From the archives: Animation

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Lipsett’s diarist

Friday, 2 September 2011 — 8:36am | Animation, Canadiana, Film

Over the past week I’ve been attending a number of sessions at the London International Animation Festival. The LIAF has been around since 2003, but this is its first year in the Barbican Centre, where it comes at the tail end of a summer celebrating the art of animation.

July at the Barbican saw a retrospective of Studio Ghibli’s films, which I was shocked to discover never made it to British shores until 2001. Being a kid who remembers precisely two films from his toddlerhood, one being the Cantonese dub of My Neighbour Totoro (the other was The Land Before Time), it continues to astonish me that the childhoods of my peers were Miyazaki-free until Spirited Away. Also running at the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 September is Watch Me Move: The Animation Show, a gallery exhibition spanning 150 years of global animation history that I’ll have to write about another time. My readers in Canada will be happy to note that the exhibition’s next destination is the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, where Watch Me Move will run from 8 October through Christmas Eve.

All digressions aside, I really must commend the LIAF’s outstanding curation. In the out-of-competition programmes alone I’ve found some classics I had hitherto missed like the Russian masterwork Hedgehog in the Fog, which grounded a session dedicated to cut-out animation past and present, and discovered some new and instant favourites. Two that stood out for me, both selections from last year’s SIGGRAPH conference: Mobile by Verena Fels, a crowd-pleasing shuffle of animals on wires reminiscent of Pixar’s For the Birds; and The Wonder Hospital by Shimbe (Beomsik Shim), a surreal descent into what I’d best describe as a funhouse of cosmetic surgery.

The piece that I want to draw attention to here, however, is Les journaux de Lipsett (Lipsett Diaries). It was presented as the fulcrum of a session dedicated to the oeuvres of its director, Theodore Ushev, and its subject, the 1960s Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Ushev himself was in attendance as one of the LIAF’s featured guests this year and told the audience of the many coincidences behind his latest project. Here’s one: when Ushev moved from Bulgaria to Montreal, where he has been based since 1999, he stayed in the same building that housed Lipsett for most of his life—until the latter committed suicide in 1986, aged 49.

Continued »

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Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

Continued »

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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Suggested reading, sophomoric edition

Monday, 25 January 2010 — 4:30pm | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Literature, Science

Here’s your grab bag for the week:

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Kung fu pandering

Sunday, 12 July 2009 — 6:09pm | Animation, Film

Every now and then I chip away at a series of critical essays about why Pixar Animation Studios is head and shoulders above everybody else in modern commercial American cinema. I will probably never finish it. It has expanded to the point where I’m not sure whether to stretch it just a little further to cover the studio’s entire feature-length output (and a few of the shorts for good measure), or condense it by scrapping the more platitudinous arguments; because a lot of what Pixar does right is, in my mind, obvious.

It is far more succinct to inspect an example of animation done wrong. And so I present John Kricfalusi’s illustrated horror story about a pitch meeting with DreamWorks executives tragically dispossessed of a clue. Here is the DreamWorks process:

  1. Pick an “arena”—like woods, or the sea.
  2. Put funny animals in it.
  3. Match every species with a celebrity voice.

Is anybody surprised?

(For the record, I found Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, and the first Shrek to be capable entertainments: there was a competence to them and an ambition to do more than game the market for laughs. With the tacit exception of the short-lived distribution deal with Aardman that gave us Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, I’m not sure if I can say that for anything else with the DreamWorks Animation stamp.)

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And the token nominee is…

Thursday, 25 June 2009 — 2:36pm | Animation, Film, Oscars

Nothing is ever so counterproductive as a desperate gamble for popular relevance. Case in point: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is expanding the Oscars’ Best Picture shortlist to ten nominees, effectively reverting to the pre-1944 format. The press release is here. This is a boneheaded idea, although I can see why somebody would think it looks good on paper.

In recent years, the best thing AMPAS did for itself was move the Oscars forward by a month. By curtailing the ability of the major studios to do a heavily funded marketing push in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to conquer the industry’s mindspace with their chosen representative, and moving the ballot deadline ahead of the precursor awards that once rendered the Oscars too predictable, the show virtually matured overnight.

Since then, the trend has been towards greater recognition of artier, if not outright independent fare. A decade ago, it would have been unlikely, if not unthinkable, for excellent and unique films like No Country For Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire to claim the top prize. This is not to say that the Oscars used to be bad and suddenly became good: it is merely to acknowledge that the awards were increasingly living up to their social responsibility as a counterweight for the market, as a way of boosting the fortunes of films the public may have wrongfully overlooked. The public may have complained that they had never heard of the films being awarded, let alone seen them—often because the lesser-known nominees had yet to see general release outside of the major American cities by the time the shortlist was announced—but that is as it should be. If an awards show comes off as elitist, it is doing its job.

Personally, the only question I care about is whether this means Up will be Pixar’s first Best Picture nominee, and the second animated feature to make the shortlist in history (Beauty and the Beast being the first). But without an even playing field comparable to that of previous years, it is impossible to tell whether this is actually a sign of forward progress. And against the objections of those who believe the Animated Feature category has created a permanent ghetto for the artform, I do believe some progress has been made. Yes, only very recently did we see the outrageous exclusions of Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, two of the finest pieces of American cinema in the twenty-first century. But the nomination of WALL•E in the Original Screenplay category last year was already a significant step forward, a recognition of what story really means in a visual medium.

The sudden expansion of the shortlist to twice its previous size is a nightmare for historians and other cineastes whose interest is in tracking the evolution of Hollywood’s congratulatory attitude towards itself. And unlike similar lists that whittle the present vintage down to ten—the American Film Institute’s comes to mind—the selection of a victorious picture as the best of the ten guarantees even more pervasive vote-splitting than what we have seen in the past.

(My opinion has always been that significant industry awards should be determined by discussion and debate rather than democracy, but the Oscars are the film industry’s way of patting itself on the back and I wouldn’t expect it to conduct itself any differently. It is a real shame that the Oscars, and not the critics’ awards or the AFI, serve as the primary guidebook for future generations to select films for preservation or rediscovery. One day, this may change.)

In my estimation, this is an unwanted and unnecessary concession to populist sentiment that The Dark Knight—a sterling if overrated crime drama, and the superhero genre’s most earnest bid for serious acceptance—was wrongfully snubbed. It is an intentional return to the pattern of including token box-office hits (remember The Fugitive?), under the appealing guise of easing the inclusion of films that have already been given uncomfortable pigeonholes to keep them out of everybody else’s business—animated and foreign-language features in particular.

If we do see increased recognition of animated, foreign, and independent films—not just this year, but going forward in the long term—I will temper my objections and stand corrected. It is far more likely that the big-studio horses will crowd the race.

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What’s Ramayana, Doc?

Wednesday, 24 June 2009 — 2:34pm | Animation, Film

Last week I finally got around to seeing Sita Sings the Blues, a majestic animated feature by Nina Paley that I would describe as the fulfilment of the postmodern promise. I had been curious about the film ever since Amid Amidi raved about it last year. In December, Roger Ebert wrote:

[Sita] has not found a distributor. Times are hard, and indie distributors are not rolling in available funds. To them, no doubt, this doesn’t have the ring of box office gold: An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Once they read that, and they’re like me: Uh, huh. And if you were to read that description in the mailer from your local art house, would you drop everything and race through driving rain see it? Uh, uh.

Are you kidding, Roger? That’s exactly what I’d drop everything and race through driving rain to see.

No matter. With the gracious assistance of the Creative Commons license, Ms Paley has since made the film available online.

I could go on about the endless charm of the musical numbers, the playfulness of the shadow-puppet storytelling sequences, the perfect partnership of Sita’s woes and the Jazz Age torch song, or how my apprehensions toward the stiffness of rigid objects often characteristic of Flash animation were washed away with frame after frame of gorgeous design. And there’s no lack of human-interest stories about the making and distribution of the film, either. But my recommendation is to go in cold, bathe in the sheer personality of this very personal project, and come back later to read about its accomplishment as a triumph for the copyleft movement.

Sita Sings the Blues is the epitome of what postmodern art was always supposed to deliver—and coming from yours truly, this is a high compliment indeed. It’s not merely a stylistic pastiche for the sake of being one: the pastiche is a joyful source of creativity that marries several artistic traditions and revels in showing us how the marriages unfold. It celebrates the instability of oral traditions and the diversity of interpretations of myth, while adding to both.

In that light, I’m baffled (but not surprised) that Sita has drawn the ire of academics of the postcolonial school. From an interview with Nina Paley:

On the far left, there are some very, very privileged people in academia who have reduced all the wondrous complexities of racial relations into, “White people are racist, and non-white people are all victims of white racism.” Without actually looking at the work, they’ve decided that any white person doing a project like this is by definition racist, and it’s an example of more neocolonialism.

This is an understanding of Orientalism, as Edward Said called it, of such undergraduate maturity that I wonder how its proponents made it that far in academia at all. If anything, Sita is the very model of where art can go when the narcissistic presumption that cultures can only talk about themselves has run its course: towards the syncretic and the globally aware. Bill Benzon is quite correct when he says:

And if your inner geek is thinking “ancient text + contemporary story = Ulysses,” well then your inner geek’s ahead of mine, because I didn’t think that until 10 or 20 minutes into my first viewing. But I wouldn’t count that as any more than a casual observation, one with a non-casual corollary.

By the ordinary method of reckoning such things, the culture of ancient Greece and Rome is in the direct ancestral line of 20th Century European culture which would necessarily include Joyce’s Dublin. The same mode of reckoning sees little relationship between ancient India and contemporary America, thus both Hindu nationalists and post-colonial Theorists have been criticizing Paley’s cultural miscegenation. Alas for them, cultural miscegenation has been the way of the world since whenever and it’s only accelerating in our era.

For my part, I wasn’t thinking of Ulysses at all, but of this:

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