By Bob Clark
For the next month we’re going to see something a little different in the Saturday Anime line-up. First of all, we’re not actually going to see any anime, per-se. Granted, I’ve used this space to review other animated works that don’t technically qualify as such before, not coming from Japan in any creative capacity whatsoever. Still, somewhere in works like Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux and Firebreather or even in Lucas & Filoni’s The Clone Wars there’s a perceptible trace lineage of anime’s influence to be found, just as surely as the works of Ford or Kurosawa can be seen guiding the hands of Sergio Leone in any of his films (call them, as well as something like Avatar: The Last Airbender, “spaghetti anime”, for lack of a better term). For what I have in mind for the next four weeks, however, there can be no comparison made, as we’ll be looking at animation hailing from the other end of the globe, across another pond altogether, and corresponding to all its own sets of cultural norms and personal idiosyncrasies that, when compared to most other animated works hailing from the West or anywhere else, one could be forgiven for thinking they come from another planet altogether. They might as well, in the case of a man like Rene Laloux.
Known primarily for his 1973 film La Planete Sauvage (“Fantastic Planet”), Laloux has one of the most unique creative visions in world animation, as well as one of the smallest bodies of work, having directed only two other features along with a handful of shorts, of which only a smaller handful are available for easy viewing on sites like YouTube. This week we’ll be looking at three of his earliest shorts, two of which represent the beginning of his collaboration with designer Roland Topur, with whom he would go on to make the cult-classic Planete Sauvage before moving onto creative pairings with Heavy Metal artists Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Phillipe Caza on the later films Les Maitres du Temps (“Time Masters”) and Gandahar (released only in the US in a Harvey Weinstein “approved” version as “Light Years”) respectively. Though the running time on these featurettes is minimal, the stuff they have to say about Laloux’s inimitable style is legion, as well as its contribution to the canon of international animation.
Les Dents du singe (“The Monkey’s Teeth”), from 1960, is the earliest of Laloux’s films that I was able to find for online viewing, and his third short overall. Done in a style of cut-out stop-motion animation, it just barely resembles the more polished work of his later projects, especially when it comes to the overall lack of polished illustrations. Over the course of his career, Laloux would enjoy a series of collaborative partnerships with his animation designers, all of whom added their own particular style to his vision, such to the point that it can at times be understandable to think each of his films the work of different directors altogether at first glance. Most directors of animation tend to come from a background of illustration themselves, with their own personal artistic sensibilities, or else work with the same teams of designers and animators again and again, building a distinctive trademark out of a group effort that best represents their personal aesthetics. For Laloux, the shape of each style changes from film to film, and yet there are always constants in the framework that are easy to recognize as somehow apart from his collaborator’s input, and it’s that much easier to see after looking at a film like this, wherein we see the director working largely on his own.
As such, The Monkey’s Teeth provides a baseline for the Laloux’s overall career, and though at times it bears a much cruder visual mark than any of his subsequent efforts, it is no less haunting in the application of its own distinctive look. A silent short that lives by the same kind of cruel and absurdist logic as an early Lynch film or Gondry music-video, it tells the story of a man whose teeth are all pulled out by a dentist, and is subsequently chased through the streets of a French city by policemen who disguise themselves as children, all while being shadowed by the menacing figure of a monkey riding a bicycle. It all comes off with a light touch, as befits the simplistic art style, but the pervading themes of paranoia and blunt moments of brutality throughout give that style a rather haunting psychological edge to it. At the best moments, the film unspools like the crayon drawings a child scribbles to depict a series of nightmares in a therapist’s office come to life. And though it depicts a far more recognizably contemporary and urban environment than we will see in Laloux’s later more alien landscapes, we can see the foundation of his basic building-blocks of visual mannerisms, especially concerning minimalism. Though there may be towering skyscrapers filling every frame, our cut-out characters are largely alone from moment to moment of the film, or else pursued by figures whose intentions are never understood, even by the pursuers themselves. Already, we can see the surrealism of the director’s work taking hold, telling stories that resemble the recurring dreams of amnesiacs.
Les Temps morts (“Dead Times”) from 1964 represents a huge step forward both in artistic polish and directorial ambition, as Laloux teams up with designer Roland Topur for the first time and applies their first collaboration towards a film that stands at the crossroads of any number of cinematic genres and disciplines. Mixing live-action stock-footage of real-world brutalities of war and innocent childhood imitations of it with occasional yellow-press illustrations of murder and Topur’s own surrealistic drawings, most of which are only barely (if at all) animated, the film aims for the same kind of unconventional documentary style that Bunuel achieved in his earliest collaborations with Dali and that Benjamin Christensen created as if from the ether itself in Haxan. The hard-etched pen and ink scratchings that dominate the imagery also look forward to the Saul Steinberg-assisted monologues that Godard’s super-computer antogonist delivers in Alphaville from 1965, giving the film a very slight quality of premonition that at times makes up for the rather lazy voice-overs that opine the brutality of the human race in phrases so blithely misanthropic they could come from a set of very depressing birthday cards (on the animal called man: “He has four limbs– two which allow him to walk, and two which allow him to kill”).
It would be easy to write off the phoned-in philosophizing that makes up the film’s soundtrack, but it’s impossible to do the same for the imagery that Laloux and Topur conceive, with panoramas of surreal human suffering that at times look like the equivalents of Bosch or Goya married with the gallows humor of Edward Gorey or Charles Adams. Everywhere is the rubble of human civilization, the bombed out shells of so many world wars and bloody inquisitions, and Laloux’s camera spends much of his time zooming in and out to direct our concentration from one target area of Topur’s illustrations to another, composing in close-ups what his designer has laid out in master. As such, the fact that so little of the film is actually animated hardly matters, as the director combines the arts of classical visual imagery and cinematic motion to create a kind of mass-produced gallery experience for the theater, finding intimate portraiture in the larger panoramic landscapes as later documentarians like Ken Burns later would with so many historical photographs. The fact that Laloux sandwiches Topur’s ghastly cartooning with so many artifacts of legitimate human grief helps lend the illustrations a historical weight of their own. At their most poetic, it is as though the filmmakers were making a verite film on location in the collective unconscious itself.
Les Escargots (“The Snails”) from 1965 marks the last of the shorts that Laloux would create with Topur before their 1973 feature presentation of Fantastic Planet, and though it’s by far one of the easiest to find, it’s perhaps the least impressive of all the director’s works, by my reckoning. Though it is full of entertainingly surreal moments, it aims the lowest in terms of creating a memorable experience with all its visual imagination, settling for a rather rote, simplistic cartoon narrative that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Looney Tune short (but without the trademark anarchic wit). Following a tired French farmer who at long length discovers a reliable way to make his garden vegetables grow strong, with only the minor side-effect of spawning the growth of enormous, apocalyptically destructive snails in its wake, Laloux and Topur create an amiable series of vignettes that are by turns laughable and quaint, but never really as unsettling or powerful as anything in either of the two preceding films. Yes, largescale devastation occurs to a point– snails destroy cars, trains and entire cities in their glacier-paced rampage of destruction, and even take time for a handful of salacious gags involving ladies in various states of undress, looking forward to the more sexually provocative substance prevalent throughout the rest of the director’s career. But for the most part, there’s nothing that quite impacts the viewer (or this viewer at least) with the same level of impression that The Monkey’s Teeth or Dead Time.
The film’s saving grace, of sorts, may be the occasion to watch Laloux perfect his craft, especially in the approaching shadow of Fantastic Planet. Combining the polished illustration style that Topur showed in Dead Time with the more dynamic range of stop-motion animation in the director’s previous film. No longer content to merely zoom in and out of his designer’s landscapes, here Laloux creates a whole world of living, breathing characters whose experiences are rendered in full motion, rather than static snapshots like the cinematic photo-album of Marker’s La Jetee. It doesn’t quite make up for the lack of depth in this short on its own, but the fact that it helps pave the way for bigger, better and more ambitious features easily makes it an important cornerstone of the director’s career, and more than worth the measly ten or so minutes it takes to watch from start to finish. I may rank it at the bottom of Laloux’s output, but one could find worse places for a work that lays creative foundations.
Next week: 1973’s La Planete Sauvage (“Fantastic Planet”)