Thursday, June 29


Anxious Animation

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.

Brian, This is a great post! I love that you are writing about the collage animation of the avant-garde! I marvel at the collage work of Lewis Klahr, Janie Geiser, Martha Colburn, & some of my friends like Tim Reardon, Xander Morrow, and Athena Soules. It is something that is difficult for me to wrap my head around sometimes, and I think that you write about this genre so well. It's just that personally I do not know how to make a collage. I just don't get how to put the pieces together. So I guess I'm kind of intimidated by it a bit.

Anyway, I totally want to see David Enos's film on Leonard Cohen! How can I see this? You were meant to write about L.C. after all! :)

Well, i'm sad to see an indie bookstore go, but i'm happy to see a bookstore return in its place. because it was nice to stroll through the remainders before I strolled onto the remainder bin of movie houses, the Opera (almost as big a screen as your TV) Plaza.

btw, SUPERMAN RETURNS has taken over nearly all the multiplexes here in Manila. I was hoping to catch the biopic (and advertisment for the big fight Sunday) PACQUIAO at the Gateway Mall where the fight is taking place while the fight is taking place. But Superman's shoved off most all competitors here this weekend.

The Opera Plaza Cinema gets something of a bad rap, in my opinion. Sure, its two "screening room" theatres are quite small, but even in those the screen is bigger than the tv of anybody whose house I've been over to. Maybe not by much, but still. They feel ideal for projecting a print of an intimate film, like one by the Dardenne Brothers for instance.

And the other two theatres aren't that small; no smaller than the smallest screens at the Kabuki, for example, and Landmark is usually careful to keep the films appropriate to the scale of the the room. I say usually because right now Beowulf and Grendel is playing the OPC right now, and I don't imagine it stands much of a chance. Then again I haven't watched it myself. Maybe it's a more small-scale film than I imagine.

I can see why the place might disappoint someone looking for a big, immersive cinema experience, though, especially if they ended up in one of the screening rooms.

Thanks for the comment and the report from Southeast Asia. So are you going to go with the flow and check out the superhero flick? I have to say I'm more interested in it than I expected to be. Maybe because I've been rewatching Pony Glass so many times?

Jen, I'm flattered you like my writing on these films. I have no idea how you can see Leaonard Cohen At Alberta off the top of my head, but if I find out a way I'll let you know!
PS- Anthony Mann was born exactly 100 years ago today (it's still June 30 here in California, the state he was born in). I was hoping to dash off a post to the effect either here or at Cinemarati today, but couldn't squeeze the time in to do more than a comment. Anyway, he's one of my favorite 1950s Hollywood directors, and here are five of my favorites of his films (in chronological order):

Winchester '73 (1950)
the Tall Target (1951)
the Naked Spur (1953)
the Far Country (1954)
Man of the West (1958)

I notice they're all period pieces, and all are Westerns but The Tall Target (which is an Eastern noir featuring Dick Powell as a New York City cop trying to stop a murder plot- which just happens to be set on the day before Abraham Lincoln's inauguration). Mann made some excellent straight noirs too in the 1940s, but none I've seen quite match the perfect balance between tense story construction and social criticism found in his 50s work. I've never seen any of his 1960s epics like El Cid or the Fall of the Roman Empire. Not yet, anyway.

Just thought it should be noted before the day was over.
I actually saw "Tall Target" while I was in Paris. They were having an Anthony Mann retrospective.
THANK YOU for bringing up a collection of shorts to 'our' attention! It's my favorite milieu, as it were. hee hee...

"Pony Glass" played to an EXTREMELY MIXED audience reaction at the SF Lesbian/Gay Film Fest a number of years ago. At the time, I was on the side of the "Ehhnnn?! What is this?!" group. However, the fact that it has stuck with me, much less that I remember it, gives the little flick a lot of credit!

James Trainor just bugs. I can't put my finger on it, but he just does.

Have you gotten into bitterfilms? LOVE those! hee hee hee...

Plus the OPC does substitute for my living room, when I'm in the mood... ;)
Brian, I'm sorry it's taken me a while to get over here to tell you how I much I loved this post. You write with such insight and clarity and economy. I learned a lot.

The only Other Cinema DVD I own is Spectres Of The Spectrum; the Baldwin commentary is excellent. I'm netflixing Anxious Animation--I hadn't heard of it until this post.

I discovered Janie Geiser's films when Susan Oxtoby curated them for the Cinematheque in Toronto a few years ago. There's a nice essay on her films in a (very) old issue of Cinema Scope.
Michael, Jay, Girish. Thanks for the comments, each of you. I mostly like to use this blog to talk about celluloid film screenings, but I'm glad I was able to direct attention to a relatively overlooked DVD release.

The only other Other Cinema DVD I've watched is Experiments in Terror, which is pretty great if not as precisely up my alley as these animations. I'm thus far wholly unexposed to Craig Baldwin's work, as far as I know. Embarrassingly, I still haven't even checked out the series he curates at Artists' Television Access. Hopefully next season.
Does anyone know why specifically, Klahr put his collages in "Treadwinds" by Walter K. Lew? I have to teach this book for class, and I need as many connections between the two as I can find.
Kim, I wish I couldn answer your question, but I know little of Klahr beyond these films. Perhaps another kind soul will stumble across this page and find n answer for you.

In the meantime, I only offer a link which I suspect you've already unearthed in your hunt. It seems to say that the "Tradewinds" collaboration was the result of a commission, which was itself a follow-up to a commissioned neo-benshi-style film-performance event. But I suspect you knew that.
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