Amidst the relics of the high psychedelic era, Yellow Submarine is one of the most instantly recognisable, a jokey and absurdist adventure tale built around one of pop culture’s singular creative wellsprings, the music and artistic personae of The Beatles. The film has become an iconic work encapsulating the Beatles’ oeuvre and mystique and indeed the era of its making. Any still from the film could be used as an emblem and summation of the psychedelic creed. Ironically, Yellow Submarine was a byproduct of the band’s uninterest in appearing in another film: their contractual obligation to United Artists forced them to develop a new movie project, and they decided producing an animated film through their newly formed recording and production company, Apple, seemed a good way to discharge the obligation. (Later, UA eventually declared they hadn’t met that obligation, requiring them to make the 1970 documentary Let It Be.)
I was moved to revisit Yellow Submarine in part because of the passing of Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ illustrious producer and facilitator. Martin, as well as helping to create the Beatles songs heard on the film’s soundtrack, also composed the orchestral score that gives the movie some of its gorgeous, jaunty, romantic gloss. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr kept their distance from the project, which was handled by George Dunning, an animator who had a lot of experience working on a playful, animated children’s show about the band that ran during the second half of the ’60s. The film Dunning was assigned was something very different in concept and style, and only when the film was nearing the end of production did the band members realise something marvellous had been created. Nonetheless, their creative lexicon was key to the vision Dunning and his animation team realised, which extrapolates images and ideas from their songs, as well as builds sequences for their music to play over to create a uniquely textured film.
Considering that animation opens up to filmmakers a form of expression seemingly without limits, most animated features are amazingly conservative, mainly tethered to realistic precepts and slight fantasies meant for kids. If you look at a recent, lauded, smart, but very anodyne kind of animated film, Inside Out (2015), you can see very similar ideas to those in Yellow Submarine, but bound by neat chains of cause and effect in painting the workings of the psyche in total contradiction to the protean delights of the surrealist wellspring both films reference. Yellow Submarine takes its title and core imagery from one of the most deliberately lightweight, yet naggingly catchy tunes Lennon and McCartney ever wrote, a burlesque-cum-tribute to singalong shanties of the Liverpool docklands surely familiar to any son of that port city, given a new paint job in hallucinogenic hues. In Dunning’s film, thanks to a screenplay penned by a small battery of writers, including original story scribe Al Brodax and future Love Story hitmaker Erich Segal, that jaunty number becomes the basis of an oddball, highly unserious take on a Tolkienesque fantasy quest tale. It starts off in a magical kingdom called Pepperland, where free and easy creativity and benign good cheer reign, only to be targeted by an army of nasty creatures called the Blue Meanies who, with their henchmen, want to destroy this last corner of the nonblue universe.
Pepperland is reminiscent of an Edwardian bohemian fantasia of polite relaxation and gentlemanly recline, where the mayor of the town plays in a string quartet and the champions of the land are a foursome of bardic heroes called, inevitably, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The invasion of the Blue Meanies, led by a chief (voiced by Paul Angelis, who also does voice work for Ringo and George) who declares angrily to his underling, Max, that Blue Meanies never take “yes” for an answer owing to their dedicated negativity. Their invading army includes a huge, flying glove and shock troops who bonk enemies with giant green apples (making sport of the symbol of the Beatles’ own label). Their bombardments petrify the inhabitants of Pepperland. One citizen, Fred (Lance Percival) is an old man (although the mayor is so ancient he calls him “Young Fred”) who wears a sailor suit but has no actual naval knowledge whom the mayor assigns the task of taking the Yellow Submarine, the vehicle that first brought Pepper’s band to the land, out into the world to find help. His search brings him to a street in Liverpool where Ringo, kicking about the streets bored and frustrated, senses he’s being followed and tries to get the attention of a policeman who’s too absorbed in trying to charm a cat. Finally, Ringo heads back to The Pier, the house he shares with the other band members, and Fred pops out of the submarine to make his appeal for aid, recounting the attack and his adventures in a babbling torrent.
Yellow Submarine blends many of the contradictory imaginative and cultural reflexes that nestled close to the Beatles’ hearts and energised their art—a faith in electrifying vision and a frontierlike sense of art as a vehicle for life, jostling against a wistful nostalgia for half-remembered ages and semi-mythical qualities of bygone days. The first post-credits sequence, built around “Eleanor Rigby,” envisions decaying industrial Britain through the detritus of its own cultural memory, a monochromatic space populated by figures that appear culled from historical photographs, illustrations, and other bricoleur discoveries, with the jutting, grimy chimneys of the city’s rowed terraces suddenly exhaling like ship’s horns. The sequence doesn’t illustrate the song’s tragic narrative, but underscores its evocation of a blasted, lovelorn corner of the world. Spots of colour, like the Union Jack waistcoat on a very British bulldog overlooking the scene, the periscopes of Fred’s lurking submarine, or the butterfly wings jutting from the back of a meditating philosopher, appear as islets of bliss and invention amidst a landscape dominated by characters who try to do things—footballers warming up on a field, a man trying to get out of a phone booth, a motorcyclist with an anarchic swath of regalia on his helmet but tears leaking from his eyes—but whose motions simply loop. Here the artistic influences hew close to the effects of pop art, particularly Warhol’s obsession with silk-screen derivations of photos and utilising collected, pasted-together images. The images coalesce to evoke a kind of dream-memory in the British psyche where it’s always a chill and depressing day in 1931. The air of melancholy stasis and the soul-grinding side of this dream-memory is countered with images of absurdity and florid mind-over-matter invention as Fred follows Ringo home, who immediately turns the sorrow of the song into theatricality as he laments that “compared to my life, Eleanor Rigby’s was a gay mad whirl.”
The motifs here reproduce those already well established in Richard Lester’s two films featuring the band, depicting the musical foursome as founts of inspiring anarchy in a dreary and clapped-out world. Lester presented a gag in Help! (1965) where the band members arrived at their homes adjoining terrace houses in the midst of Liverpool, only to reveal spacious, conjoined, luxurious environs within. Here Dunning and his animators take that gag a step further and portray the interior of The Pier as a cavernous expanse that blends a Borgesian dream-labyrinth with Looney Tunes gagsmithing; Fred enters the house and disappears through one of hundreds of ranked, identical doors, as behind his back flit fairytale characters, id creatures, and icons out of Dadaist art. The influence of Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show, a radio programme that left a powerful imprint on Lennon and many other British talents of his generation, including the Monty Python squad, is in constant evidence in both the stock characters and the random jokes, including George’s refrain of “It’s all in the mind”.
Fred manages to interest Ringo in his incomprehensible pleas, and they round up the other members of the band, each of whom is glimpsed retreating in some bubble of their own self-perception in a house littered with psychitecture zones adapted to their personalities. Ringo drives a vintage sports car down a grand art-deco staircase. John (John Clive) is first seen in a room littered with pop culture iconography, managing to be both Frankenstein and his own monster as he lurches off a laboratory table as a stitched-up hulk before swallowing a potion to shock himself back into normal state. George stands atop a psychedelic mountain riddled with portals into other realities, communing with the sky–although he’s also in two places at once, the mystic strains of the sitar ringing out all the while. Paul (Geoff Hughes) emerges from his rooms dressed as a strutting dandy to a round of orgiastic applause.
The lads quickly agree, in confused fashion, to join Fred in his quest to retake Pepperland, and they depart in the submarine. “Right, then, let’s get this vessel shipshape,” Fred commands happily, to Ringo’s droning dissent, “I kind of like the way it is—submarine-shape.” Their journey to Pepperland is chiefly an excuse to string together a succession of weird places, each of which is associated with a different artistic style and Beatles song. Yellow Submarine is encyclopaedic in the breadth of its references and appropriations, a freeform surge of artistic modes culled from art nouveau, art deco, fauvism, op art, cubism, comic book art and children’s book illustrations. Filmic technique runs from classic animation to rotoscoping (particularly during a sequence of dancing girls matched to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), whilst the submarine’s departure on its journey back to Pepperland is portrayed in a stroboscopic array of photos set to the famous rising, atonal crescendo from the finale of “A Day in the Life.” Through it all runs a streak of comedy that alternates total surrealism and visionary largesse on the visual level—trains racing out of rooms and halted by a slamming door, a colossal monster that sucks in anything in its path through a giant nozzlelike nose, a hole that can be folded up and kept in a pocket for later use—and verbal humour that runs in an opposite vein, replete with throwaway, non sequitur, sarcastic deflations wielded by the Liverpudlian heroes used to negotiate all kinds of bizarre situations and scarcely fazed by time warps, flying neon piranha, and trotting monsters in Wellington boots.
It’s rather beside the point to critique Yellow Submarine on a narrative level, although the story holds together in its own, specific, shaggy way. The film acts more like a total immersion in a way of seeing the world, inflected by two seemingly opposite terms of reference. It’s both a sophisticated arrangement of artistic modes, metaphors, and mythic motifs that rarely pauses for the slow members of the class to catch up, but also a deft approximation of a childlike sensibility, a place of multitudinous colours, transforming beings, and amorphous possibility seeking joy in the universe, boiling down to a simple message: all you need is love. This suits the band’s peculiar grip on the pop culture zeitgeist at the time, one sustained by their ready ability to shift their official personas slightly to become something different, depending on the angle from which they were viewed: as happy-go-lucky types living something close to a kid’s ideal of what adult life might be like, as counterculture swashbucklers deriving world-shaping ideas from exotic religions and pharmaceutical enhancements, as roguish bon vivants and barely reformed likely lads out of Liverpool with a pleasant line of blarney just out for a good time, or as the moment’s manifestation of an ancient force, the eternal troubadours, bringers of colour and life, with a dash of messianic messaging.
All of these facets are present in the film, which amplifies a central joke from the famous cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s album, where the Beatles are presented in the guise of the fake band with their own, earlier, canonical selves standing next to them. Here the Beatles are required, once they reach Pepperland, to pretend to be Sgt. Pepper and his band to step into the ancient and foundational role of the land of pure imagination. To get to that pure land, they have to travel through places of fragmented nature, places where strange animals roam, where time becomes a fluid entity, where the usually invisible geometries of scientific law suddenly become manifest, sound and vision can be interchangeable, and even the absence of form itself can be entered and contended with on the way to shaping a world. Along the way, the band members and Fred have to contend with an engine that breaks down, Ringo being carried off on the back of a bizarre animal, an attack by Indians requiring a secret weapon consisting of a fully bedecked cavalry unit to be loosed by the submarine, the great horn-nosed monster sucking everything including itself into a white void known as the Sea of Nothing, and getting caught in a time eddy where the submarine’s crew rapidly age both backwards and forwards and catch sight of themselves on the way around.
There are strong affinities between Yellow Submarine and the same year’s science fiction treatment of many of the same themes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, sporting adventurers who journey through a dazzling, trippy-coloured acausal portal through different zones of reality, contending with zones of the Einsteinian universe where time breaks down and they’re old and young at once, and are eventually confronted in the void by a singular being who represents the psyche in all its multifarious, ridiculous aspects. Tonally, of course, they’re completely opposed: Kubrick’s deadly serious contemplation of the transcendent urge via a blend of hard tech and soft psychedelia is viewed in the funhouse mirror here, as the other Beatles give smirks and groans of boredom when John starts extemporising on theoretical physics in the midst of a rupturing watercolour world that embodies the elusive freedom of the psyche’s brighter frontier. Meanwhile, during the Sea of Time sequence, Paul leads the lads in a performance of “When I’m 64” whilst they’re sprouting long, white beards, whilst on screen the animators try to illustrate the possibilities inherent in a mere minute of time, counting off the seconds with elaborately illustrated numbers, a jokey version of the same idea presented with a more fearsome and clammy attitude in another film of the same year, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. In the Sea of Science, scored by the draggy, druggy, glittering sounds of “It’s Only a Northern Song,” the film skirts total dissolution into abstraction, where the film’s soundtrack becomes an animated squiggle and our heroes spin around in convoluted geometries.
In the Sea of Nothing, the submariners encounter a weird being with a hairy, dextrous body and a face like a Commedia dell’arte mask, who calls himself Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD (or “Phud” as Ringo reads it on his business card), engaged furiously in creativity and learning without any apparent purpose. He’s the embodiment of the hapless hero of “Nowhere Man,” which John leads the band in singing, bringing sworls of colour and form to the void as Jeremy weeps in self-recognition. Jeremy nonetheless starts converting book smarts into real-world practice as he fixes the submarine’s troublesome motor, and Ringo, recognising a fellow misfit, invites Jeremy along on the journey. The submariners then enter what John calls “the foothills of the Headlands,” a place filled with colossal, see-through heads alight with thought-images and coated in a fine dusting of pepper, which when disturbed causes all the big giant heads to sneeze and blow our heroes down a deep pit into the Sea of Holes. There, Jeremy is kidnapped by a stray Blue Meanie, but the Beatles manage to find the way out into Pepperland itself and are soon followed by Fred. They’re greeted by a panorama of petrified Pepperlandians, with Blue Meanies constantly patrolling to refreeze anyone who’s waking up. Told by the mayor they have to stir the populace by pretending to be the Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles sneak into a bandstand surrounded by sleeping Meanies, retrieve their instruments and uniforms, and launch a musical assault on the forces of bad vibes.
Yellow Submarine purposefully resists, after the “Eleanor Rigby” scene, traversing the more perverse and melancholy aspects of the Beatles’ music, or the darker, more toxic strands to psychedelia captured by other bands essaying the form, like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Nice, and King Crimson. Yellow Submarine is dedicated to being a good trip: even Lennon’s biting self-satire in “Nowhere Man” is given a jolly and positive spin. And yet there is a sneaky, almost subliminal aura of strangeness and distance to the whole project, the style of humour and the textures of the visuals charged with an eliding, cheeky, diminuendoish quality, never quite building to obvious punch lines or the kinds of patronising joke-delivery systems and metaphors too much animated cinema, even the wildly praised Pixar films, still offer. There’s potency to the Blue Meanies as adversaries (my mother, who was 20 when the film came out, still can’t abide them), sibilant, fey and ambisexual in just the wrong manner, the ever-so-faint shudder of the molester’s insidious grinning evil to them, and their oppression of Pepperland, which is at once playful and unpleasant. The bonks of the green apples are comic, but some of the images, like a line of their shock troops, grinning evilly behind dark glasses and giving Nazi salutes, like Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove given a pop makeover, have a charge of lunacy behind them.
Good triumphs, of course, as a few good licks of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “All You Need Is Love” shake Pepperland back to life and empower the citizens to chase out the Blue Meanies. The chief Meanie, after seeing his flying glove and multiheaded guard dog defeated, is rendered utterly helpless and humiliated by Jeremy, who causes flowers to break out all over his furry form. This leads to a climax set to Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” a triumphant procession of the populace of Pepperland, their saviours, and their defeated, yet accepted, enemies celebrating. Here the film pays its last nod to both the kinds of courtly sagas its narrative resembles, but also the final cast call of the musical traditions it extends. The real Beatles finally make a brief appearance right at the end, showing off their souvenirs of the journey and leading the audience in another of their schoolyard, dittylike numbers “All Together Now,” going out with a last blast of the overall, inclusive idealism Yellow Submarine embodies, the refrain of the song spelt out in a dozen languages. Of course, the love trip went sour by the decade’s end, and this kind of wilful naivete went right out of fashion. But Yellow Submarine’s impact, if not its best lesson, has echoed through animated film after it. And in an age of random terrorist attacks and the seeming willingness of far too many people to buy into the politics and philosophy of hate and resentment, watching a film that preaches acceptance, love, and peace without a drop of sarcasm suddenly feels revolutionary again.
In a village in West Africa isolated at the bottom of a large, circular gorge, 12-year-old Adama (Azize Diabaté Abdoulaye) and his friends enjoy an afternoon swimming and diving into a water-filled depression far below a narrow path where some village elders and Adama’s brother Samba (Jack Amba) are standing. Although told to stay with them to prepare for his initiation the next day, Samba defies the elders and performs a perfect swan dive into the pool. His independent nature will prove a trial to the villagers, and especially Adama, when his initiation into manhood is interrupted by an evil omen that he is possessed—an albatross flying high above the village. When he is told he must live with the village shaman, who will try to cure his possession, Samba sets off in the night to join the people of the wind, the Nassaras, in the outside world who have tempted him with gold and adventure. Adama sets off to bring his brother home. Eventually, his travels land him in the middle of no man’s land during World War I’s Battle of Verdun, during which more than a quarter-million French and German soldiers perished.
In his debut feature film, French animator/director/screenwriter Simon Rouby has turned to France’s past to tell a fable of sorts with flourishes of magic realism abetted in this animated film by a combination of 3D laser-scanned characters and 2D scenery and decors. While France’s colonial past is alluded to, as Samba is enticed to fight for France, while men in the coastal village to which Adama makes his way are conscripted if they don’t volunteer, the film’s main focus is the fish out of water adventure of Adama and his single-minded quest to save his brother.
The look of this film is both beautiful and a bit disconcerting. The backgrounds in the African portions of the film are impressionistic, with all the beauty of a New Mexico desert. The high cliffs that surround Adama’s village are modeled on the landscape where the Dogon tribes live—North Mali, by the Bandiagara cliffs—though the actual location is left unspecified in the film. Ferrofluids (iron particles mixed with ink that can be manipulated with magnets) and a combination of live-action effects and paintings provide some stunning images, from ghostlike soldiers in gas masks to a sandstorm that pummels Adama on his trip to the coast. On the other hand, Adama and Samba, though designed by Rouby to look lifelike, look anything but. Perhaps in 3D, they accomplish his goal, but in the 2D I saw, they looked like rough CGI.
Appearances aside, the action and voice actors are compelling and affecting. When Djo (Oxmo Puccino), the strong African warrior who protected Adama while they were crossing to France, is shown in a vast hospital blinded by mustard gas, it is a shocking and terrible moment. His dismay at being sent to a fight an enemy he never got a chance to see shows the gaping distance between traditional wars fought face to face and the mechanized, impersonal death that has grown ever more sophisticated since the beginning of the 20th century. Adama’s naïve wonder at the world outside his village, from the spreading ocean to the truck tracks that seem to line every road, reveals his disoriented curiosity. When he falls in with a French thief who arranges for them both to get to Paris on a truck and then steals Adama’s money, Adama’s tears of loneliness, fear, and frustration in a back alley where he is forced to spend the night are all too real and pitiable.
Throughout the film, Adama is met with an effigy of a spirit or god that seems to keep him on his course to finding Samba. It appears that Abdu (Pascal N’Zonzi), a beggar Adama encountered in the seaside village who was forced to fight for France, is the embodiment of this spirit; Adama sees him on the Verdun battlefield cursing at the German planes that swoop down to strafe anything that moves. He provides Adama and Samba with the key to survival—to remember their roots—and finishes Samba’s initiation ceremony by making a small cut on each temple that symbolically opens his eyes to the world beyond childhood.
Adults watching this film will find the coming-of-age story familiar, but the context unfamiliar and sobering. Despite the resemblance of the village to the isolated utopia of Shangri-La, the villagers are real people, with strict rules and rebellious youths. The blood ritual is mild in comparison to other types of traditional initiation rites, but the connection to the out-of-control test of manhood that was The Great War should have audiences wondering which way of life is more civilized. This film may be too intense for younger children, but should resonate with young adults. One of Rouby’s stated goals of helping Europeans and others understand the experience of immigrants from Africa is noble, but the remoteness of a film set 100 years in the past with folkloric content may not be sufficient to open eyes and hearts. Nonetheless, this film may be just good enough to pull it off.
Adama screens Friday, October 23 at 5:45 p.m., Sunday, October 25 at 11:30 a.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
Today is Memorial Day in the United States, when many Americans remember those killed and maimed during their military service and honor them with parades, commemorative speeches, and the ritual eating of charred meat. There are, however, millions upon millions of unsung contributors to this country’s war efforts who will never win a medal or have a song written about them—indeed, there is a growing minority seeking to avoid doing their part at all costs, most of them at the very top of the social pecking order. I am, of course, referring to all those Americans through the decades who have paid their income taxes.
Wars don’t come cheap these days, and it is a profound irony that conservative elements in our government who rail against taxing anyone to pay for our country’s freeloaders—you know, kids, old folks, the disabled—can’t vote fast enough to rush spending to the industrial giants who supply the guns, tanks, aircraft, bombs, and computer technology that make going to war possible. This peculiar prioritizing I lay at the feet of none other than Donald Duck.
In 1942, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., approached Hollywood about preparing some propaganda to encourage citizens to pay their income taxes in full and on time to help pay the freight for World War II. Walt Disney, a true-blue American who drew patriotic cartoons about World War I for his school newspaper, was highly receptive to the request. The film studio responded with The New Spirit, a short cartoon that was the company’s first entry into the propaganda war. Enlisted to create this important short were two proven animation veterans, Ben Sharpsteen, supervising director for Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941), and Wilfred Jackson, the animation director of those two films. The sailor-suited Donald Duck, the government-approved mouthpiece for this task, became the everyman to sell the importance of tax filing to the public, some of whom were alive before 1913 when there were no federal income taxes.
Donald (Clarence Nash), like many Americans, is literally filled with patriotic fervor fed by outrage at the attack on Pearl Harbor, American flags rising on the whites of his eyes as a radio announcer (Fried Shields) becomes the motivational voice of the anthropomorphized, floor-model radio. He winds Donald up about a very important contribution he can make to the war effort, leaving Donald pleading that he will do anything, anything to help. Nonetheless, when he finds out he’s being asked to pay his income taxes, his reaction is less than enthusiastic.
Once convinced of the importance of this duty, however, Donald throws himself into it, bringing every weapon of calculus at his disposal. The all-knowing radio reminds Donald that he made less than $3,000 that tax year, so he can file that era’s version of a 1040EZ form. The film helpfully goes through the steps needed to file this form. Donald, in his eagerness to help win the war, zips across the country to hand-deliver his tax return to the Treasury.
It is here that the drums of war pound with growing sexual tension as phallic columns of coins turn into factory smoke stacks and production lines turning out “guns, guns, all kinds of guns.” “Taxes to beat the Axis” becomes the rhythmic slogan that helps hype the battle action—sinking ships, shooting down planes, destroying submarines. Of course, the enemy craft are marked clearly with the Nazi swastika or rising sun and equipped with predatory fangs and evil eyes. Ultimate victory is predicted, freeing everyone from want and fear, with heroic assurances that “taxes will help keep democracy on the march.”
It’s not certain what parts of The New Spirit were most effective, but a Gallup poll that year found that of the estimated 60 million people who saw the cartoon, more than 37 percent said it positively affected their willingness to do their taxes. Ironically, the government never paid Disney to produce the film, which had originally been part of the bargain, and the studio lost a bundle on it.
In one of the most bizarre moves by the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The New Spirit was one of the 25 films nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. Perhaps it was nominated for its psychological realism about the seductive power of weapons. It’s a perverse delight to think what would greet such a film made and distributed widely today—it might just cause a rightwing meltdown.
“Railway tracks can take you places: to Lisbon or to Auschwitz, to your own past or even to your doubts, the traces of what your parents, friends, and enemies have left behind.”
The psychic landscape of individual and collective memory infuses writer Jaroslav Rudiš and illustrator Jaromír 99’s graphic novel trilogy Alois Nebel (Bílý Potok [White Brook] 2003), Hlavní Nádraží [Central Station] 2004) and Zlaté Hory [Golden Hills] 2004). Each book is named for a Czech railway station and based on stories about Rudiš’s grandfather Alois, who was a railway worker. The popularity of the trilogy was a surprise to its creators. Even more surprising was the proposal to turn it into a film and its eventual choice as the Czech Republic’s official entry for Best Foreign-Language Film in the 84th Academy Awards race. Leave it to the Czechs to recognize the worth of a rotoscope-animated film that leaves most of the Oscar contenders and winners in the dust.
Armed with little more than a teaser description, a single image from the film, and an enthusiastic love for Czech cinema, I paid my money and opened myself up to an enveloping experience of peculiarly quiet intensity. Alois Nebel is, appropriately, image-driven, with little dialogue and a subtly communicated plot. Its central character, Alois Nebel, works at the Bílý Potok train station in the Jeseníky mountains of what was once the German Sudetenland, and it is his memories from 1945, when Germans were expelled from the region, that provide the key to the drama underlying the film’s events.
The film begins in 1989, before the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and Czechoslovakia. A voiceover repeats names of train stations and arrival times repeatedly. A man on the run, carrying an ax crosses the guarded border and darts into the trees. As the pursuit of the man ends with him killing a dog sent to track him down, a more down-to-earth scene follows at the Bílý Potok train station. Alois (Miroslav Krobot) emerges from the station house and pours some milk into a bowl for his cat. “Where were you last night?” he asks, as the cat laps at the milk. His coworker Wachek (Leos Noha) is a crude loudmouth who keeps an eye on Alois, lest he interfere with the black market transactions he and his father (Alois Svehlík) use to keep the old man’s trailer park business afloat. The uncommunicative Alois pays little mind to Wachek, however. He goes about his business, having dinner and a beer at the local pub, and reading the timetables to relax a troubled mind that sometimes drifts into a frightening fog.
One evening, Alois’ vision of the deportation of a German woman (Tereza Vorísková) who used to care for him after his mother died emerges from a fog. The disturbing vision turns into a fuller memory of her rough treatment during the deportation, one that sends Alois over the edge. Wachek finds him sitting in the john, refusing to emerge, and Alois is taken to a mental hospital for a time. There he meets the man on the run, the mute (Karel Roden) Alois calls him, who was picked up outside the Bílý Potok train station in front of Alois. When Alois is released, he finds his old job and living quarters have been given to someone else, and goes to Prague to get his job situation sorted out. He sleeps in the train depot with other unemployed railway workers until the bathroom attendant, Kveta (Marie Ludvíková), takes a shine to him and sees to his needs. The end of the Soviet bloc proves the end of Kveta and Alois’ courtship as well. When next we catch up with Alois, he has grown a beard and is posted to a remote station deep in the mountains. He reencounters the mute, and pieces of his past fall into place as the mute finally speaks and declares his intentions.
The choice to use rotoscope animation was a compromise between the wishes of the graphic-novel creators to maintain the look and feel of the books and director Lunák’s cinematic approach. Not a fan of the rotoscoping of Ralph Bakshi, I was prepared to feel underwhelmed by its use in Alois Nebel. The film would have worked as a traditional feature film, with the performances underlying the illustrations still boldly in evidence. Yet, the black-and-white animation emphasizes the grave, colorless world Alois inhabits, the joylessness of everything from liberation from the Soviets to an abortive love affair. Alois’ offering of carnations to Kveta could have popped with some color, but the answer to her question, “How did you know I like carnations?” is a truthful “I didn’t,” thus bleaching the moment of some of its romantic potential.
A horror-movie atmosphere pervades the mental hospital sequence, with prolonged and graphic depictions of electroshock therapy the equal of any dripping nightmare from Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010). Indeed, there are many elements of this film that are reminiscent of that horror movie, from recovered memories to crazed vengeance and ever-present water. The use of trains approaching us head-on from out of the screen is a familiar, even clichéd image, but one that is turned on its head as having nothing to do with Jewish deportation, but rather, German expulsion.
All of the actors are riveting, no matter how small their roles. Svehlík is a bilious old Nazi sympathizer who constantly fiddles with his old service revolver and keeps his greasy son on a short leash. I took note of the only time in the film when the younger Wachek smiled—a toothy grin for a larcenous Soviet official who was clearing out of the country. Roden’s periodic appearances in the film are perfectly timed to forward the central plot with the patience his character had to endure to realize his goal.
Yet, it is with a slow rhythm and the enigmatic magnetism of Alois that Krobot ensnares us. In an age when audiences, particularly American audiences, are drown with too-revealing dialogue, even fed entire plots in movie trailers, Krobot’s reticence and and Lunák’s very sparing use of flashback maintain a mystery that is intriguing to follow. Krobot fends off the cinematic voyeur, reacting more than revealing, accepting without being submissive, creating an indelible character who has witnessed much and learned to channel his distress with the routine of his timetables. How one gets so much from a monochrome line drawing of the man speaks to the skill of the actor, director, and animator.
Bílý Potok is the wettest place in the Czech Republic, and the film makes great use of a torrential rainstorm to bring its story to a dark and inevitable climax. Rushing water cascading through the mountainous terrain seems as ready to sweep away Alois’ future as it does his past. When the film draws to a close, people are where they should be, with the trains back on schedule and the past finally put to rest.
It takes all kinds to make a movie. From actors great and small to sound and lighting technicians, set decorators, make-up artists, and writers—all held together by the producer and director—movie-making is one of the most interdependent endeavors around. Yet, it is not the only one, as the horrors of interdependency shown in 1953’s Duck Amuck makes it one of the most universal and subversive films ever made. Despite its reflexive look at the world of animated filmmaking and its use of catchphrases of its time (“What a way to run a railroad!” and “Oh brother, I’m a buzz boy!”), there isn’t a soul alive who can’t relate in some way to the sometimes cruel and unrepentant ways Big Brother takes over our lives and makes a holy hash of our plans and assumptions.
Daffy Duck is the star of the Warner Bros. cartoon Duck Amuck, which starts slyly as a tale of the Three Musketeers—you know, all for one and one for all? Ready to work on a thrilling adventure film, Daffy finds that he has entered the Twilight Zone instead. He finds himself parrying and thrusting onto a blank background. Like a performer awakening a sleeping stagehand, he calls for some scenery to be painted behind him. Alas, instead of 17th century France, he gets a farm.
Daffy is what I’d call the solid citizen persona of his creator, Chuck Jones. He knows and has internalized all the rules of his universe. If the scene suddenly changes to a barnyard, he runs off and reappears wearing overalls and carrying a hoe. If he suddenly notices an igloo on the back 40, he exchanges his hoe for some ski poles. If he is confronted with palm trees and ocean, he grabs a lava lava from wardrobe and plays the ukelele with outsized enthusiasm. When he’s tortured by this tyrannical and capricious behavior, he looks for fault in himself, muttering aloud that he’s sure he has complied with his employment contract and hasn’t he kept his figure in tip-top shape? In other words, he’s an actor, though unlike what that label implies, he really reacts to changing circumstances with little complaint, the better to preserve his precarious existence.
Indeed there can be no more precarious existence than being a cartoon character, relying on an artist to provide his body and environment and, in this case, Mel Blanc, to produce his voice—or a sound engineer when the fellow in charge decides to substitute some strange sounds for Daffy’s vocal protests. The humiliations continue when Daffy gets redrawn as a daisy-headed platypus, but what can he do? He can’t even quit if his creator decides to cast him in a movie he doesn’t enjoy, like Duck Amuck.
Jones may not have had it top of mind, but his godlike manipulations of poor little Daffy bear a striking resemblance to the petty torments of the office environment hilariously chronicled in such films as Office Space (1999) and Office Killer (1997). The 1950s were the heyday of the Organization Man, with Daffy perfectly channeling the conformist worker in companies that often operated on the whims of their founders or charismatic leaders. Jones may have been glancing in the direction of the Disney empire and its straitjacket of innocence, imagining what his uncontrolled id could do to the likes of Alice in Wonderland or Wendy Darling. He rebelled against the use of a dynamic filmmaking technique for doing what parents could any night of the week—read their kids a story. Jones sought to free their imaginations with the gleeful anarchy of his many superb animated shorts.
In the end, Chuck owns up to being a very naughty boy. “Ain’t I a stinker?” his cartoon surrogate says. Without a doubt, thank goodness!
Hollywood has been making comic book movies for a long time, and the pace has reached frenzied proportions in the last few years. Much of this product is watered down, mindless, and badly executed, a disappointment to fans of the comics and of films alike. Well, here’s one film made from a comic book I can unreservedly recommend, and it’s the very first animated feature of a comic book to come out of Poland. As a film, George the Hedgehog carries on in the raunchy, irreverent, edgy tradition of such classics as Fritz the Cat and television’s The PJs. Yet, the script is pure Hollywood comedy-action cinema at its best.
In a grungy underground lab, a mad scientist (Grzegorz Pawlak) is feeding American pop culture images and sounds into a computer. The scientist hopes to develop a clone that will be a surefire superstar, win him the respect of the scientific community that has scorned him, oh, and garner him fame and fortune, too. The computer runs like a slot machine through hundreds of possible models and stops on the image of a hedgehog. A hedgehog? Well, the computer can’t be wrong. The scientist sends his assistant (Jaroslaw Boberek) to find the animal and get some DNA.
As it happens, there is a hedgehog in town, a beer-guzzling, skateboarding, womanizing slacker named George (Borys Szyc). He is having an affair with the beautiful blonde Yola (Maria Peszek), who is bored with her nerdy husband but can’t divorce him because she’s Catholic. He is also set upon regularly by Stefan (Marcin Sosnowski) and Zenek (Michal Koterski), unemployed neo-Nazis who pick on him because they can’t get all the women he can.
The assistant notices Stefan and Zenek and offers them a substantial amount of money to grab some blood, saliva, and quills from the hedgehog. He also instructs them to kill George, something they are reluctant to do because he is the only target in the neighborhood they can stomp for being different. In a comic fight, George defends himself with his skateboard, but Zenek bites his ass to draw blood, and Stefan collects his drool and quills. Leaving George to lick his wounds, the pair takes their “harvest” to the scientist who drops it into a machine that whirls him out a clone of George—a vulgar moron who vomits and farts profusely and humps anything in sight. The scientist sets his scheme in motion by shooting a music video of clone George and turning his hedgehog into an Internet sensation and Polish pop hero. But the real George will have to be dealt with sooner or later.
Hypersexed animals and gross-out jokes aren’t my usual cup of tea, but when they are mixed with pointed satire and killer animation, I’m all about it. George the Hedgehog, stripped of the local and timely topical humor of the comic book, takes on bigger fish and fries them black in a way that a worldwide audience can understand. For instance, the idea that a hedgehog could be an international internet star makes perfect sense in the era of YouTube sensations Surprised Kitty (54.2 million views and counting) and Maru (11 million views for just one of his videos). In another example, a sleazy politician (Leszek Teleszynski), who on first glance reminded me very much of Mayor Richard J. Daley (with Chicago being the city with the second-largest Polish population in the world, I have to wonder if this was more than a coincidence), hitches his wagon to the hedgehog to court the youth vote and affects rapper gestures. Anyone who has watched the steady parade of politicians on Letterman, Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report, and similar shows will recognize the tactic and, if they haven’t given it much thought, become aware that they are being marketed to, not served.
The intelligentsia get a thorough drubbing as they pontificate on a talking-heads program about the bravery of clone George’s performance art—actually surveillance camera footage of him breaking into a sex shop, puncturing with his quills the blow-up doll he starts to screw, and burning the whole place down, thus releasing anatomically correct blow-up dolls to float like fantasy helium balloons over the city. While clone George’s performance had nothing to do with art, the flying dolls are really quite beautiful.
In an interview on Badass Digest, director Wawszczyk said the animators used a cut-out style of animation, or what was pioneered by UPA in the States as limited animation. Unlike the relatively simple cartoons I’ve seen using limited animation, the complexity of the background layering and detail work on the moving figures is very intricate in George the Hedgehog, both grotesque and beautiful.
The send-ups of Hollywood films are many. For example, the showdown between George and clone George at a stadium-style rock concert plays like a cross between the climaxes of Black Sunday and Valley Girl. George’s battles with Stefan and Zenek use the same type of slo-mo found in the Matrix movies. The filmmakers are also inordinately fond of car crashes, starting with a doozy when two policewomen who recur throughout the film see George drinking a beer on a public median strip and run across a busy street to ticket him, causing a major pile-up as drivers try to avoid hitting the women.
The focus on the inconsequential, on celebrity, that had Americans in a lotus eaters’ haze through the past two or three decades has infected Poland as well, only 20 years after throwing off the yoke of Soviet oppression. A truly free and anarchic soul like George exemplifies the genuine pleasures and possibilities of that new sense of freedom, but the creators of George the Hedgehog suggest that Poles are more interested in off-the-truck knock-offs.
George the Hedgehog will screen Friday, October 14, 10:45 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 10:45 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)
Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)
Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)
Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
Satoshi Kon’s death last year aged just 46 was a serious blow to anime fans and for cinema in general. Kon worked his way up through the animator ranks beginning in the early 1980s, and debuted as a director with 1997’s highly regarded Perfect Blue. For his second film, Kon wanted to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 novel Paprika, but that project was put on hold when the production company folded. Kon made three more films in the interim before he finally brought Tsutsui’s novel to the screen. Like Perfect Blue, it was considerably altered from the source material, becoming in almost all respects Kon’s brainchild. That word seems particularly apt here, for Paprika is about the transformative capacities and boundless expanse of the mind’s imaginative abilities.
Paprika, the titular heroine, is the literal brainchild and ultra-cute avatar of brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara in the Japanese version and Cindy Robinson in the English-language edition). Atusko works for the Foundation for Psychiatric Research that has begun moving beyond traditional therapy methods, thanks to new technology that can help the shrinks infiltrate the dream states of clients, including a new remote unit called the DC-Mini invented by the brilliant, corpulent, geeky, distracted techno wiz Kohsaku Tokita (Tôru Furuya/ Yuri Lowenthal).
At the film’s outset, Kon plunges deep into the head of police detective Toshimi Kogawa, or Konakawa in the English version (Akio Ohtsuka/Paul St. Peter), via a recurring dream in which he’s tracking down a criminal. His dream commences in a circus where he’s caged by a magician and passes through several different genres of fantasy, including a Tarzan film, a suspense thriller in which he’s being garrotted, and what he says is the scene of a true crime he’s working on. There, a man falls dead to the floor of a hotel hallway whilst the perp is disappearing into a fire escape, and when Togawa attempts to chase him down, the dream dissolves and sends him plummeting toward wakefulness. Togawa’s getting neurotic, and Chiba, in her Paprika guise, has begun treating him with the still-experimental DC-Mini.
When Chiba arrives at the institute the next morning, however, Tokita, whom she finds humiliatingly jammed in the elevator, admits an even more humiliating fact to her: his DC-Mini prototypes have all disappeared, apparently stolen by his assistant and fellow nerdy genius Himuro (Daisuke Sakaguchi/Brian Beacock). The singular brilliance of the DC-Mini is its capacity not only to allow mind-to-mind communication, but also to project remotely into other minds and allow people attuned to it to step into and out of the dreamscapes at will. Because Tokita had not put security settings on the device, there are no limits on what the thief can do with the gadget. Immediately, the thief makes some of his intentions known to Chiba and her fellows, as her immediate superior Dr. Torataro Shima (Katsunosuke Hori/David Lodge) starts talking gibberish and hurls himself out of a window. Seriously injured and in a coma, Shima dreams of being the grand marshal of a great, insane parade that includes horn-blowing frogs, singing dolls, walking soft drink machines, and a thousand other equally ludicrous figures. Shima recovers, but the race to find the villain who begins subsuming increasing numbers of people into the same seemingly wondrous, but deadly dream chosen from the mind of one of the Foundation’s psychotic patients becomes urgent.
One of the most outstanding qualities of Paprika is that it has a more complex plot than most mainstream thrillers, and whilst it frequently operates on the level of dream logic, it’s always tightly coherent. Yet, it manages to remember that, at heart, it’s a fantasy adventure though tracts of the subconscious and the unconscious built around that desire to maintain lucid control over the dream-state’s possibilities. Chiba, in the familiar guise of a professional woman with her sharp suits and tight hair, is uptight, sober, critical, and rigid, but she lets slip her alter ego Paprika when delving into the dreams. Paprika is a bob-haired redhead with the antic disposition of a playfully creative teenager, a warrior princess perfectly adapted for the surreal world. Chiba has mastered the capacity to move in and out of the dream-state and control herself within it. At one point, sent off to do battle, Chiba runs along a corridor, transforming into Paprika a la Superman in a phone box. Pursuing the villains through layered dreamscapes, she changes forms according to childhood fancies, turning into the hero of the cult Japanese TV show Monkey when she needs to fly, or Tinkerbell, or the Sphinx from Gustave Moreau’s painting.
Chiba/Paprika needs all her wits to survive. At one point, she seems to follow an Ichimatsu doll into a deserted fairground, and while trying to jump a fence, is snatched back by her colleague Dr. Morio Osanai (Kôichi Yamadera/Doug Erholtz), because she was actually about to leap off a balcony. Later, when she finds the real-life equivalent of the park, she’s nearly flattened by Himuro falling from the top of a Ferris wheel: far from being the mastermind, he’s just another patsy.
Simultaneous to the main plot, Chiba attempts to continue treating Detective Togawa through his work computer, with Togawa passing into the dreamscape and imagining himself in an upscale, but empty bar with two dapper waiters; Paprika shows up to guide him in an investigation of the meaning of his dream. They prove to be based in Togawa’s own suppressed interest in movies, with the recurring dream commencing in a street showing movies that include the ones through which his dream then proceeds—The Greatest Show on Earth, Roman Holiday, Tarzan. Here, of course, Paprika the film openly acknowledges the accord between its version of dreaming and cinema itself as a primal space where identities are swapped and fantasies actualised. Togawa, initially neurotic and denying any interest in movies, proves, in fact, to be a colossal film buff who once tried and failed to make a suspenseful short film with an interesting gimmick: all the way through the film the characters, a cop and criminal, were chasing each other. At one point, Togawa realises the man falling dead is himself, and he starts to realise the dream is a metaphor for his own regret over abandoning his cinematic aspirations. His dream also becomes another battleground in the attempt to corner the DC-Mini thief, as Togawa is the detective the Foundation members turn to for help in tracking down the villain. He immediately recognises Chiba as Paprika’s real-life equivalent. When the two plot strands intersect in Togawa’s dreamscape, Togawa manages to gun down the bad guy, save Paprika, and gain a heroic The End all to the applause of the audience within his dream. It’s not really The End, but it does get them all out of the closed loop in which the true villains have tried to trap them.
Those villains are Dr. Seijiro Inui (Toru Emori/Michael Forest), the wheelchair-bound director of the Foundation, who believes that the dream-invading techniques are an abomination he’s using to teach a painful lesson to their proponents, and Osanai. But it’s clear that both men’s intentions have become blurred with a hunger for power for its own sake, as Inui becomes a colossus unlimited by his physical disability. Osanai, terminally jealous and desirous of Chiba, has become Inui’s lover in order to share in using the DC-Mini and possess Paprika. Kon respects the protean, often highly sexualised, if not specifically sexual, nature of dreaming, and the film is richly, playfully, and sometimes acutely aware of the eroticism that pulses through the material whilst going nowhere near the seamier precincts of animation. Some of this is on the level of a naughty pun, like Paprika giving Shima a different kind of blow job: she sinks inside of him and then inflates him like a giant balloon, which then bursts, waking him up. Elsewhere it’s more evocative and pointed. Particularly, beautifully kinky and nasty is the scene in which Osanai, having captured Paprika, has transformed her into a huge butterfly he has pinned to a table, and, with relish, plunges his hand into her groin and slides his splayed fingers up under her skin, peeling the Paprika shell off Chiba, discovered inside.
Inui attempts to assert control over Osanai, growing off him and out of him, but the two men remain fused in one, self-wrestling body, a grotesque vision of their mutual homoeroticism, narcissism, and crippled aspects turned monstrous. Their fight gives Togawa time to snatch away Chiba, and, when Togawa shoots Osanai, who has taken the place of the fleeing villain in the film, they have a vision of him in the waking world as dying from the wound, and in Inui’s house, where his body was, he’s sucked into a void that begins opening, consuming reality and dreamscapes alike.
It’s embarrassing to think about the level on which most Western animation is still pitched, whatever the fine qualities of such contemporary models as Pixar are, for it’s still basically kid’s stuff. Perhaps that’s one reason why the equally inventive, but still firmly youth-oriented films of Hayao Miyazaki have found more favour with Western critics than that of any other anime director. Paprika mashes together traditional juvenilia with far more adult imagery and concepts; in fact, it’s very much about the state of flux between youth and experience and the psychological continuity, or lack thereof, that afflicts so many. The tropes of childhood and early obsession afflict most of the characters, including Chiba herself, Tokichi, and Togawa. Paprika’s singular brilliance is in using such tropes to fuel her capacity to navigate dreamscapes. The film named after her is equally the work of a director with a vision in perfect control of, and comfort within, his medium. The material could have played out in many different ways, from the riotously grotesque to something as numbingly literal-minded as Inception (2010), a film that drained the dream-infiltrating idea of all colour, wit, and sexuality. But Kon, who held particular esteem for George Roy Hill’s time-hopping Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and the works of Terry Gilliam (the influence of the latter is especially noticeable), and his animators kept a tight grip on this film, which swings from anarchy to crisp realism. As borderline psychotic as the imagery and as loopy as the story become in places, the film is never less than a carefully constructed, highly witty, and fluent piece of work.
Terrific little dashes of imagination and humour dot the landscape. A row of schoolgirls subsumed into the mass dream strut about with cell phones for heads, and a mob of perverts, similarly transformed, eagerly dash to look/photograph up their skirts. Togawa, when explaining a point of obscure cinema language to Paprika, suddenly appears dressed up in Akira Kurosawa’s signature peaked hat and sunglasses. Streams of weirdly poetic gibberish pour from the mouths of the victims plunged into the mass dream. There are morals to the story, of course, not least of which being that external appearances are rarely entirely true. As well as trying to save the day, Chiba finds herself as a point on an amusingly elusive romantic triangle between the cast-iron cop and the fat sweaty nerd, and all three characters are refreshingly complex creations. Togawa’s tough-guy job and his artistic impulses prove finally to have been deeply entwined, for he decided to live out the role of his movie’s hero in real life and thus joined the police force; his recurring dream is more about the way he lost contact with his forgotten collaborator on the film, who died young after getting attention. Chiba and Tokita’s love-hate relationship shows the psychotherapist in love with the genius in him but repelled by his weight and displacing that anxiety into tirades against his boyish obsessiveness.
Paprika herself embodies Chiba’s frustrated youth and playful instincts, which enables, rather than contradicts, her great professional ability. Paprika can be read as a film that is also about the creative impulse, with Chiba/Paprika evolving constantly in her sense of herself as a nexus of influences she takes in and then gives out. Similarly, Togawa comprehends his life as one of real dedication sprung from fictional creation. Tokita’s attempt to redeem himself by entering Himuro’s dream to draw out the villains gets him swept up pretty quickly, but later, Tokita, in his dreamscape reconfigured into one of his own collectible robots, destroys the gigantic Ichibana doll that is Inui’s favourite avatar. By the film’s madcap final 20 minutes, all of Tokyo has become engaged with the mass dream to the point where nobody’s sure what’s real and what isn’t; to Togawa and Shima’s bewilderment, Chiba and Paprika argue with each other over what course of action to take. Finally Paprika, yin to Inui’s yang, reconstructs herself into a colossus like him, growing both in size and through physical ages with the battle cry, “There’s always an opposite. Light and darkness, life and death, man and woman. And to spice it all up, you add Paprika!” She literally consumes Inui in defeating him. It’s both a send-up of, and a tribute to, the traditional monster-bashing finales of so much anime and keigu eiga movies. Finally, although he doesn’t get the girl, Togawa goes out and buys himself something just as vital to a well-balanced life: a movie ticket.
Weird, beautiful, sexy, funny, Paprika is a master class in film and story, and a great testament to its sadly departed creator. Also worth kudos is the terrific musical score by Susumu Hirasawa, particularly Paprika’s infectious theme.
When films were born, the inventiveness of the many, many film production companies that sprung up all over the world boggles the mind. In Berlin alone, in addition to the state-sponsored studio, there were nearly 300 independent film producers jostling for a place in front of a public eager to consume this new form of entertainment. Among them was a well-off fellow named Louis Hagen, who bought literal tons of film stock at a low price believing that his investment, a hedge against rising inflation, would grow exponentially as the demand for movies continued to grow. Lotte Reiniger, a gifted silhouette artist who ran in avant-garde art circles in Berlin, taught art to Hagen’s children and benefited from his largesse by being given film stock and a place in his attic to film what became The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving, feature-length animated film.
Reiniger apparently could create intricate silhouettes out of paper in nothing flat, and this ability gave her the confidence to create an entire Arabian Nights world, inspired by the fantasy novels she loved to read, using paper characters that had up to 50 hinged components. She and her small crew, including Carl Koch, her cinematographer and husband, bent for hours in the cramped attic, exposing 300,000 frames of stop action with the fragile and easily disturbed silhouettes and sets. Filming and editing took three years, and at first, no one would book the film. It took many years to earn back its investment, but there was no doubt that it eventually would when the standing-room-only audience for the first screening left the theatre dumbstruck at the marvel they had just seen. Some 84 years later, I and the hubby joined their ranks after we were privileged to attend a live-music screening of this important and awe-inspiring film at the Portage Theater, a surviving movie palace on Chicago’s Northwest Side that has done more than its part to keep vintage films alive and on display.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed tells interrelated stories, though they are mainly centered on Prince Achmed. He, his sister Princess Dinarzade, and their father The Caliph of Persia, hold a great reception on the palace grounds at which visiting dignitaries pay tribute with fine gifts. The finest of them all is a horse that can fly, offered by the scheming African Sorcerer. The Caliph offers bags of gold to buy the horse, but the Sorcerer will only accept Princess Dinarzade as his wife in exchange. When Achmed runs to her side to defend her, the Sorcerer has him mount the horse and sends him up in the air—without telling him how to return to Earth. The Sorcerer is imprisoned, but Achmed is set free to have the adventures he always dreamed of.
Achmed’s ascent is beautifully shot, with dark clouds obscuring his form as he rises higher and higher, then snow to reflect the cold outer atmosphere, and finally a blanket of stars. He discovers how to descend only after he has traveled far from his home—as the Sorcerer intended—and lands on the island of Wak Wak, home to spirits, including their beautiful ruler Pari Banu. They make him a warm welcome and fight for his attention in a scene of comic bawdiness, but once he sees their queen, he will have no other.
Interestingly, Achmed becomes a Peeping Tom when Pari Banu and her attendants fly with the aid of their bird-shaped cloaks to a pond where he is hiding and strip nude to bathe. Achmed is one of the few characters who has eyes, and they very expressively suggest his lust; the nude figures of the women even have nipples. It’s actually quite an erotic scene, and one that ends in outrage when Achmed steals Pari Banu’s cloak and forces her to leave with him on his flying horse.
The pair ends up in China, and Pari Banu must be rescued from being married off to the Emperor’s Fool. Achmed and Pari Banu meet the Witch of the Fiery Mountains. We marvel along with them as fire explodes from the mountain scenery, and the witch becomes their ally against her sworn enemy, the African Sorcerer. But the spirits return to recapture Pari Banu and bring her back to Wak Wak, where they intend to punish her for agreeing to leave them because she has fallen for Achmed. At this point, the story of Aladdin intrudes, as only the one who possesses the lamp may enter the spirits’ lair. We learn how he found the lamp and won Princess Dinarzade by created a palace and riches for her, but how the Sorcerer then stole the lamp, the palace, and the Princess in one fell swoop. An epic battle between Achmed, Aladdin, the Mountain Witch, and the Sorcerer ensues that’s really quite thrilling, and soon all is made right again.
The silhouettes themselves and the multiplane settings in which they interact are highly detailed and absolutely beautiful. For example, elaborate star-decorated robes, amazing in their cut-out detail, clothe Pari Banu and Princess Dinarzade, and set pieces such as the stolen palace floating on a cloud back to Persia have mystery and wonder written all over them. But I was most impressed by the amount of personality Reiniger was able to infuse through posture and natural-looking actions. When Pari Banu and Achmed kiss, it looks more real than many of the Hollywood kisses I’ve seen in countless movies of the Golden Era. Her attention to detail, not only in the forms but also in the actions the characters take, is astonishing. For example, Achmed is fighting a hydra-like demon summoned by the Sorcerer. Every time he cuts off one of its heads, it grows back. The Mountain Witch comes to help him by cauterizing each neck that has lost its head, thereby preventing it from growing a new one. This attention to a small plot point shows more care than many of the CGI action films we see today. And the color tints, restored to this film in 1998, give a jewel-like brilliance to this fantastical tale.
Reinigier, we were told before the screening, was a product of Victorian-era thinking, and her silhouette art comes from that era. Yet she was embraced by the avant garde and created a work that looks startlingly modern even today. Perhaps not coincidentally, animator Nina Paley used hinged forms (though they were not animated via stop action) and shadow puppets in her film Sita Sings the Blues, another tale of the exotic Orient that many consider ground-breaking for another reason—it is under a Creative Commons license. These two women showed the future the way, and I, for one, am thrilled and grateful.
The realists and the impressionists are at it again. No, we’re not in 19th century France or Nazi Germany. Our battle is in the very commercial realm of animated film. Here’s part of a comment from a Serbian IMDb reader about the recent Spanish film De Profundis: “A pretentious must-not see. This is not an animated movie. Unless you think of animation as two similar but different shapes of a body joined together by a computer animation, and than (sic) put in a loop.” Putting aside the fact that there was no computer animation used in this film, this comment clearly shows the influence of Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks computer animation on the viewing tastes and expectations of moviegoers. Looking at the changes in animation between this film and 1973’s Fantastic Planet, and the maybe coincidental fact that I found the earlier film in a dumpster (!), will tell you a lot about how postmodern art is being eclipsed once again by the human inertia toward literalism.
Fantastic Planet, a Palme d’Or nominee and winner of a special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, creates a Dali-esque planet to which human beings, called “oms” (hommes), have been introduced, like an invasive species of plant or animal. The film begins with a female om clutching a baby running feverishly to try to escape some menacing force. Her fear and concern for her child are palpable. In the end, however, she is raised in the air as her child watches her dropped over and over until she will never move again. Pan out to reveal several, blue-skinned, reptilian giants, children of the home race of Traags who were playing and accidentally broke the om. One of them, Tiwa (voice of Jennifer Drake), pities the baby and takes it home as a pet. Her parents disapprove of her plans to give him a Traag name, so she names him Terr, after his home planet of Terra. So now we know the name of the story’s narrator (Eric Baugin).
Terr is Tiwa’s close companion, cradled by her everywhere and able to listen in on her school lessons through a set of headphones downloaded with all of the advanced knowledge of the Traags. But both are growing up. Tiwa no longer plays with her toys and pets. Terr decides to run away and drags Tiwa’s headphones with him. He falls in with a band of wild oms who live in a nearby park and shares the Traag knowledge with them. When a group of oms kills a Traag who was trying to step on them, the government decides to carry out a massive campaign to de-om the state. The oms, using the knowledge they gained from the headphones, decide to build a rocket and fly to the planet’s moon, called the Strange Planet, to be free. There, they learn a crucial secret of the Traags that they can use to attain recognition and equality on the home world.
The highly imaginative renderings by the relatively modest (by today’s standards) design and animation department pay little heed to the physical laws of our real world, maintaining realism only for the oms and standard bilaterally symmetrical biology for the Traags. Other creatures, plants, and land formations show no such respect for realism, lending a weird otherness that the script furthers with a made-up vocabulary for Tiwa’s lessons on the complex history, science, and culture of the Traags. The animation is a little stiff, but not in a distracting way.
The film muses on how a highly intelligent race could literally sever mind and body by positing that the Traags spend most of their time in meditation. That meditation, in which the mind represented by a head floating in a bubble, is actually necessary for procreation shows that even in an animated fantasy, the French believe everyone has an obsessive preoccupation with sex. The bare-breasted and naked female oms and Traggs certainly show that tendency in the animators.
The environmentalism of the time, particularly with regard for animal rights, is a major theme. Treating sentient creatures like pets, exterminating them like vermin, and doing the equivalent of pulling the wings off a fly as a form of recreation underlines the folly of human hubris over the natural world. Reverence for the mind over the body can lead to species suicide. The reasons for this divorce are clear from a very original scene of giant, but fragile statues in human form dancing as a prelude to sex and then falling to pieces. Ultimately, the fanciful Fantastic Planet says humility and frailty must be the price for life.
De Profundis pretty much sums up my profound emotional experience of this sad fairytale told using the beautiful, haunting pastel paintings of its creator Miguelanxo Prado. This wordless feature, scored with an ethereal mix of music and sound effects by Portuguese composer Nani Garcia, tells the tale of a seascape artist living on an island with his cello-playing wife who accompanies a fishing boat one day to sketch their work and the creatures they draw from the ocean. In horror, the crew brings up an eel—a bad omen—which they toss back. Nonetheless, a storm builds, and an enormous wave scuttles the boat, sending all hands to the bottom of the ocean. The artist, however, is taken in hand by a mermaid, one he imagined in a painting, and shown many of the underwater treasures that have made their way into his art and the art of his country. Eventually, they come upon an underwater city, which the mermaid tries to dissuade the man from approaching. There, he remembers his life on land and can no longer remain underwater as a man.
De Profundis harkens back to an approach called limited animation. The commenter from Serbia objected to, for example, the cellist moving her hands, bow, and head in a repetitive loop. But in one hauntingly beautiful scene, the camera moves us into an empty room in the artist’s house and toward an open window. The long, white curtains flutter so realistically (reminiscent of the blinking eyes in the otherwise still-photo film La Jetée), I wondered if they were live-action imposed into an animated frame. This short sequence shows clearly that limited animation was a choice Prado made to draw us into his paintings much as the artist was drawn into the fanciful underwater world of his mermaid.
The images Prado shares are colorful and evocative, and he takes care to allow his images to shimmer in wavy underwater distortion. His creatures, like his deep-sea lantern fish, are accurately drawn, yet used in a very dynamic way as a menace to the artist as they circle him, their sharp teeth threatening from perpetually open jaws. Yet, Prado also creates his own kind of wonder. The fishermen bait their hooks with glowing balls of music a young boy sings for them—a true siren’s call for their quarry.
The direction is flawless, as Prado takes his camera through the artist’s studio, down stairs, outside with the kind of meticulousness of a master scene setter. He introduces whales as the cellist’s friends early in the film even as he sets the scene for the cruelty nature will inflict on her and her beloved husband. The whales return by film’s end, and with them, a new storm of tears fell from my eyes. This is simply one of the loveliest, most moving films I’ve ever seen.
To be “beside oneself” is a turn of phrase we’ve all heard or used at one time or another. It usually refers to someone experiencing something very emotionally charged. Of course, the part of that phrase that most people don’t think much about is that the emotion literally drives one out of one’s body. If you’ve ever witnessed a car wreck or been threatened with serious physical harm, as I have, you’ll be able to testify that it is possible for your mind to disconnect and float away from your body.
French animator Jérémy Clapin took his experience of being in an earthquake and some odd perspectives in some drawings he was rendering and conceived a story of a man whose encounter with a 150-ton meteorite crashing toward him sends him exactly 91 centimeters beside himself. “Skhizein” is from the Greek for “split” and is the root for the word “schizophrenia.” Whether you think Clapin’s protagonist Henri (Julien Boisselier) has literally been cleaved from his body by a quasi-supernatural event or has had a mental health crisis may depend on whether or not you are a fan of The Twilight Zone.
The muted animation, moody music, and flat affect of Henri make Skhizein a disturbing chamber piece that is open to various interpretations, and Clapin is more than happy to confuse the issue. The film starts with Henri visiting a psychiatrist. Although his body is hovering in the air, he is at exactly the height he would be if he were laying on the examination couch. The nonchalance of the psychiatrist indicates that he sees Henri’s body right where it should be. The dissonance between what we see and must imagine, what we believe could have happened, and the boundary-free world of animation create tension in the viewer. Like a proper audience, we want to believe the person Clapin has set us up to identify with, and Clapin’s meticulous creation of Henri’s altered world—one in which he is able to calculate and diagram in chalk precisely where he must put his hand to flush the toilet or pick up the phone—lends logic and veracity to Henri’s predicament despite its patent absurdity.
When Henri realizes that the psychiatrist is of no use to him, he takes matters into his own hands. When his television goes snowy with static as it did when the meteorite “struck” him, he looks out the window and spies it again. His pursuit of it—sitting outside his car as he races haphazardly through the streets—is an elegantly crafted chase sequence. At land’s end, we see the outline of Mont St. Michel in the distance—a mountainous island periodically cleaved from France when the tide washes over a land bridge and the only part of France that has never been conquered by invading armies. This landscape detail cannot be a coincidence. Henri plants himself on the sandy beach, draws a quick calculation of where he must be for the meteorite to strike him again, and holds his arms wide.
Did it work? Clapin says, “Henri is alright now, he doesn’t need to get organized anymore.”
The animation, a combination of traditional drawings by Clapin and models rendered by Jean-François Sarazin, Loli Irala, and Raphael Bot-Gartner, is both rather quirky and quite poignant, particularly at the end. The sound design by Marc Piera is almost hyperrealistic; I recommend viewing this short film with a good pair of headphones for maximum effect.
In 1941, John Hubley and several other animators who were on strike from Disney left that studio altogether to form United Productions of America (UPA) and produce cartoons that use what is now called “limited animation.” Hubley felt constrained by Disney’s emphasis on realism and wanted to create more stylized cartoons. In 1949, UPA came up with a very distinctive character—the short, bald, near-sighted Quincy Magoo, with actor Jim Backus as his first and only voice. The Magoo cartoons were hits, with two of them winning Academy Awards. When times got tough for UPA, Mister Magoo transitioned to television. It was there that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol first appeared.
Although many consider this animated film a classic, you’re not likely to see it airing with the same frequency as A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In fact, you may not find it at all, and that’s a real shame. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol tells a shorter, but still faithful version of Dickens’ story bookended with classic Magoo comedy and a glorious score by Jule Styne, composer of “Let Me Entertain You,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” and many more great standards. The 1960s would see a radical change in musical styles, but since the setting of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a Broadway stage, Styne produced a score fit for the Great White Way. (In fact, one song not used in the animated film went into a real Broadway show and became a hit—“People” from Funny Girl.)
The film opens with Magoo driving the wrong way down a Manhattan street singing the pizzazz-y “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway.” Magoo narrowly misses hitting dozens of cars and ends up wrecking against a pole. Never missing a beat, he crosses busy streets, forcing cars to screech to a halt to avoid hitting him, and arrives at the theatre where his musical “A Christmas Carol” is playing to boffo B.O. Looking for the stage door, he misreads the sign of an adjacent restaurant and clangs and clatters his way through it and past a nervous stage manager to make his triumphal entrance in the offices of Marley and Scrooge. This opening is classic Magoo.
Once the musical gets underway, it’s played fairly straight. Magoo as Scrooge is drawn with a nasty scowl; his face only brightens when he begins counting his gold coins in “Ringle, Ringle.” The song becomes a contrapunctal duet with Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy), who contrasts Scrooge’s love of money with his own misery at working in the cold. The song ends as Scrooge stops Cratchit from taking any more coal for his stove. The famous confrontation between Scrooge and the men collecting for charity manages to remain as shocking in cartoon form as it is in live-action versions of the story.
Returning to his home, Scrooge sees a strange face overlaying his lion’s head door knocker—a bit of a joke on Magoo’s poor eyesight that fits perfectly into the story. No time is wasted once Magoo dons his night clothes and tucks into bed. Climbing up the stairs, only legs, chains, and strong boxes visible, comes the ghost of Jacob Marley (Royal Dano) to confront Scrooge. In response to Scrooge’s dismissals of his reality, Marley gives a truly frightening wail and points through the window to the other chained apparitions wandering the night sky. He tells a shaken Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts that night who present a way for Scrooge to save himself from Marley’s fate.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) takes Scrooge directly to Bob Cratchit’s home to view his assistant’s meager Christmas celebration. All are waiting for Bob and Tiny Tim to come back from church. When they do, a line Bob speaks strikes a particular Christmas note: “(Tiny Tim) hoped the people saw him in church because he was a cripple and thought it might be pleasant to let them remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” I could be wrong, but I don’t remember this line in other filmed versions of the story. Then a wonderful song, “The Lord’s Bright Blessing,” begins in quiet anticipation as the Cratchit children imagine what it would be like to have a Christmas tree, stockings stuffed with treats, and jars and cakes of “Razzleberry dressing,” a particular obsession of Tiny Tim (Joan Gardner). When their humble Christmas dinner of soup is served, Bob leads them in the song’s buoyant chorus.
The past provides two of the best sequences of the film. First, The Ghost of Christmas Past (Joan Gardner) takes Scrooge back to his boarding school where he has been left alone for the holidays. The song “All Alone in the World” has the kind of lyrics a child can relate to, but it is the animation that is particularly poignant. There is no rescuing sister in this version—only a chalk family drawn on a chalkboard. When young Ebenezer traces his four-fingered cartoon hand and attempts a handshake with it, he shows his frustration by smearing the chalk.
If you’re a believer in root causes, this simple song shows how a miserly heart can grow from one deprived of love. We move quickly through Fezziwig’s Christmas party, where Belle (Jane Kean) only dances with Ebenezer, to Belle’s rejection of Scrooge. “Winter Was Warm” is a lovely ballad that talks about the beginning and the end of love; it certainly ranks with some of the best love ballads written.
Scrooge does not return to his bedroom to await the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; instead Scrooge is plunged into this part of the tale directly from Belle’s rejection. It is a bit abrupt, but there is something appropriate about juxtaposing the death of love with the death of the body. Nothing is left out of this part of Scrooge’s journey, from the businessmen talking about his death, to the scavengers who pawn his belongings in a ghoulish musical number, “We’re Despicable (Plunderer’s March),” to the death of Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s discovery of his own tombstone.
Scrooge’s rebirth in the morning as a man of love and generosity is handled particularly well. As Scrooge flatters the young boy he sends to buy the prize turkey, the boy shows pleasure at every compliment—again something I don’t think I’ve seen in other versions. When the butcher arrives with an enormous turkey, the near-sighted Magoo pokes the butcher’s belly instead of the bird, a welcome visit by the star within the play. A rousing finale of “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” ends the show, and Magoo literally brings down the house with his bumbling.
I know I’m reflecting the bias of my own childhood in thinking that the simple animation and show tunes of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol have an enormous appeal, but I also think that for children, anyway, I’m right. Children’s movies are the last refuge of movie musicals, reflecting the importance of music to children’s development and entertainment. There are few children’s films today that have music to match the quality of Jule Styne’s score for this film, and with a return to realism in animation—hyperrealism, actually—visual experimentation of the type practiced at UPA is becoming something of a lost art. I know that illustrators are still interested in it, if the number of visitors linked to my review of The Dot and the Line through graphic design sites is any indication. If they can produce anything as pleasurable, intelligent, and graphically interesting as Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, I’d personally like to encourage them to pursue movie-making for the whole family. To all those families out there, pick up the DVD of this wonderful seasonal cartoon and welcome a new-old classic into your home.
One of the greatest, most inventive creators in all of filmdom was Chuck Jones. In a career spanning well over 60 years, Jones was responsible for creating such cultural icons as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, Roadrunner, and most of the rest of the Warner Bros. pantheon of two-dimensional stars and directing them in shorts of the highest quality. During World War II, his amusing Private Snafu shorts caught the attention of enlisted men as no dry lecture could and gave them valuable information about hazards they didn’t realize they might face in theatres of war, from malaria to venereal disease.
In 1965, during his fruitful later years with MGM, Jones created an illustrated literary adaptation running approximately 10 minutes that won him his only Academy Award. The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics showed the kind of sophistication that Jones and his frequent codirector Maurice Noble used to appeal to both children and adults.
Written by Norton Juster based on his own story, The Dot and the Line tells of a line who falls in love with a bouncy, lively dot. It may seem strange that a relatively representational illustrator/animator like Jones would turn to abstract forms to tell a story, but what could be more natural to him that paying homage to the building blocks of his profession and when better than during the explosion of pop and op art of the 1960s. But what about the subtitle, “A Romance in Lower Mathematics?” Putting that label on any film, let alone an animated short, would be unthinkable today if you wanted the film to reach beyond the festival graveyard. Fortunately, anti-intellectualism hadn’t reared its ugly head in 1965—for example, scientists working on the space program were among the heroes of the day.
Narrator Robert Morley begins, “Once upon a time there was a sensible, straight line, who was hopelessly in love, with a dot.” Unfortunately, no matter how he tried to ply his suit, the dot brushed him off as boring and rigid, and bounced away to spend time with the spontaneous, fun-loving squiggle. Despite entreaties by his fellow lines to forget about the dot (“She’s not good enough for you.” “She lacks depth [a nice joke on a sphere versus a dot].” “They’re all alike anyway. Why don’t you find a nice, straight line and settle down?”), the line knew only how wonderful she was. He had to find a way to make her happy.
“He tried and failed and tried again, and then, when he had almost lost hope, he found that he could change direction and bend wherever he chose. So he did, and made… an angle.” With intense concentration and practice, he found that the variety of shapes he could make—box, triangle, parallelogram, and so forth—was endless. Giddy with the discovery of his prowess, he gave himself a hangover from changing shapes willy nilly all night. Finally, the day came when he felt ready to approach the dot and try to win her away from the squiggle.
Much like the Private Snafu shorts, The Dot and the Line doesn’t skimp on the geometry lesson, though the idea really is to show how a simple line can become so many dazzling things with a little practice. The urging toward creativity is unmistakable, and wrapping it in a tale of romance allows viewers of all ages to understand the tangible rewards of literally thinking outside the box.
Many viewers of The Dot and the Line have commented on how shallow the dot is, concurring with the line’s friends that she’s not good enough for him. I can’t say that I blame them; this simple story doesn’t allow for much nuance of characterization. Nonetheless, it’s plain to see that the dot comes to see beyond the limitations of the immature squiggle, and for his part, the line understands that he cannot just rigidly go along in one direction, but needs to be able to bend and adapt if he wants to be part of a loving team.
These days, people lament how far the United States has fallen behind the rest of the world in science and technology. Perhaps if the talents of our most creative minds were made more available to the general public—as The Dot and the Line was—there would be a lot more young people turned on by the idea of creativity with a purpose, as eloquently expressed by the line:
“Freedom is not a license for chaos,” he observed the next morning. ‘Oh, what a head!’ And right there and then he decided not to squander his talents on cheap exhibitionism.”
Directors: Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire
2008 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The hubby and I enjoyed a great Halloween warm-up when we attended the final CIFF showing of Fear(s) of the Dark, an animated horror anthology from France that shows off some of today’s outstanding animators from France, Italy, and the United States, skillfully assembled by artistic director and title-sequence designer Etienne Robial. This was the third animated offering at the CIFF I viewed, and it served to reinforce my feeling throughout the festival that I’ve been missing a great deal by not seeing more animated films.
Fear(s) of the Dark, a mainly monochromatic film, has five discrete stories—four told beginning to end and one told in episodic fashion throughout the film. It also has interludes in which geometric shapes illustrated and animated by Pierre di Sciullo accompany the voiceover narration of actress/director Nicole Garcia, who details the social and existential fears of a self-absorbed woman (not making a difference, being hopelessly bourgeouis, dying of cancer or in a car wreak). These breaks from the more traditional horror of the other shorts provide a realistic look at the fears most of the film’s viewers actually face. Horror fans might find them distracting, but I was very amused.
The episodic film, by Blutch, opens the film as a cadaverous-looking man in 18th century dress restrains a team of four ravenous dogs as they walk through a town. Animals scurry for cover but the humans the man and the dogs encounter don’t fare as well as, one by one, the dogs break away and tear a boy, a laborer, and a dancer to pieces both on and off camera. The last dog, still under the man’s control, sees its reflection in a mirror and is mesmerized. The ending is completely unexpected and deeply satisfying. The animation is energetic, communicating the chaos driving these dogs and their master onward.
The first short, by Black Hole comic book creator Charles Burns, tells the story of a lonely boy named Eric (poignantly voiced by the recently deceased Guillaume DePardieu) whose isolated home in the country affords him few opportunities for social intercourse. His interest in the nature around him includes a fascination with insects, which he collects. One day he finds what looks like a praying mantis in a earthenware jug wedged between two tree limbs. He plucks the insect up with tweezers and drops it into a specimen jar. For some reason, he decides to hide the jar under his bed before going down for dinner. When he returns, the jar is empty. When Eric is old enough he goes to college, where he studies biology. He’s considered a nerd by everyone but Laura, a pretty classmate who eventually becomes his girlfriend. Their relationship goes kind of haywire, and we learn that Eric’s insect collecting had consequences. This segment seemed like a Twilight Zone episode, with a simple illustration style that seemed right out of the 1950s. The hubby liked it the best, but I liked it the least, mainly because its story seemed so hokey.
Marie Caillou’s manga/anime-influenced short deals with Sumako, a young girl whose family moves to a new town. They live in a house that backs up to a cemetery where a ferocious samurai warrior is buried. Sumako is taunted in school as the new kid and roughed up by the ancestors of the samurai. She heads into the cemetery out of curiosity and ends up confronting her deepest fears. The story is told in segments as Sumako, held in restraints, is given a dose of sodium pentathol by someone who looks like a mad scientist and told to keep dreaming. Her “cure,” for what we’re not sure until the very end, will only come when she reaches the end of the dream. I was intrigued by this short, its structure making me want to learn what happened next, like a good horror story told around the campfire. The ending may puzzle some people, but one crucial scene inside Sumako’s home telegraphs the horror that we are not allowed to witness.
Lorenzo Mattotti’s short creates a wonderfully eerie atmosphere right from the start, as a dark figure opens a door and walks in just far enough for a light to strike one wide and sinister eye. The man tells a story from his childhood about the mysterious disappearance of his uncle, whose empty boat returns to the shore of a marsh from which he was poaching fish at night. The man’s young friend, an apparent expert on the natural life of the area, observes a duck with a broken wing and says that the creature was injured by something large and ferocious. More people go missing as rumors of a bog monster stir the town. A tracker/hunter is called in to catch or kill the monster, which he does. But the man’s friend is never seen again. I thought this film was beautifully drawn and suspenseful. When the boy goes searching in the marsh with the rest of the tracking party, he comes upon a “presence” in the reeds. I leaned forward to see what would get him, only to have him respond to the calls of the hunting party to return. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending, but it was a very good effort throughout.
The last film, by Richard McGuire, was my favorite by far. Beginning with a small black dot on a field of white—a man braving a raging snowstorm—we are plunged into darkness as the man breaks into an abandoned house for shelter. He builds a fire and, rummaging in the dark, finds a bottle of booze in a cabinet. As he drains the bottle, he flips through a photo album he’s found on a table. The proper Victorian family that must have lived in the house is chronicled, including a melancholy daughter who is fond of ripping the heads off her dolls. Later, the daughter, now grown, is shown with her husband. Soon, his head is removed from other pictures. Eventually, every head in the album is cut out. The man dreams of a crazy woman with a butcher knife. But is it a dream? This short shows all the crazy details that a man in a strange, unlit house might imagine or encounter, lending a reality to the proceedings. I found myself squinting to see in the pitch dark and laughing at the all-too-human events that confounded the man, such as a table with uneven legs he tries to correct and his rage at inanimate objects. As the last full film in the collection, it was a great capper to a great evening.
Is it an exercise in futility to review short films, either animated or live action? Outside of film festivals, the chances of seeing any short films is slim to none—that is, if you’re thinking about standard film venues.
Of course, the fortunes of short films have never been better. We may never get those cartoons before the feature films anymore, but I’d argue that short films are more numerous and internationally available than any other type of film. The Internet has made distribution a reality for both fledgling filmmakers who want to go on to full-length films and veterans of the short form who have been producing high-quality work for decades. Animation specifically has exploded with the advent of affordable desktop technology and multitudes of media schools like Flashpoint, “The Academy of Media Arts and Sciences,” which is a sponsor of the CIFF and where I viewed screeners for the festival on wide screens using the best set of headphones I’m ever likely to clamp over my ears.
It’s important for cinephiles to support short films as the proving ground for the great filmmakers and innovators of tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed watching our very own Jonathan Lapper of Cinema Styles master the short form and get the interest and opinions of cinephiles around the globe. I don’t know if the traditional movie industry will ever truly embrace short films as they once did, but through virtual film festivals, websites, and various social networking venues, film fans will once again be able to experience the unique pleasure of the short stories of cinema.
Ferdy on Films, etc. is considering making short-film reviews part of our regular fare. We’d like your opinions on this possible new direction. Email us or comment here.
And now, reviews of the 11 short animated films that comprise Shorts 2: Animation Nations.
Hot Dog (2008) Director: Bill Plympton
The latest in Plympton’s “Dog” series—Guard Dog and Guide Dog being his previous efforts—has our erstwhile hound deciding to join the fire department. After a brush-off from the fire chief, Dog chases (as dogs do) a fire truck, manages literally to hop aboard, somehow ends up driving the truck to the site of a burning building, and saves a damsel in distress. Of course, Dog fouls it up in the end, but not before Plympton creates classic cartoon animation that stretches the limits of the physical world and takes us inside Dog’s mind with visual balloons of great hilarity. I’m not always fond of Plympton’s animations, but his Dog series is a real winner and the type of cartoon short I’d love to see at the front of a feature film if that practice ever returns to the cinema.
Hot Dog trailer
The Black Cabinet (2007) Director: Christine Rebet
Using a flickering, mainly static-image style, Christine Rebet very obliquely comments on complacency in a dangerous world. The aristocratic roulette players in the bottom half of the frame applaud with amusement at a puppet made to dance for their amusement, a scene that replays again and again. I was reminded of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, as disaster of the aristocrats’ making seems inevitable. I thought the illustrations were quite interesting, but there was little to suggest to viewers a “story,” and I found myself unpleasantly puzzled until the last frames of the film.
Kizi Mizi (2007) Director: Mariusz Wilczyński
This crudely drawn animation by a well-known Polish animator, framed to suit the proportions of each scene and shot with intentional blurs, depicts a noirish love triangle between two cats who love the same mouse. The mouse loves only one of the cats, but the cat travels frequently; in her loneliness, the mouse repeatedly plays a tape of Fleetwood Mac’s “Need Your Love So Bad”. She eventually succumbs to the seductions of another. If you can picture a cat and a mouse French-kissing, you’ll understand how distastefully weird this film can be. But it is important to keep in mind that the story is introduced in the credits as a bedtime story. When we return to the world outside the story, a delightful surprise awaits us. If you have the patience to wait out the repetitiveness of this overlong short, you might end up with a laugh at the end.
Procrastination (2007) Director: John Kelly
This short discusses what the director/illustrator is feeling as he tries to get to work. Perhaps the favorite of the audience, the narration provides examples with which we all can identify, and the animation style is, in a word, cool. I managed to find the entire film on YouTube. See for yourself.
Trepan Hole (2008) Director: Andy Cahill
An inventive stop-motion animation that doesn’t have a narrative, Cahill’s short film plays with form as two ropey creatures move in and out of holes and tweak each other in a style the reminded me of some of Plympton’s transforming heads. Since the word “trepan” usually refers to holes drilled into skulls as an primitive treatment for mental illness, the creatures suggest “The Hearse Song” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, The worms play pinochle on your snout…”). Trepan Hole doesn’t mean anything—it’s just fun to watch.
Stand Up (2008) Director: Joseph Pierce
An angry film, Stand Up shows a stand-up comedian introduced as John J. Jones, everyone’s favorite everyman, bomb in front of an audience when he starts to insult them and dwell on serious topics. Pierce does a wonderful job of taking an initially warm audience and slowly turning them sour. He shows the bitterness behind every clown, eventually having Jones strip naked before storming off the stage. The black-and-white illustrations are grotesque and fluid. This is a short drama that goes for the jugular.
John and Karen (2007) Director: Matthew Walker
This trifle has a polar bear apologize to his angry penguin girlfriend for criticizing her swimming speed and the size of the fish she catches. There’s not much to this short film, though I liked the line, “So you don’t catch whales. Nor do you need to!” The illustration style is clean, sweet, children’s book material.
Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight (2007) Director: Felix Massie
The opening dialogue by voiceover narrator Scott Johnson is, “This is Keith Reynolds, and today is promotion day. Having worked at the company eight years, he is the most senior Junior Business Analyst in the building. He’s been waiting for this day for a very long time.” My favorite short of this series, the idea for Keith Reynolds came from the years British animator Massie spent in the corporate world. The insanity of the passed-over middle manager has been filmed before, but the animation makes it simultaneously more funny and more serious as the figures have a crash-test dummy quality to them. I’d love to have this film in my private collection.
Keith Reynolds Can’t Make It Tonight clip
Lavatory – Lovestory (2007) Director: Konstantin Bronzit
This touching short film from Russia tells the story of a lavatory attendant with a secret admirer. The woman who watches over and cleans the men’s lavatory collects the coins the men drop in an empty mayonnaise jar at a turnstile she guards. As she reads a newspaper called “Happy Women,” she looks longingly at pictures of women who have a loving man encircling them. When she puts down the newspaper, she finds a bunch of flowers in her jar. Much puzzlement and craziness ensues as she keeps throwing the flowers out, only to have them replaced. The ending is sweet and satisfying. But do lavatories in Russia really have opposite-sex attendants? That’s something to mull.
Lavatory – Lovestory in full (9:39 minutes)
Out of Control (Fuera de control, 2008) Director: Sofia Carillo
Honestly, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this stop-motion animation from Mexico. The CIFF program says, “A chain reaction upsets the balance of a bizarre cycle.” OK, that sounds good to me, though I really didn’t see any cycle going before it got broken. The film has a deathlike quality and a very organic look. I liked the visuals even though that’s all I could appreciate in the noisy, but wordless, short film.
Lies (Lögner) Director: Jonas Odell
This strong, disturbing documentary from Sweden uses live-action animation to tell three stories of lies and deceitful lives—one of a burglar who managed to fool security guards at an office building and steal checks and merchandise, a young boy who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit and who then went on to become a thief, and a gypsy who was told by her mother never to reveal her true ethnicity and who bounced around the foster care system and became a drug addict. I found that this film from a young, but already celebrated, director, had an interesting and appropriate visual style—linear, mechanistic, muted in color. Because it uses interviews with the subjects themselves, the film is very dialogue-heavy and laden with subtitles, and that made actually watching the film difficult. Still, Lies is a compelling short. I couldn’t get this clip to download, but maybe you can.
The great stories of civilization teach lessons and convey beliefs. Many civilizations have The Good Wife and The Prodigal Son parables. India combines these two stories in the Ramayana, an epic poem from about 1000 BC. Indians through the centuries have been told, “Be as Rama,” the prodigal son who became one of India’s great rulers, or “Be as Sita,” Rama’s good and faithful wife. American animator Nina Paley got her hands on the Ramayana after a traumatic break-up with her boyfriend Dave, and saw the story in a much different light. Her film, Sita Sings the Blues, is subtitled, “The Greatest Breakup Story Ever Told.” Since she combines the Ramayana with her own break-up, it’s anyone’s guess which story she’s talking about.
The basic story told in Sita Sings the Blues is as follows: Dasharatha was the king of Kosala, an ancient kingdom that was located in present-day Uttar Pradesh, and ruled from its capital, Ayodhya. Dasharatha had three wives named Kausalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Kausalya, the eldest queen, was the mother of the eldest son Rama. Rama was to be king when he grew to manhood. Rama married the beautiful Sita, and they were very happy.
Kaikeyi wanted her son to be king. She reminded the king that he promised to grant her two wishes. When she asked that Rama be banished for 17 years and that her son be made king, Dasharatha had to agree. Good son Rama prepared to go into the wilderness, and Sita begged to go with him. He didn’t want her to be with him in a dangerous forest filled with demons who were pestering the holy men and stamping out their fires, but she said a wife’s place is at her husband’s side. So they went off together.
Ravana, the many-headed, many-armed king of Lanka (Sri Lanka today), was said to be a very learned and wise man, though he’s always called evil because he lusted after Sita and abducted her. Hanuman, a monkey warrior, found out that Ravana had carried Sita to his palace in Lanka and told Rama that Sita wanted him to rescue her. Rama raised a monkey army, crossed a land bridge to Lanka, and defeated Ravana. But he worried that Sita had been unfaithful to him and rejected her. Dejected, Sita asked that a fire be built that she could fling herself onto. They did so, but instead of dying, Sita survived, thus proving her purity. Seventeen years having passed, the pair took a flying chariot back to Ayodhya.
Unfortunately, Rama’s subjects did not believe in Sita’s purity. Rama banished her, though she was pregnant with twin boys. She gave birth, and Rama found her again, but still doubted her purity. She asked Mother Earth to swallow her up if she was pure. Of course, the earth opened, and Sita was taken out of reach.
A bodhisattva, clearly a woman who may have been Sita, rises out of the ocean on a lotus flower, gyrating to traditional Indian music. Next to her rises a Victrola with a bird standing on it. She reaches over, bends the bird’s beak over to play the record, and we hear the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a torch singer of the 1920s and 30s, warble a love song. The record skips at the lyric “a woman like me,” forcing the bodhisattva to hit the Victrola. The scene explodes into a riot of music and dance as the opening credits role.
The Ramayana is a story all Indians learn in childhood; it is three grown-up Indians, represented by shadow puppets, who serve as our guides through the basics of the story and whose faulty memories and modern sensibilities give Paley ample opportunity for some great comedy. For example, the commentators try to decide how long ago the story takes place, starting at the 13th century. Paley provides appropriate garb for that century. “No, no, it was much longer ago than that.” The setting changes. Finally, one commentator chimes in “BC.” A title card places the story at “A long time ago BC.” One of my favorite moments comes when they wonder whether Sita deserved her fate. After all, she could have gone back to Rama with Hanuman and kept hundreds of warriors from being slaughtered. “And monkeys!” one says. “Yes,” another comments, “what about animal rights?”
The animation style varies. When the elements of the story are simply being recounted by the commentators, the characters are stylized watercolors or stiff, cut-out images from magazines and books. Whenever Paley wishes to tell the story musically, all of the characters look like cartoons, with Sita portrayed as a kind of hinged-doll Betty Boop and the rest resembling Dudley Do-right. Annette Hanshaw provides Sita’s singing voice, trilling out such famous tunes of the time as “Am I Blue,” with Sita colored an appropriately dark blue. The film takes on a 1930s musical film quality at these junctures.
Paley intersperses the story of Sita with her parallel break-up story, beginning in San Francisco where she lives happily with Dave and their cat Lexi, going through to his temporary assignment in India and her joining him, to her flying to New York City for a conference and getting an e-mail from him saying “Don’t come back. Love, Dave.” After a suitable period of desperate longing and humiliation, Nina gets her act together, adopts another cat, and starts reading the Ramayana, revealing the origins of her idea to create Sita Sings the Blues. These scenes shorthand Nina and Dave’s emotions very effectively, and her depictions of her cats couldn’t be more dead-on and funny if she had videotaped them and inserted them in the film. Interestingly, I was worried about what happened to Lexi. Others must have been, too, because Paley adds a title card at the end assuring us that Lexi is being spoiled rotten by her new humans in San Francisco.
The film also includes a 2:30 minute intermission, during which the characters move around and get food from the concessions and audience sounds are heard. Since the film is only 82 minutes long, this was a huge joke on the butt deadeners movie fans increasingly have to endure. The curtains open after intermission to a fabulous dance choreographed to terrific Indian music that features Waking Life-style animation and quick cuts of Sita that get the audience back in the mood.
You can see exactly how all of this plays out in the trailer below:
Sita Sings the Blues is a wonderfully entertaining film packed with more great moments than I can possibly describe, with delightful animation and, if you’re a fan of torch and blues music of the 1920s and/or Annette Hanshaw, a great soundtrack. The Ramayana is supposed to teach about submitting to one’s fate, and despite the modern spin on the story, Nina learns to do just that. l
I admit I have a lot of trouble writing about animated feature films. For me, art is an interior experience, a far more subjective exercise in viewing and absorbing than looking at a movie with real settings and live actors. Animation gives me complete access into the writer/illustrator’s vision—no famous faces and places mitigating that experience—and that fact puts another layer of contemplation into how I see these movies. I welcome the challenge, however, when the film provides me with a rich and honest canvas of images and emotions.
Persepolis, an animated film of the autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, is a truly extraordinary anime in the spirit of adult anime we have come to associate with the Japanese. Satrapi is an Iranian who has been living in self-imposed exile in France for some time. Persepolis was the ancient capital of Persia (now Iran) that was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and now lies in ruins. The film chronicles Marjane’s life in the current capital, Tehran, under the Western-backed Shah, through the Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah and on to the strict Islamist government that replaced it. The journey on which Satrapi takes us is both back in time through her life as told in voiceover flashback, and to the echoes of ancient Persepolis and its sad fate repeated again in the 20th century AD.
The film begins at an airport, where an adult Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) is asked for her passport and ticket. She looks dumbfounded at the ticketing agent, then adjusts her veil on her head and walks away. She sits and the full-color illustration turns black and white as Marjane reminisces about her life.
As a child, Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is exuberant and outspoken. Her hero is Bruce Lee. So is her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux). Her parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) are against the Shah, who imprisoned Marjane’s Uncle Anouche (voiced by François Jerosme) for being a communist. When the Shah is overthrown in 1979, the Satrapis and most of the rest of the country rejoice, including Anouche, who has been freed from prison.
Unfortunately, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism brings a different kind of repression to the country. Not only are communists persecuted, but also anyone who challenges the authority of the mullahs and the fundamentalist Muslims who take over the instruments of government. When Marjane’s aunt applies for an emergency visa for her husband, who desperately needs open-heart surgery in Europe, she complains that her former window washer turned her away, saying only that if Allah wishes it, she will have her visa. Marjane’s uncle is buried three weeks later. Anouche, as a former communist, returns to prison and eventually is executed.
Marjane, still outspoken, takes risks to preserve her former way of life as best she can. She borrows money from her mother to buy Western music from black marketers who are standing along a street. As she walks among them, she hears whispers of “Michael Jackson,” “The Beatles,” and finally the one she wants, “Iron Maiden.” Marjane takes a jacket, paints “Punk Is Not Ded” on the back, and dons it over her chador. Two teachers accost her and warn her parents that all will not be well if they don’t bring their daughter into line.
Eventually, worried for Marji’s safety, her parents decide to send her to stay with a cousin in Vienna. After their tearful farewell at the airport, Marjane walks away; she turns back in time to see her mother collapse in her father’s arms and be carried away. Once in Vienna, Marjane is quickly sent from her cousin’s home and to a convent school. Her uneasy stay comes to an end when, after the nuns have used a racial slur against her, she says, “Is it true that all nuns are prostitutes first?” Marjane bounces from home to home and finally ends up in with an older woman and her dog Muki, the latter of which humps Marjane’s leg at every opportunity.
Confused and longing to fit in, Marjane takes up with a group of punks. Through them, she meets her first love, but finds him in bed with another woman one day. Depressed, she rejects him in her mind in a series of riotous fantasies of him covered with pimples, picking and eating his snot, and slavishly giving in to his mother. Marjane goes home and throws herself on her bed. When the old lady gives her a hard time, Marjane explodes. She insults the woman and her dog and leaves. She decides to return to Iran, but once there, she feels like an alien in her own land. She remains outspoken as ever at her university. In the end, Marjane leaves Iran for France, probably for good.
I had a leg up in understanding Marjane’s story because I had read the remarkable memoir of these very times, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, an educated woman and university professor who described poignantly the lot of women under the mullahs and the variety of choices they had to make depending on their level of devoutness and Westernization. None of the horrors Nafisi described are missing from Persepolis. Satrapi describes the waste of the 8-year war with Iraq, the bombed houses, the executions. A particularly affecting story has Marjane’s father try to secure a fake passport for Anouche; later, he and Marjane learn that the forger’s residence has been raided, his equipment trashed, and a woman he had been hiding arrested. We see the woman in silouette standing in front of a hangman’s noose, awaiting execution. The forger flees the country.
We also get a bit of a history lesson about the first and second shahs, whose deals with the West to modernize Iran included persecuting dissidents against democracy and Western influence. Although the repressions were often brutal, they also were contained; the imprisonments and executions increased 100-fold under the mullahs.
Perhaps surprisingly, the film is also quite lighthearted. We laugh when Marjane and her friend make fun of an ABBA album in class. When Marjane illustrates her growth spurt, with each part of her body suddenly ballooning and toppling her one way and another, it’s a true revolution in the depiction of puberty. The absurdist-humanist eye that started when Marjane doodled her first caricature is fully developed in the straightforward lines and painful memories she creates for Persepolis.
For Marjane, honesty is the most important value. She betrays that code to save her own skin at one point, bringing down the wrath of her grandmother. “Always be yourself, know yourself,” admonishes her grandmother, who says it’s the only way to endure the lousy facts of life. This sounds like good advice, but to a woman trying to make peace with living in another country that is somewhat hostile to Muslims, clinging steadfastly to her Iranian identity is no small feat. The shock of her ordeal stays with her, a rip in her heart over her lovely, lost land, hidden but never healed. She never wanted to be a citizen of the world and still seems to feels adrift, as this honest interview she gave to Bookslut in 2004 demonstrates. As long as Marjane continues to write and draw her simply wrought, honest graphic novels, we’re sure to learn how her grandmother’s advice plays out in the long run. Personally, I can’t wait to find out.
Those film fans familiar with Japanese anime know that these full-length “cartoons” very often are anything but kids’ stuff; the bulk of anime that buffs view are very adult tales on serious subjects such as nuclear war. Fortunately, the Japanese anime world has plenty of room for all ages. It’s great to see the CIFF program the very family-friendly Atagoal: Cat’s Magical Forest, based on a popular manga, and show it at a time suitable for children. At the screening I attended, a mom and dad brought their two young children to enjoy the story of a fun-loving cat and his adopted son, and how they saved the world.
The film opens with an entire village of cats and a few humans attending a rock concert starring Hideyoshi (Kôichi Yamadera) and his Full-Belly Band. Hideyoshi is a fat cat who likes nothing better than to eat (especially tuna) and play. At the end of a rousing, colorful production number, Hideyoshi snatches a couple of tunafish and uses his giant zeppelin, shaped to look like him, both to elude the villagers who are chasing after him and basically smash up the immediate area. He seems to be able to fly without assistance as well and dives into a nearby body of water.
His human friends Princess Tsukimi (Aya Hirayama) and Tempura (Asahi Uchida) go off to find him, muttering understandingly that Hideyoshi thinks he’s livening up this yearly celebration with his destructive ways. They find him at the water’s edge with a sealed chest sitting next to him. He’s sure it has food in it and wants to get into it as soon as possible. Just then, Gilbars (Seiichi Tanabe), a heroic-looking cat with great powers, comes by and senses evil. He tells Hideyoshi that he must never open the chest. “If you tell me not to do something, I simply must” says Hideyoshi, who succeeds in prying open the chest. Out comes a pink cloud that slowly forms into the beautiful Pileah, Queen of the Plants (Mari Natsuki). Hideyoshi demands tuna as his reward for freeing her, but she says she has a reward for everyone. She sings a beautiful song, and all the villagers start floating and dancing, feeling a sense of perfect peace.
Hideyoshi’s search for food separates him from the rest of Atagoal. He comes upon an object that looks like a prickly pear. It suddenly grows arms, legs, and a head with a crown of sprouts on top of it. The object tells Hideyoshi that he is not food but rather a creature with a long name Hideyoshi cannot pronounce. Hideyoshi renames him Hideko (Etsuko Kozakura). Hideko chooses Hideyoshi to be his father, even though the fat cat doesn’t know what a father is.
What Hideyoshi doesn’t realize is that he has unleashed a force that will destroy Atagoal and the rest of world. Pileah seeks perfect order and harmony, and to accomplish this, she spreads her seed all over the world, creating copies of herself and turning all the other creatures into flowers. Once they become flowers, she eats their life force, thereby renewing herself. Hideyoshi also doesn’t realize that his new “son” is actually the King of the Plants, the only being that can stop Pileah.
I found it interesting that the usually ecologically solid Japanese animes would look at plants as possible destroyers of the world. But indeed, the plant kingdom does contain its tough guys, such as the Venus flytraps in which Pileah intends to execute Hideyoshi and his friends.
Hideko is a completely delightful creation, tiny bodied and tiny voiced. Watching him pit himself against the gigantic Pileah was very funny. His love for his chosen father, Hideyoshi, was unshakable, and Hideyoshi’s devotion to him was sweet. I got a little tired of Hideyoshi always grubbing for food, and the story was fairly disjointed. But visually, this anime is stunning, and the music was nice and singable for the kids.
I can’t say that this film is first-rate anime by adult standards, but it has a lot going for it. Families looking for something a little different should definitely check out the cool cats of Atagoal.l
It was evening when my friends and I seemed to be aging in reverse. We’re an eclectic group, ranging from 19 to 35 years old, united generally by a love of music and bohemian insouciance. In celebrating an old friend, a singer whom I shall call Jewel, returning briefly to town after a year away—she described her new life as same shit, different town, slightly warmer—we started off guzzling rum and red wine and passing a joint until Jewel was afflicted with rabid munchies whilst hiding under the table. Darth, guitarist and unofficial band manager, and I ended up discussing the nature of recycling in art, making nonqualitative observations of the connection between Picasso and the Transformers movie as both being generated by an alchemy of old ideas into new. With the important addendum that Michael Bay sucks. Hulk showed us downloaded satirical movie trailers, like “Shining,” a re-edit of footage from The Shining that makes it look like an uplifting tale of a cranky author befriending an adorable tyke.
“Shining” is a work of genius, both proving how clichéd the modern style of movie trailer is, and Hitchcock’s theories on the nature of montage, that is, meaning in film is determined by the arrangement of images. All this time I’m pondering to myself if our fascination with the detritus of recent pop culture is truly a pathway to new creativity or wallowing in the ruins of the age. Hulk downloaded every TV theme tune from 1975 to 1990, and challenged us to identify them. By the time we got to a remix of the theme of Battle of the Planets and the Waltzing Matilda-derived jingle of Secret Valley (an Aussie show about a gang of intrepid nature scouts constantly contending with an evil developer, repeated ad nauseum of a Saturday morning once upon a time), we knew it was time to get out into the night. And lo, we did walkest the night, and didst meet many strange people, and did playeth pool in the club.
The dispiriting experience of a club full of people looking for something that isn’t happening eventually drove us back to the house of Hulk and his fiancée, whereupon we ended up watching Happy Feet, which, as we noted with some amusement, is an animated film by the guy who made Mad Max. Indeed, there’s some continuity of purpose in the film, with Miller’s love of epic tales of wandering loners, individualist heroes contending with a brutal world. Miller once told an amusing anecdote that when making Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome, he had to gain permission to shoot on tribal land; in recounting his movie’s story to the Aboriginal elders, they instantly dug it—their myths, too, are filled with wandering heroes in epic tales. Recycling indeed.
Happy Feet is, at heart, an epic tale in the same mould; like Max, Mumble (Elijah Wood) is a solitary being who becomes the saviour of his civilisation precisely by being dedicated to his individual vision. In this case, he is a dancer, in opposition to the organising principle of his race of Emperor Penguins, whose society is built around their individualised mating calls. His siren mother Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and father Memphis (Hugh Jackman) met when her song “Kiss” found a perfect counterpoint in his “Heartbreak Hotel.” This union of ’50s icons produces a new, but disturbing, cultural offspring. Mumble is joined almost from birth to a girl of strong vocal prowess, Gloria (Brittany Murphy), but his singing is so woeful, everyone cringes at the sound; his “happy feet,” as Memphis anxiously explains, “just ain’t penguin.”
So Mumble becomes a symbol for every kind of social outcast and reject. His father’s paranoia over raising him wrong—he dropped his egg for a short spell during the winter hibernation—and subsequent begging for him to give up his deviant ways, is a sly nudge towards identifying Mumble with the fate of many gay men. He gains loyal followers in the form of a quartet of Adelie penguins (basically are identified as Mexican) who dig his dancing and adopt it and him.Yes, I can’t help but think, that’s my friends and me in a nutshell.
Soon Mumble’s got all the young folk of the Emperor tribe shaking a leg, only to be loudly and roundly excommunicated by the pharisaic leaders of the tribe. The Scots-brogued Elder (Hugo Weaving) blames him for the displeasure of the sky gods that has resulted in the recent shortage of fish that endangers the whole population; for inspiring a loss of communal identity; for undercutting the entwined purpose of song in joining together the traditional male-female relationship and for celebrating their religion; and for bringing outside influences in. He swats aside one of the Adelies to make his point. It’s an effective and memorable scene that accurately conflates about the last 40 years’ worth of conservative political rhetoric into a solid stone of abuse aimed at Mumble. In fearlessly accepting his exile, Mumble vows to return with proof that the fish are, in fact, being taken away by the awesomely powerful “aliens” responsible for such strange, unexplained phenomena as tags rings around legs and the plastic six-pack holder that entangles heads. When Gloria tries to follow Mumble into exile, he rejects her so that she’ll return and lead a proper life.
Eventually Mumble and his amigos reach a deserted whaling station teeming with garbage, and see a trawler looting the sea. Mumble swims out to sea to follow it, and washes up on a city beach. He wakes up in a zoo, and tries desperately to get the attention of humans who idly enjoy watching the quaint animals making their incoherent noises. Mumble is slowly driven first to despair and finally to near-madness, hallucinating and retreating into a corner, staring at his own reflection in the glass, a ball of noncommunicative defeat. Yes, I thought, that’s where so many of us are now—my friends, myself.
Happy Feet, though international in its outlook, is very much a modern Australian film in sensibility. Like our country, it’s an awkward conflation of imported cultures and their tropes—in its everyday life, dedicated to the contemporary pop culture of America, but with a leadership caste oriented to Old World religious conservatism, tolerant and multicultural as long as there is no overt dissent, creative but uninterested in the fruits of its own efforts. In exactly the same way that the Elders of the Emperors maintain status quo by exiling alt-culture tyro Mumble, our current right-wing government has for more than decade maintained hegemony by gutting funding for artistic and cultural organisations that promote diversity of opinion and individuality of voice, and anyone it accuses of having a left-wing or anti-government bias. The conservatives have actively strangled the arts in Australia, leaving us with virtually no native television drama, a pathetic publishing industry, and a financially defeated film industry.
The ironies are built into Miller’s approach; he knows damn well he can only sell Happy Feet in a Yankee-inflected, animated fantasyland. The film is a musical loaded with ideas, except that it can’t actually compose music for itself, instead relying on the artful deployment of jukebox hits. The film references Moulin Rouge!, another Aussie-but-not, musical-but-not featuring Nicole Kidman, in its cornucopia of cultural detritus. Miller is a far better filmmaker than Baz Luhrmann, however; his directorial control is far more evident, and his ideas don’t get the better of his sense of shape and story and are more coherent and thought through.
Miller’s ace up the sleeve, however, is communication. Just as it brought two tribes of penguins together, Mumbles’ dancing now accidentally gets the attention of a little girl. Soon he finds himself a figure of incredulous adoration, and scientists release him back into the wild. His return causes a battle between two camps in the penguin tribe: those who dance to Mumble’s insistence that it will convince humans to help them and the Elders and their acolytes who sing to the heavens. Guess who is proved right. We glimpse the human world furiously debating banning fishing in Antarctic waters, resulting in the rejuvenated penguin world singing and dancing in joy. Finally, Mumble’s new way of expression has defeated barriers and resulted in new thinking and perception that saves the world. It’s an absurdly idealistic, Capraesque finale in a film that skirts dystopian vision, but at least it, like the rest of the film’s story progression, has a logic to it.
The film is far from perfect. Much of its central third repeats scenes, and the finale is rushed. The individualist-artist theme is far stronger than the environmentalist thrust, though considering modern green-left politics, these things are increasingly bound together. The Mumble-Gloria subplot is terribly weak; the finale has them singing and dancing together, despite the fact that she’s gotten married and had a litter of kids in his absence. Huh? The computer animation alternates between some astonishing beauty and imagination, and flat, plastic-textured effects, especially during the tedious proliferation of slide-on-the-ice-on- your-ass scenes. But Happy Feet knows what it wants to say, and says it well. As for my friends—us Mumbles on our Dunciad—it finished with us staring in the glass or clutching each other for comfort. But we keep on dancing, hoping someone notices the zoo is killing us. l