Thursday, June 29, 2006

Anxious Animation


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Though I'm a fan of his music, and its placement in films as diverse as Fata Morgana and Natural Born Killers, I wasn't planning to participate in last Sunday's Leonard Cohen Blog-a-Thon organized by New York filmmaker/programmer Jennifer MacMillan. But that evening I saw David Enos's animated short Leonard Cohen at Alberta at SF Cinematheque's season-ending collaboration with Jackie Moe and the filmmakers from the Edinburgh Castle Film Night at the Yerba Buena Center. David's a friend, and I adore his films, so I can't resist the opportunity for a belated shout-out. Leonard Cohen at Alberta is like three minutes of a lovingly hand-decorated mixtape that could make any Cohen fan who received it swoon. It's almost as good on a first viewing as the hilarious Jim Morrison entry in Enos's series of pop icon homages: Light My Fire, which played Sunday as well. You can watch another of his animations, a music video for the Casiotone For the Painfully Alone song "the Subway Home" here.

As you can see, David Enos makes films that fit into the subgenre of cut-out animation. I really feel an affinity for these films that tend to blend the beautifully ornate qualities of George Méliès and Lotte Reiniger fantasies with the collage aesthetic of Joseph Cornell and Bruce Conner. They imagine the cinema as a dynamic diorama (sometimes complete with a shoebox quality). Most of my favorite examples of cut-out animation feel like they spring directly from a single mind, and as much as I appreciate the collaborative nature of filmmaking, I also appreciate the particularly personal iconography found in a cut-out piece by masters of the form from the 1960s like Larry Jordan or Harry Smith. An opportunity to discover works by current practitioners of the art comes by way of a brand new release from Frisco-based DVD label Other Cinema DVD called Anxious Animation. Available for rent at Le Video and other fine establishments, it features two films by Janie Geiser, three by her husband Lewis Klahr, three by the Frisco-based team of Eric Henry, Syd Garon and Rodney Ascher, and two by Jim Trainor, an animator who barely uses cut-out techniques but clearly feels an affinity for the style, having curated at least one program featuring Klahr, Martha Colburn, and others.

I'd encountered Lewis Klahr's name but never before his films. The three selections on the disc are Lulu, a commission for a Danish production of Alban Berg's opera of the same name, Altair, the first entry in a series of seven pieces in dialogue with 1950s melodrama called Engram Sepals, and Pony Glass, a later entry in that series which was my favorite of the three. Altair beautifully marries the melancholy Lullaby from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite to magazine advertisement cut-outs, playing cards, astronomical charts, etc, and I think I'd better understand Lulu if I were familiar with Berg's opera, the original play, or at the very least the silent film it also inspired. But I had all the context I needed to appreciate the narrative of Pony Glass: using characters literally clipped from the pages of DC, the piece enacts Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen's bedroom escapades with Lois Lane's sister Lucy and, after a homosexual revelation made much more explicit than I remember from the comic books, various male figures. Klahr's figures cast slim shadows that constantly reinforce the physical two-dimensionality of comic books and of the motion picture image, as well as the literary two-dimensionality of superhero characters and their foils. But Pony Glass does its part to try and flesh Jimmy Olsen out a little (so to speak), like in a moment when Lucy Lane's paper hand tries to grope his naked ass during sex.

Geiser's films, which I'd seen before on a Cinematheque program, also highlight an interplay between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. Immer Zu's hand-drawn characters resemble icons from film noir classics (e.g. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) moving through spaces cloaked by patterned superimpositions and oddly-shaped gobos. This is a world of keyholes, clocks, test tubes and mysterious codes hinting at some kind of plot that the audience is never given the means to unravel. With a soundtrack constructed from snippets of noir themes like Hans Salter's Scarlet Street, the entire nine-minute film has the feel of a 1940s Hollywood dream sequence. Lost Motion constructs a similarly enigmatic mood, not from cut-outs but out of objects you might expect to find in a junk drawer: erector set pieces, miniature park benches, and paint-chipped figurines casting long, dark shadows. The film suggests a clandestine tryst in a foreign locale, but the details are never made clear. Only a few actual cut-outs are animated in Lost Motion, notably several birds (a nod to Joseph Cornell?) observing the action. But whether Geiser uses two-dimensional or three-dimensional objects as her puppets, more than any other filmmaker I know her work is like putting the eye to a deep, dark diorama.

By contrast, the work made by the team of Henry, Garon and Ascher uses a cut-out approach to computer animation (via After Effects), but doesn't involve any real cutting at all. These images exist only on the screen, in the eye and in the mind, not in any physical form. It's quite obvious, as there are no shadows, no light sources, no textures to speak of. Arguably it makes for an even-more self-contained visual universe. The intangibility of the image works well in a tripped-out hallucination like Sneak Attack, an excerpt from the feature-length Wave Twisters with music by Frisco superstar DJ Q-Bert. But in pieces that seem to be attempting visual dialogue with the real world, like in Spokes For the Wheel of Torment, which attempts to animate Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights to a Buckethead song, the approach feels somehow sterile to me. And though their adaptation of a Jack Chick tract, Somebody Goofed, is undeniably faithful to the original source, right down to the word balloon lettering, it's just not cinematically satisfying to have to read lengthy stretches of dialogue on screen. Especially when everything is delivered without a trace of irony, which ought to leave the Jack Chick uninitiated wondering if the filmmakers are trying not just to acknowledge a cult figure, but to actively preach at their audience.

Last but not least, there's Jim Trainor, whose Harmony is one of my favorite new films seen in the past few years. I'd never seen any of his earlier works, but the Anxious Animation DVD includes The Moschops and The Bats. They're along the same lines as Harmony in that they take to an absurd limit the anthropomorphism that lends such appeal to both nature documentaries and animated films. We like watching animals on screen because they're a blank slate for us to project human values onto, especially appealing in moments when our faith in our own species flags. But Trainor's animals describe their behaviors in human voiceovers that, delivered in the first person, are jarringly matter-of-fact. I'm not exactly sure why it's funny to hear a bat say something horrific like, "More and more our nursery smelled like rotten blood," but I definitely laughed. Oh, and his drawings are quite sophisicatedly animated for their crudeness on first glance: check out the way he illustrates the Moschops' breathing patterns, for example.

One final unrelated note: I'm sorry to see that A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Books really, truly is about to close. It's my favorite Frisco bookstore not named for a Charlie Chaplin movie (City Lights, Modern Times, Limelight), but more importantly it's the bookstore nearest where I work. The saving grace is that apparently Books, Inc. is planning to open their eleventh store on the site. A mini-chain is certainly better than no bookstore at all. But in the meantime, there's a liquidation sale going on, and there's still some decent selections in the film book section waiting to be carried out the door. I noticed my favorite Welles biography Despite the System and a book of Godard interviews still available this morning, for example. The store will be shut for the long weekend after closing tomorrow, but the sale resumes next Wednesday, July 5 at 11 AM.

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