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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

As is wont to happen, I checked out the Shorts: Pen & Paper slate at the Chicago International Film Festival, a collection of animated short projects from around the world (but pretty much Europe). This year's collection was just about as good as I've ever seen, including what might have been, frame-by-frame, the best thing I saw at the fest this year. (I'm going to put these in the order they screened, as best I can remember; unfortunately, my notes ended up finding their way into the trash).

Flowers for Jupiter (Chris Mars, USA)
That said, the two weakest entries in the slate were awkwardly positioned as the beginning and closing films. The better of these is a study by drummer-turned-painter Mars, whose macabre sensibility blossoms to life in this story of a girl whose finger was severed in a now-forgotten accident, and who now drifts in and out of imaginative reveries about what might have happened in the distant recesses of her memory. The design is gorgeously creepy and the uncertain interaction between objects, some of them 2-D and some CGI, grants a striking otherworldliness to the proceedings. But the theme is pursued a bit too heavily for the delicate visuals to stand, and it starts to repeat itself before the 7 minutes are up. 6/10

Birdboy (Pedro Rivero, Spain)
Unbelievably cute, rounded animal characters prance about and play until a horrible nuclear event turns their world into a hell-hole. The combination of kawaii-esque character designs and morbid humor makes this, in essence, Hot Topic: The Movie,* but the sheer visual dazzle of watching these spare figures moving through some beautifully-colored backgrounds makes up for the feeling that it's a wee bit hipster, and even for the way that the story kind of jams to a stop in a flurry of symbolism rather than actually resolving in any particularly satisfying way. 7/10

Hellville (Laurent Durieux, France)
As simple as parables get: in a faceless city, everybody lives a nice slow pace of life until someone introduces the motorcar, and it all goes straight to he... oh, that's what the title means. Anyway, the animation itself is stripped down to the point that it barely looks finished, but it surely is striking, and the film understands the admirable skill of being able to get in and get right back out once you've made your point; the most economically-told of all the films in the program. 7/10

Belly (Julia Pott, UK)
Deliberately, if somewhat indefinably off-putting: the character designs (a little boy looking like a parody of an elephant, his elder brother, a sort of dog-llama hybrid, and a buffalo-ish thing that's his best friend) are the farthest thing possible from the friendly anthropomorphism of conventional cartoons, and the squiggly animation is almost sickening in a few patches. And yet somehow, this aesthetic fits the story of childhood being forcibly and arbitrarily shut off so well, and it becomes so strikingly brave the longer we sit with it, that I have to concede it works brilliantly. As for the story, it's a nifty combination of sympathy and bitterness that treats its adolescent subjects with compassion and absolutely not a trace of condescension. 8/10

Heavy Head (Helena Frank, Denmark)
Oh, the Danish! A woman with a head larger than the rest of her body sits in solitude in her empty kitchen, and seduces the housefly buzzing around into performing cunnilingus on her. A man with an equally big head bursts in, has a nihilistic, lonely freak-out, and bursts back out. It's a lot more delightfully fucked-up than I think I've just made it sound, owing to a remarkably deadpan sense of humor and terrifically warped character design; and it's beautiful, in hazy black-and-white. Does it say very much about the lives of all the lonely people? Not really, and that's the sole reason I have to give it only partial credit. 8/10

El Macho (Daniela Negrin Ochoa, UK)
Gorgeous minimalism linked to a very pleasant and undemanding story about a man who wants to have a quiet life, but his daughters and wife trick him into letting a little poodle puppy join the family. The simple, one might even say Thurber-esque lines do a surprisingly fine job of making the puppy and the man equally appealing, emotional figures, and that in turns makes the inevitable "man falls in love with dog and becomes a happier, better person" storyline quite easy on the way down; a spare piece of fluff it might be, but a singularly nice, watchable, and warm-spirited one. 7/10

The Eagleman Stag (Michael Please, UK)
The winner of the Golden Hugo for best overall short film is perhaps the finest thing I saw at the Fest as well as being one of the very few essentially perfect movies I've encountered in 2010, though I'll admit that the movie got a lot of points for starting off with one of my all-time favorite concepts in perceptual psychology: that every minute (hour, day year...) we are alive is a smaller percentage of our total life than the preceding minute, and so forth, and that this is why time seems to flow faster as we get older. That's used as the springboard for a philosophically dense, richly humorous look at one man's attempt to stave off aging and the anesthetic of the familiar with the aid of a beetle with some remarkable chemical properties. The script already had me; that Please made the insanely brilliant choice to film it all in white-on-white stop motion, using maquettes carved from goddamn styrofoam, is what knocks the film into the realm of particular genius. 10/10

Traumdeutung (Laurie Warsta, UK)
A recklessly funny high-speed riff on where dreams come from and what if anything they mean, drawing liberally from both Freud and Jung without apparently taking either of them seriously. It's animated in a pridefully low-fi retro style that recalls and industrial animation from the early 1980s, or maybe a particularly cracked Sesame Street segment, and the bright colors and sharp lines add a nice level of visual charm to a comic jab that desperately needs to be thus kept in check, if only because it would otherwise be too tiring. Never have squirrels been used to such dry comic effect. 8/10

The Renter (Jason Carpenter)
Exquisitely textured visuals (the director is by training a painter) add some artistic heft to a sometimes too-opaque story of a little boy and the strange old lady who takes care of him one day. Layered with symbols and dream alternative realities, the film purports to explore the way in which the young hero learns that life is full of gradations and that things are not always as they appear; to be honest, it played to me more of a grotesque, Alice in Wonderland variant, although the imagery is sufficiently strong in its expression that as Alice riffs go, it's a good 'un. 7/10

The Gallery (Robert Proch, Poland)
A brash, hugely inventive combination of artistic traditions is nominally a satire of consumerism, in which a husband and wife, both represented as a savage shape in black ink on white with a single red detail (his tiny head, her huge hair), spend a day at the shopping mall. The aggressive graphic design is breathtaking, fluid and ambitious in motion in a way that a still could never begin to capture, and the rushing music is every bit as attention-grabbing as the visuals - all in all, it's the most artistically complex and even radical of the shorts here, which makes it annoying that its plot boils down to that tired chestnut, "Woman sure do like to SHOP, right guys?!" 8/10

Guard Dog Global Jam (Bill Plympton, USA)
A singular concept, to say the least: Plympton invited 70 artists from around the world to join him in a shot-for-shot remake of his career-defining Guard Dog, each of those artists contributing one shot in whatever style they desired. The results range from a carbon copy of the original to clay models, stick figures, cel animation, and nearly every other possibility you could name. It's a fascinating experiment on at least two levels: demonstrating how narrative continuity can be maintained in the face of a totally chaotic breakdown of visual continuity, and exploring how much of a director's original spirit lives on when his very characteristic aesthetic is broken down and reconstructed in different ways. That said, it's a touch arrogant, and surely this experiment would have worked better with a more iconic short? Not that Disney or Warner would come within spitting distance of approving such a thing. Anyway, as pure filmgoing, the original Guard Dog is superior - no intellectual gamesmanship to get in the way of the jokes. 7/10

Bride Can (Ronak Taher, Australia/Iran)
The only flat-out failure of the bunch: though its central conceit does work. That being, women in an oppressive country e.g. Iran, are very little other than commodies to be bought off the shelf and treated as indistinguishable from one another. This is dramatised by watching a woman's journey from girlhood to motherhood as a literal product, done in cut-out animation. And therein lies the problem: however much the film works as a message - which it does, in a jackhammer-obvious sort of way - it absolutely does not even think to hide the outright theft of most of its best ideas from Terry Gilliam's animations in Monty Python's Flying Circus, arguably the best-known example of cut-out animation in the history of cinema. 5/10


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