From the archives: Animation

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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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The top ten Looney Tunes cartoons

Friday, 19 December 2008 — 11:21am | Animation, Film

Answering the call of animation historian and Warner Bros. expert Jerry Beck, there is a lively discussion at Cartoon Brew of the best Looney Tunes shorts of all time. Ordinarily I abhor doing rankings and writing up lists, but people read them, and there’s no better way to introduce audiences to the classics of the vast, vast Warner repertoire than to put them on an enumerated pedestal.

Obviously, there is never a consistent set of criteria for determining the “greatest” of anything. I decided to look for shorts that would be somewhat broadly representative of the Looney Tunes brand’s leading directors and staple characters in their finest moments, taking into consideration both historical value and the nuance of the animation itself. As with books, music, and live-action cinema, I like to reward works that show off what the medium can do, but not at the expense of a clear and engaging story. Ties were broken by personal taste.

My list will reveal that I have a strong preference for director Chuck Jones, particularly his legendary unit with background artist Maurice Noble and storyman Michael Maltese. Not to downplay the talents of Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and others, but I think most Looney Tunes aficionados end up gravitating towards one of Chuck Jones or Bob Clampett, since they represent two contrasting ideals of what the animated cartoon should be. Jones is to Clampett as Sonny Rollins is to John Coltrane on the tenor saxophone: one is known for the elegant clarity of his inventions, the other for his unrestrained virtuoso insanities. (On further reflection, the better analogy may be to Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk.) It’s not out of the ordinary to admire both styles, but adore one more than the other.

I came up with a clear and likely interchangeable top four, which I had to shuffle a few times, and limited my list to ten. Without further ado, let’s begin with #10 and work our way down.

Continued »

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American People Accidentally Enjoy Family Guy

Friday, 14 November 2008 — 3:36pm | Animation, Film, Television

The funniest thing I’ve read all week: “Indian People Accidentally Enjoy Roadside Romeo.” For those of you who don’t know, Roadside Romeo is a Disney-distributed CG production by Yash Raj Films that I have heard described as a Bollywood Lady and the Tramp; you can watch the trailer here, if you dare. It’s also a runaway hit. Amid Amidi proposes that all animation be removed from the nation of India, and I think he’s only half joking:

We’ll try the plan for two years. Don’t worry, good ideas like this take time. When the fine people of India feel they’re good and ready to respect the animation art form, I will personally send over a print of One Froggy Evening. If you enjoy that more than you did Roadside Romeo, we’ll send you Dumbo the following month. If you still enjoy Roadside Romeo, we’ll take more drastic measures like defrosting Walt and sending him over to help you see the light. Either way you’ll finally be able to see that your enthusiasm for Roadside Romeo was one huge terrible fucking mistake. Don’t feel too bad, even animation-savvy countries make mistakes sometimes.

It’s a satirical piece (“Additionally, any DVDs containing animation can be dumped in useless neighboring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh”), and all the more effective because the plan would garner my full support. Honestly, sometimes I think we need drastic measures like this right here in North America—my fellow Canadians, that includes you—and I can’t think of a better remedial syllabus.

Let’s set Roadside Romeo aside for a moment, since I haven’t seen it. When India pulls off its equivalent of Spirited Away, which earned its way to becoming the biggest domestic success in the history of Japanese cinema by also being one of the best animated features in recent memory, then we’ll talk. Of far greater concern is the link in the last sentence I quoted. The Cleveland Show? This is like milking a diseased cow. Is Seth MacFarlane out of his giggity mind?

I make it no secret that I consider Family Guy a televised disgrace, a cancer upon the storied art form of Walt Disney, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, Nick Park, Brad Bird, and everyone else who belongs on my abbreviated list. And that’s to speak only of its offence to animation, never mind comedy (or, for that matter, Americana). I’m not sure when it became fashionable to equate “adult” animation with crude construction and crass immaturity; I grew up believing that adults were people who grew up. Maybe this is the same audience that never grew out of the adolescent sensibility of feeling too cool for cartoons.

The Family Guy franchise bothers me considerably more than the usual decadent pop-culture rot because of how it has managed to swindle so many otherwise intelligent people, possibly including Seth MacFarlane himself, into believing that it is in any way clever. It’s dumb-as-bricks entertainment that purports to be smarter than the average bear. It’s like a Dan Brown novel (which makes the ineptitude of Family Guy‘s onetime jab at The Da Vinci Code all the more ironic), though it casts a loftier net. At least trashy bestsellers fill the coffers of publishers who can then make risky gambles on unknown authors. (There was a rumour going around that Doubleday’s recent layoffs happened because they expected the next Brown novel to show up on this year’s ledger, though it was denied.) Family Guy begets more Family Guy, be it in the isomorphic stupid-to-make-you-feel-smart sitcom family of American Dad or the selfsame nucleus in The Cleveland Show. It has no excuse, and I will celebrate when it dies.

One often forgets that Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons attempted spades of pop-culture “references” (as distinguished from parody). Shorts like Hollywood Steps Out have declined into trivial irrelevance for all but the most serious collectors, and I say that as someone who recognizes classic film stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson; still, at least the drawings back then were actual caricatures. And one would have to admit that 8-Ball Bunny gets a little stale by the third time Humphrey Bogart’s character from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre shows up to pester Bugs.

True classics like One Froggy Evening will prevail as they always have, as will the best of the parodies—your What’s Opera, Doc?, your Carrotblanca. And there’s no question that there’s a lot of great animation being produced today, be it in North America, India, or anywhere else. The problem is the undiscerning audience that never sees any of it, and is stuck with deplorable examples of what animation can do. Unfortunately, that audience comprises a great many people. Some of them may even be your friends. I fully support their systematic inoculation, and if we have to haul Uncle Walt out of the freezer, so be it.

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Ties, damned ties, and sadistics

Monday, 3 November 2008 — 1:50pm | Animation, Film

Le noeud cravate / The Necktie

In commemoration of World Animation Day, the Metro Cinema exhibited two free, back-to-back screenings of National Film Board shorts: a kids’ programme, and another one. I’m not sure what the criterion for inclusion in the children’s screening was, though the films in that package tended to be the ones with a more straightforward attitude to story.

The kids in attendance loved it, at any rate, and broke out in applause at the end. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that among children outside of packed advance screenings and Pixar opening nights. What a treat it must be to see a whole new generation of potential NFB classics at so young an age, when one pays little heed to the finer subtleties of design and technique, but bathes in the overwhelming effect; the age at which a card trick is real magic.

Here in Canada, many people my age who think they only have a casual exposure to animation probably have vague recollections of The Cat Came Back or The Log Driver’s Waltz flickering across their television sets. NFB animation is truly one of the government-funded arts initiatives that is successful even by the Stephen Harper metric, and it isn’t at all a case of nationalistic self-aggrandizement to acknowledge that it has made this country a world player. And considering how many of the best shorts come out of Quebec, I’m glad they’re still here.

As for this weekend’s films: there was a lot to like, and I reserve an especial fondness for the hysterical India-ink anachronisms of Claude Cloutier’s Isabelle au bois dormant (Sleeping Betty) and the punch line that caps off the rhythmic metamorphosis of Malcolm Sutherland’s Forming Game. But there was one film that was the very height of magnificence: Le noeud cravate (The Necktie), Jean-François Lévesque’s mixed-media meditation on the horror of the lifelong dead-end job.

Le noeud cravate was exhibited in both screenings, so I had the pleasure of seeing it twice. I don’t want to give away its most shocking moments, so a careful synopsis will do: a young man receives a striped necktie as a graduation gift, packs his accordion away, and ascends the skyscraper of the aptly named Life Inc. As he rises from floor 25 to 39, the necktie tightens around his neck like a noose, his briefcase overflows with paper, and he develops a hunch. At 40, the only three-dimensional person in an office of 2D worker drones, he wakes up to the realization that he has spent his life sitting in a dimly lit office ironing crumpled paper for no reason whatsoever—so he takes the elevator to the top floor to see what lies ahead.

More than that, I won’t say; you must see it for yourself. I haven’t seen enough of the field to know what the competition is like, but Lévesque’s piece is without a doubt comparable to the quality of past Oscar winners, and I hope it ends up on the shortlist this year.

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