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Archive for the ‘Genre Countdown: Animation’ Category


(Czechoslovakia 1948 10 min)

Director Karel Zeman

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

Inspirace is a gorgeous work of stop-motion art made entirely from glass.

In the beginning the artist (Zeman himself) peers into a tiny vulnerable world for inspiration (inspirace) and sees how, like the world’s glassy scenery, love has a soft, smooth side and a jagged, tearing edge.

A girl is formed from a pearl that leaves a scallop shell and bobs to the water’s surface where it bursts into flower. A man, dressed like an old Italian clown (one thinks of Murano figurines), is born from a dandelion seed. The petals form her dainty skirt, the seed-head his flamboyant collar. He falls in love with her as she skates with grace and poise. He admires her, worships her, desires her, falling to his knees. The world entire is more beautiful when she is around: waving reeds, galloping horses, coral, the shimmer of warped light.

And yet a sheet of ice forms between them, through which he can only long and yearn. She pays no heed to his declarations and continues to spin balletically, drawing sinuous and sensuous spirals with her sharp feet. His soul is aching. He grasps his head with his hands and his agony smashes the barrier between them, like screaming love could turn a roulette wheel in Run Lola Run.

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(China 1988 20 min)

Director / Animator Te Wei

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

The extraordinary Feeling from Mountain and Water by Te Wei takes both its style and its name from the art of Shan-Shui. Shan-Shui, which literally means “mountain-water” is a type of Chinese painting that depicts natural scenery and landscapes with brush and ink.

Feeling From Mountain and Water is a remarkable witness to this fragile art form, with his brush of watercolour and ink seeming to barely touch the paper.

Without words, an old man falls and is nursed back to health by a girl. She has a beatific smile. In return for her kindness he offers her music lessons, seeming to teach her respect for nature’s delicate balance through the crystalline clarity of plucked notes.

A ghostly apparition emerges from the fog, the hull of the boat passes gently immersed in coconut white and silken waters. It is a harmonious and studied film. Educated, one could say. It rises above and embraces the inherent holiness of the land. The film has also been known as “Love of Mountain and River”, a title that says it all but, perhaps, too much.

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(UK 1982 103 min)

Director Martin Rosen; Writers Richard Adams (novel), Martin Rosen; Voice Acting John Hurt (Snitter), Christopher Benjamin (Rowf); Colour Consultant Donna K Baker

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

“I had a master once…they are not masters”

Snitter the dog makes a distinction between the men who violently conduct tests on him and the owner he used to have, the man who cared for him. For Snitter there are only two kinds of man : Masters and White Coats. For Rowf, his friend, a dog who never felt the love of a human being, there are only White Coats and only danger.

The Plague Dogs is a double-edged sword whose two blades are both dangerously sharp : those who have never felt Good cannot believe in it but those who have, and whose trust has been abused, now perceive the whole world poisoned. When the dogs see a man innocently holding a knife they scarper and we are punched in the gut by the sadness of this fearful mistrust.

Grimy dank of fog, smells and aromas of cold clinical putrefaction. Men silently looming overhead, eyes out of sight. They, we are made to look alien and beastly. The dogs escape and run for shelter, for affection, for food. All the while rumour runs with them, with whispers and news broadcasts morphing innocent test subjects into murderous carriers of the bubonic plague. Director Martin Rosen, just as he did with another Richard Adams book, Watership Down, blankets the countryside in forbidding greys, browns and dark greens. The film is powerful, unsettling and thought-provoking – an all-round, high quality work.

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(USSR 1975 11 min)

Director Yuri Norstein; Writer Sergei Kozlov; Voice Acting Mariya Vinogradova (Hedgehog)

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

Hedgehog in the Fog doesn’t have the austerity, sobriety or the gnomic qualities of Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales, Battle of Kerzhenets or Seasons (the latter two made with Ivan Ivanov-Vano). Those are the kinds of subjects we expect, rightly or wrongly, to be touched by the hands of a master. Hedgehog in the Fog is a relatively run-of-the-mill, modest tale treated with an effort, craft and care that this kind of story rarely, if ever, gets.

A small and timid hedgehog is walking across the fields and through the woods, gliding along the river that dense trees guard from sight. He is off to see his friend, the bear, to take him some raspberry jam and sit under the heavens counting the stars. It’s a regular trip but he still hasn’t got used to the eerie perils of the fogbound countryside. He is scared by leaves flying out the murk, and by the hoots of a giant owl prowling comically on tiptoe behind him. He is frightened by the dark too, though never enough to curl up into a prickly ball.

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(Japan 1998 81 min)

Director Satoshi Kon; Writers Sadayuki Murai (screenplay), Yoshikazu Takeuchi (novel); Music Yasahiro Ikumi; Voice Acting Junko Iwao (Mima)

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

“I’m alone, but doing fine. I’ve finally found a luxurious loneliness…”

Personalities split and realities merge and complete unhappiness, this ‘Perfect Blue’, consumes a young and vulnerable woman.

What is real? This is an ancient theme that only comes alive if it comes to mean ‘What should I or What do I feel or mean’.

Suffocated by the strictures of her popstar lifestyle as lead singer of CHAM, Mima quits to become an actress. She marvels at the professionals: “She’s a completely different person when the cameras are rolling”. Willing to push her boundaries, she takes on a role (in Double Bind) in which her character will be raped. It is a harrowing and truly horrific experience.

What mark does acting leave on the actor? Can real and make-believe be kept fully apart? Does art change the way we see ourselves? Does it change the way we see others though we know it is all for show?

Gradually, her “graduation” from singer to actress becomes a “metamorphosis” and she is unable to tell who she really is any longer, what is real, what is filmed and what is imagined. Neither can we. She is out of control. She poses for revealing photos, taunted by her former self as dirty and damaged (“I refuse to do it!” her reflection says of the rape scene).

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(USA 1986 86 min)

Director Will Vinton; Writers Susan Shadburne, Mark Twain (original stories / quotes); Voice Acting James Whitmore (Mark Twain), Michele Mariana (Becky Thatcher), Gary Krug (Huckleberry Finn), Chris Ritchie (Tom Sawyer), John Morrison (Adam), Carol Edelman (Eve)

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

“What’s your name?”

“Satan”

“Uh-oh”

It is the fate of many films to be known for all eternity for just one scene: The Usual Suspects for its twist, From Here to Eternity for its kiss, Singing in the Rain for the…

For those who don’t know ‘claymation’ film The Adventures of Mark Twain well, only one scene – a meeting with the Devil himself – seems to have reached the public consciousness. On the strength of that scene, inspired by a sequence in Twain’s book The Mysterious Stranger, the film is pre-judged and misunderstood. The encounter is flesh-crawling. Satan, his face a mask he holds in his hand, creates little humanoid creatures and then leads them to destruction before the eyes of our three child protagonists.

Though the disquieting darkness of fear and oblivion is not too far beneath the surface (in fact the flesh of these stop-motion claymation characters is always crawling with fingermarks) the film is as pleasant and charismatic as its host. And what a concept! Mark Twain creates a phantasmagorical contraption – unholy hybrid of rocket-ship and hot air balloon – by which he will fly into space to join his dead wife on a comet. This marvellous idea is taken from something Twain once said:

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(France 1963 11 min)

Directors/Animators Alexander Alexeieff, Claire Parker; Story Nikolai Gogol

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

Russian Alexandre Alexeieff, with the help of two wives, Alexandra Grinevskya and American Claire Parker, developed the technique of Pinscreen animation, a technique that reached its zenith in Alexeieff and Parker’s Le Nez. In Pinscreen animation the image is created by the shadows of thousands (in their case, a staggering 240,000) of moveable pins embedded on a screen and lit from a certain angle.

Though you cannot necessarily judge a work of art by how difficult it is to accomplish one need only imagine for a second how painstaking it is to create detailed compositions in this manner in order to get a sense of the creative spark and artistic verve required just to begin.

For that alone, Le Nez is astonishing. You hear a lot about the freedom of endless possibilities that animation gives artists. What you hear less of is how this freedom is counterweighted by the laboriousness of the process. Whatever ends up on screen is earnt. In animation no film-makers have come closer to matching perspiration to inspiration as Alexeieff and Parker. They worked first in Paris and then in Canada, where the Canadian Film Board of Canada (an important part of animation history) were the only company willing to stand the cost of the process.

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(USA 1937 83 min)

Director William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen; Original Story Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm; Voice Acting Adriana Caselotti (Snow White)

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

There is something rotten behind the Disney façade. Something creepy in the putty-faced characters and the cute anthropomorphised animals. Something disconcerting in the rubbery elegance of movement. Spurts of earnest story-stalling music and grating voices, so pretty and so prettily dumb.

There is something captivating about Snow White, though. We are drawn to the apple. We salivate at the thought of biting it. It may taste bitter, its core may poison us, but we want it. We can’t take our eyes off it.

I went into the woods and saw Snow White tip-toeing through her banal happiness, skipping through an Uncanny Valley. I saw her Betty Boop mannerisms (animator Grim Natwick worked on both). I saw those expressions, so vague, lips slipping around her face, eyelids batting lazy and shallow and I raised my dagger, glinting in the full-fat Disney sunshine. And…and…I can’t.

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(USA 1939-1956 23 min)

Director Harry Smith


by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

Early Abstractions is a collection of seven shorts (originally 10 but three are missing, presumed lost). Animator Harry Smith does not restrict himself to the realm of animation but employs a whole host of cinematic techniques. As the sequence progresses (the films are numbered 1 to 10) the work undergoes an evolution in terms of its style and its increasing complexity.

Direct Animation, optical printing, collages of catalogue clippings, stickers, even Vaseline. The range of textures at his disposal make for a consistently surprising. multi-faceted and entrancing experience.

At first glance the films keep you at a distance, appearing as a lightning rod for all of Modern Art’s shallow indulgences : random colours and shapes unimpressive and hollow in and of themselves, ineloquent emotionally and intellectually. Gradually, however, Early Abstractions reveals itself as not merely the high end of a low form but something altogether mesmerising, something, through its effect, qualitatively different. It passes clean through the invisible and unfathomable barrier that separates the tedious from the hypnotic.

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(USSR 1957 63 min)

Director Lev Atamanov; Voice Acting Yanina Zhejmo (Gerda), Anna Komolova (Kay), Mariya Babanova (The Snow Queen)

by Stephen Russell-Gebbett

There are certain films that one can easily understand why people enjoy, even if you don’t yourself.

Whilst most would probably concur that Lev Atamanov’s The Snow Queen (from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale) is well animated and a happy, charming and inoffensive enough little tale, they may not be able to understand its high ranking here. Likewise, I may not be able to (properly) articulate the reasons for its elevated position.

Much like Peter Madsen’s Valhalla and the films of Hayao Miyazaki (The Snow Queen played a role in inspiring him to continue in animation) there is an ineffable quality, that quality of gentleness that characterises so much of the best animation. As the Snow Queen herself, it casts a spell. These films are a balm, not just nice but somehow invigorating.

Gerda is a girl. She lives opposite a boy called Kay. She likes him and he likes her. They meet on the balcony in between their two houses. One day she takes him to her Grandmother’s house. There she tells them of the Snow Queen, cruel and vicious, icy and unforgiving – the harsh of Winter incarnate. Foolishly she insults the Queen. Soon the ruthless sovereign is at the window cracking its pane with frosty tendrils.

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