Returning after its 2007 debut, The 2010 Los Angeles Animation Festival (LAAF) packed all the punch of a much larger festival into a single venue, LA’s most adventurous (and possibly most ambitious) cinematheque, Cinefamily. A multi-purpose film fest if there ever was one, LAAF showcased shorts from emerging talent (Jordan Baseman’s Nasty Piece of Stuff, a monologue about coming out in pre-gay rights England, especially, is worth seeking out), full-length features from Asia and the Czech Republic, and, in its non-competition events, tributes to pioneering American animators and live musical accompaniment to films. There was even an advance screening of the upcoming The Illusionist, from director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) working with a script written, in part, by Jacques Tati.
The selection, like the venue, was tiny. But unlike most film fests, there wasn’t any redundancy, let alone duds, at meticulously programmed LAAF. The full-length foreign features were some of the most exciting animation anyone in Los Angeles had likely seen in years, each utilizing distinct — and often underutilized — production techniques like stop motion, cut outs, and colored pencil (!). Out of competition, Claymation was also well-represented, with its creator, Will Vinton, in attendance for a tribute program that included his short films and the all-clay-all-the-time classic, The Adventures of Mark Twain, while perhaps his most famous creation, the California Raisin, greeted guests on the red carpet.
Other out-of-competition classics included a retrospective on MTV’s pioneering contribution to weirdo animation, from its animated logos to its Liquid Television shorts program and original series. While The Maxx and Aeon Flux haven’t aged that well, the non-MTV psych/fantasy/awesome Fantastic Planet (1973) sure has, especially since Cinefamily presented it with local band Jesus Makes the Shotgun Sound impeccably (and loudly) performing not only its proggy score, but also all of the film’s dialogue.
But as great as these underseen classics are, the real highlights of LAAF were the new films, especially the feature-lengths. As the U.S. eats up computer animated flicks like Happy Meals (both are standardized for mass consumption by the use of fancy technology) it’s reassuring to see that not all contemporary animators have embraced visual homogeneity. Or, for that matter, the homogenized, juvenile narratives that inevitably propel American contemporary big-studio animated features. LAAF films, on the contrary, told stories about China’s unemployed underclass, a Czech man’s surrealist somnambulist romance, and a husband’s attempt to cure his dying wife through architecture.
If you’re curious about animation outside the made-for-kids-but-with-jokes-for-adults-too genre, you might want to book a (very affordable) ticket for the next LAAF well in advance. Here’s hoping they don’t wait another three years for the next installment!
Surviving Life begins with an apology from its director, Czech surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer. While he had originally planned for the film to be live-action, he (or rather, his character) says, budgetary constraints forced him to use much simpler cutout animation for much of the film. Anyone familiar with animation knows this is a bluff; it’s not a simple craft, and often not cheap, either (strangely, Tangled is the second-most expensive movie ever made). But immediately after Švankmajer’s disingenuous apology, tongues no longer remain planted in-cheek. Literally. They emerge from apartment building windows. Bus-sized ones, twining around each other like mating snakes.
The tongues are just part of the film’s psychosexual parade of cutout images that march through this tale of a middle-aged office worker named Eugene who falls in love with his dreams — or, at least, a young woman who appears in them. Oranges the size of boulders rolling through doorways. Nude women with chickens for heads. Ripe, oversized watermelons bursting on the cobblestones. And that’s just from Eugene’s waking moments…
Whether you’re a student of the cutout or you haven’t watched the technique since your Monty Python years in high school, Švankmajer’s technique is mesmerizing. But after the film’s first few minutes, it becomes clear this vivid imagery isn’t simply unbound imagination. Patterns and rhythms emerge, carefully constructed repetitions. The bursting melons become simply the film’s punctuation, the oranges its grammar, while the story of a middle-aged Czech man’s desire is what holds our interest. Eventually, Eugene’s dreamscapes spill over into his waking moments. But Švankmajer, who claims this is his final film, is more Kaufman than Gondry. These dreams aren’t whimsical, aren’t clouds made of possibility; they’re specters of what is irretrievably past, or simply never was. What’s truly impressive about Surviving Life is that it’s brave enough to face these specters with levity.
Writer/director/animator Liu Jian’s Piercing 1 is worth seeking out for its back story alone. A novelist well before he was an animator, Jian felt the need to adapt one of his novels in particular so strongly that he sold his house to finance the film. The result — after a few years of Jian sitting in front of a wacom tablet — is China’s first truly independent feature (Chinese films all involve at least some government influence, if only financial), or at least its first truly independent cartoon.
I don’t know if Jian made back the money, but artistically at least, his risk paid off. Piercing 1 was one of my favorite films at LAAF. The animation isn’t technically stunning on its own, but its subdued palette and the minimal movements of its ligne claire drawings lend an appropriately noir feel to the film, which is part crime story, and languid pacing compliments the directionlessness its unemployed protagonist, Zhang Xiaojun, experiences as he tries to scrape together cash in a China that’s still reeling from the recent global financial crisis.
Laid off from his factory, Zhang is neither a slacker nor a natural criminal. Yet effortlessly, without us noticing, the film sucks him into the periphery of a twisting web of corruption, betrayal, murder, and lots of money. Unlike many American heist films, a bag of cash paid for with corpses doesn’t here feel like a gleefully received gift, a winning lotto ticket. Rather, it’s just a table scrap thrown down from the pasty fingers of Wall Street and Shanghai. Although obliquely, Liu Jian delineates the form of global financial malaise perfectly, making his own financial sacrifice admirably poetic.
In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?
The only children’s movie to appear at LAAF, In the Attic is a charming, delicate Czech Toy Story. Which means it isn’t like Toy Story at all.
Sure, director Jirí Barta’s stop-motion animation features toys that come to life when their human owner (a young girl) isn’t watching. But the difference from Pixar becomes clear when the film’s little human girl briefly enters the frame. In Toy Story, humans are animated with computers like every other object; we exist in the toys’ world of plastic. But the toys in In the Attic are filmed with celluloid just like its humans, and they exist in our world of dust and age.
Unlike the glossiness of Toy Story (I swear I can smell the scent of new plastic that wafts over a chain store’s toy aisle when I look at Buzz and Woody), Barta’s toys are worn down, homemade, covered with dirt, and obviously much-used. It’s a small yet critical difference: Toy Story films are product placement for the plastic-wrapped versions of their characters that you can buy; In the Attic only advertises imagination and authenticity, which can’t be ordered from Amazon.
In the Attic’s plot is mostly delightful mischief, not message, although the film’s villain does resemble a statue of a communist dictator. The toys’ emotions have to be gleaned from context and plot — unlike computer-animated ones, real dolls don’t have faces that can move to express much. But like a pet cat, just because something can’t emotionally manipulate you (I dunno, maybe you have a really smart pet cat and it knows how to fuck with your heart), doesn’t mean it can’t tug at your heart strings.
Gravity was Everywhere Back Then
Gravity was Everywhere Back Then made its LA debut at LAAF, in an out-of-competition presentation with live score and narration performed by director/writer Bret Green, writer/lead actress Donna Kozloskie, and a bunch of other musicians (including members of Giant Sand and Fugazi) who, due to sound check issues, took much longer than expected setting up. With my fancy, ultra-exclusive TMT press badge (Note: This does not actually exist. Yet.), I got to hang out on a couch in the mostly empty Silent Movie Theatre and drink beers while cords were being unfurled and levels were being adjusted. I mention this not because I want to brag about my special TMT backstage access (Note: I am making that up; it does not exist), but to illustrate the warm-hearted institution Cinefamily is: when the doors finally opened to let in the long line of longsuffering ticketholders, they were greeted with complimentary popcorn and cans of adult beverages as a “thank you” for waiting.
Of course, the film alone was worth the wait. Winner of Bad Lit Underground Film Journal’s 2010 movie of the year, Gravity was Everywhere Back Then tells the inspired-by-true-events story of a man who attempts to build a house that would cure his wife’s cancer. Green narrates most of the tale, his voice trembling overdramatically like Connor Oberst performing spoken word as he talks about God (belief in, lack of belief in) and love; it would be simply too earnest if Gravity was Everywhere Back Then weren’t so disarmingly ramshackle and homespun. Green and Kozloskie built the film’s outsider architecture in their own backyard. And shot using mostly pixilation, a stop-motion animation technique that uses photographs of people instead of objects, Gravity moves like the images in a handmade flipbook, all the more intimate for its twitches.
Winner, by a long shot, of LAAF’s audience choice award, Redline is the kind of crowdpleaser that erases the need for critical analysis and even plot summary, but I’ll try anyway. Hand-drawn by animators fed only, I’m guessing, high-fructose corn syrup, Redline is a car racing movie set in the distant future. Think JapaNASCAR. Think Mariokart set in an alien American West and starring monsters, doe-eyed anime babes, and a pompadoured Japanese rockabilly heartthrob, the latter being the film’s protagonist, a daydreamer with a shady but not too shady past who competes, but never wins, in a nitrous-enhanced 1970s car against the hovercrafts and man-robot-car cyborgs of the future. That is, until he accidentally qualifies for Redline, the galaxy’s biggest race, which is being held on a hostile planet that doesn’t want the media attention. Lasers, giant bio-weapon monsters, and lots of racing ensue; there’s even a romantic interest, anti-military-industrial-complex messages, and subplots on old friendships. But whatever — race scenes take up 2/3rds of the movie, and you’ll be thankful they do.
The highlight of a festival of highlights, Midori-ko is a film 10 years in the making. Japanese animator Keita Kurosaka created this elegantly mysterious gem in his home studio during free time between paid animation gigs, using only colored pencil.
Kurosaka’s muted colors and his lines that conceal as much as they reveal recall Francisco Goya’s darker period (“Perro Semihundido” and “Saturn Devouring His Son”), and some of the film’s stranger beings may evoke Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmarish creatures, but the director’s sense of narrative is entirely modern. Kurosaka takes the audience on regular detours that intensify the weird, moody dread that saturates the film’s pencil marks. But the story mostly follows a young girl who sells vegetables after she discovers a strange root that has a face like a cherub and a body like a wrapped-up infant. She researches it, cares for it, and tolerates it (barely) when it throws child-like tantrums, destroying her belongings. But mostly, she protects it from the mouths of her hungry neighbors and passersbys, always hovering, always poised to devour. Their unseen, anticipatory saliva threatens to melt the screen.
As a young boy, Kurosaka loved the taste of eel. On one special occasion, his father took him to a restaurant specializing in the creature; Kurosaka discovered that night where his favorite food came from as he watched a live eel butchered before him. Midori-ko was inspired by this childhood trauma, by the grotesqueness of food and eating. In Midori-ko, every creature is reduced to its appetites eventually, but even so, it’s hard to find a film more pulsing with life.
[Illustrations by K.E.T.]