexei Karaev was consciously reapplying these themes to the history of the Soviet Union.