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Cowspotting: 'The Dutch Films of Paul Driessen'

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films Flatlife by Jonas Geirnart, Snip by Steven Woloshen, Pita by Mike Hollands, Bear Hunt by Vance Reeser and Everybody Else Has Had More Sex Than Me by Bernard Derriman. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

All of Paul Driessens Dutch work has been gathered onto this indispensable DVD, which includes pristine transfers of some of his best known festival shorts. Unless otherwise indicated, all images © Il Luster Productions.

All of Paul Driessens Dutch work has been gathered onto this indispensable DVD, which includes pristine transfers of some of his best known festival shorts. Unless otherwise indicated, all images © Il Luster Productions.

The gentle madness of Paul Driessen is everywhere in his animated shorts editorial, color palette, sound effects but mainly its that line. For 30 years hes been honing an affect that at first blush seems positively arthritic. Just watch the pictures move for a few seconds, though, and youll see grace, fluidity and tight control in those wavy outlines. His goofy and lackadaisical disregard for the niceties of human anatomy leads his characters to set out for destinations where not every body part arrives at once. His outlines dissolve in a turmoil of gaps. Movement is stoppy and lethargic. But through it all he retains a precision in his timing and a clarity in his largely wordless storytelling that remains impressive in a very surreal milieu populated by medieval dentists, ghost trains and muscle-bound toddlers.

There are over twenty shorts in his resume, some done in Canada and some in Europe. You can pick up six of his National Film Board creations on a VHS called Beyond the Blue Meanies. (Surfers, a word of warning: NFB has a truly astounding number of animation videos for sale, but you wouldnt know it from their Boutique store portal, where one can hit Animation under the Browse banner and only come up with 45 results. To see all the goods, go to the root site and navigate through Find a Film, Genres, and Animation, and youll be rewarded with a list of more than 1,000 items, more than 600 of which are currently available to order.)

That leaves the discriminating fan still lacking Driessens Dutch work, a quandry that was solved recently with the release of an indispensable DVD from online store Animation Webshop. The Dutch Films of Paul Driessen includes pristine transfers of some of his best known festival shorts, including Oh What a Knight, The Killing of an Egg and The Writer.

Driessen has been making personal films since the early 1970s. In his earlier life this Netherlander, born in 1940, grew up under the aegis of a father who became an ambassador following World War II. He attended art school in the early 1960s, which in that time and in that part of Europe practically guaranteed hed end up in a seminal rock band. However with a talent in drafting rather than a musical mien, Driessen did the next best thing and went to work for the Beatles. Following an unsuccessful stint as a cartoonist for the print media, he learned animation at Cine Cartoon Centre in Hilversum and was drafted by director George Dunning to help animate Yellow Submarine.

The Story of Little John Bailey, his first independent work from 1970, is a stylistic hangover from Submarine in its bright psychedelic color palette and character shapes. In contrast with his later work, he uses a narrator and his cel work is all clean lines and solid blocks of color. The titular John Bailey is wandering through a forest one day when he sets a tree afire to warm himself. The whole forest burns down and the animals emigrate to the forest next door, which already had residents of its own and now is terribly overcrowded.

John mopes in a haze of self-pity until he meets an elephant, Snuffler, with a trunk at both ends. John gets a bright idea, and when a storm rolls through and lightning strikes, Snuffler stands with his back trunk in a puddle and, pump-like, the two get to work putting out fires.

David (1977) is a brief travelogue narrated by the Goliath-slaying boy of legend. Hes smaller here than usually depicted the size of a gnat, actually and after killing the giant, David amuses himself by startling villagers who wonder where that voice is coming from. David addresses the camera directly, letting his hair down so we can see him, shining a light in profile to cast a shadow, and tracking footprints from the contents of a spilled fountain pen. When a bird gives chase, he applies his disproportionate strength and delivers a good beating, but a passing man and child see the feathers and feel sorry for the bird, inadvertently stepping on David as they pass.

David is voiced by Peter Bierman, making his first in a series of collaborations in Driessen shorts, and theres a hint of Driessens future sound effects ingenuity in an onomatopoeic SLIP and THUD that spell themselves out on-screen as actors speak the lines in tandem.

Without The Killing of an Egg (1977) there might not have been SpongeBob SquarePants. Creator Stephen Hillenburg credits this short with inspiring him to get into the animation biz.

Without The Killing of an Egg (1977) there might not have been SpongeBob SquarePants. Creator Stephen Hillenburg credits this short with inspiring him to get into the animation biz.

The Killing of an Egg (1977) is not the most compelling item in Driessens résumé, but it remains highly effective in its simplicity and deserves our thanks for inspiring SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg to get into the animation biz. Inside a frame-within-the-frame, colored only in shades of yellow, a man says grace over an egg, takes a spoon in hand, and prepares to eat. From inside the egg a voice in Italian-accented pidgin English cries out, Allo, who is eet? Im acomin! Instead of earning the hungry mans sympathy, this only inspires his cruelty and he taps the shell harder and harder, ignoring the complaints from inside as he first taps and then smashes the egg with his hand. A knock comes at the mans door. Says he, in an identical voice, Allo, who is eet? as the house begins to implode Its a tidy universe, and Driessen sets it up and knocks it down with great efficiency.

The wordless On Land, At Sea, And In the Air (1980) is Driessens first great foray into parallel action among multiple frames of a split screen. At left is a man in bed; in the center, a bird in flight; on the right, a man and wife at sea. We follow them all from sunrise to sunset as they enact their daily rituals, which stay isolated at first, but soon begin to bleed from frame to frame in a blizzard of cartoon logic that defies time and space with hilarious results. The man flips off the sun and a storm rolls in, crossing all three frames; everyone gets hungry and looks for food; everyone digests that food and relieves themselves; everyone cries in terror; everyone falls in love.

Driessen lays on the charm in a dozen ways a fish and his thought balloon make identical circles in the water, Noahs ark appears and sinks three times, and the mans body approaches the extreme foreground only to fill the whole screen and create land masses for the other two panels. As in most of Driessens work of the seventies and eighties, the colors are muted and bodies take on balloon-like properties.

Home on the Rails (1981), like On Land, is a wordless piece, and this one marks his first collaboration with memorably-named painter The Amazing Mr. Wonderful. (Care to create an IMDB page, Wonderful?) This time painted cels move over bright watercolor backgrounds as a couple at home deals with a set of railroad tracks running through their living room. As a clock chimes the hour they open both doors and, to a chugging bluegrass ditty, the train comes and goes as the wife knits.

The husband is a prospector and work is going fine until one day when he comes back empty-handed, unable to pan for gold in his favorite spot in the river because of an encroaching railroad. Morose, he waits for the household train to arrive, then lays down on the tracks. His wife sweeps up the mess, and sits dejected as the clock chimes the hour once more. This time, she doesnt open the doors to the house.

A recurring festival favorite in the 1980s, Oh What a Knight (La Belle et la Boîte, 1982) delights with a dry wit.

A recurring festival favorite in the 1980s, Oh What a Knight (La Belle et la Boîte, 1982) delights with a dry wit.

Oh What a Knight (La Belle et la Boîte, 1982) delights with a dry wit that made it a recurring festival favorite in the 1980s. A scherzo in three minutes, Driessen built his rambunctious fairy tale over colored pencil backgrounds with subtle gradations. More than ever his line is crazy-wild, with characters falling to pieces and reforming willy-nilly. A knight on a horse is responding to the cries of a distant damsel in distress. He battles storm and perilous chasms to confront a multi-headed dragon and hungry Cyclops. He pokes out the Cyclops eye and terrifies the dragon by flashing his own nether regions. Swinging from one cliff to the next, where the beast is holding the maiden hostage with a knife, the knight carefully climbs out the back of his armor and, naked, inches his way along the cliffs edge morphing midway into a building ledge with busy traffic underneath before he emerges behind the beasts back and jumps him.

But the maiden only pats the hero on the head condescendingly before rushing into the arms of the empty knights armor, and she promptly falls to her death. Driessens humans are getting more abstract now heads implode, body parts stretch to thin tendrils and the sound effects come mainly from the animators mouth.

Spotting a Cow (1983) is a goof on positive and negative space inspired by patches of black and white that make up bovine skin. A narrator describes the painting hes creating as he creates it, dropping blobs of black that perform a shadow play of overheated dramatic vignettes. Quickly he gets caught up in his own imaginary narrative, descending onto his canvas to play hero in a love story and brave a shootout with a villain. Its a chiaroscuro work where the humor comes mainly from the interaction between some energetic black blobs and innocent line drawings.

Sunny Side Up (1984) is a small classic done in a circular frame, a line dividing a man on a deserted island on top from his reflection below. A sun rises and sets, a moon rises and sets, and a single bird flies to the man as if to mock his loneliness. He writes a message and ties it to the birds leg as it flies away. Days go by before a bottle finally floats in; although for some reason that bottle has no reflection. No matter he reads the note and clutches it to him in anticipation, before a woman swims ashore. They chase each other around the island and despite the fact that she, too, has no reflection they embrace. She swims away. Finally a ship arrives, he hops in - and he sinks without a trace, as bubbles fall down from the horizon. This exercise in hijacked horizons is enhanced by an evocative tune for the pan flute.

Driessen tackles epic themes in The Writer (1988).

Driessen tackles epic themes in The Writer (1988).

If Driessen has an epic in his C.V., The Writer (De Schrijver en de Dood, literally The Writer and Death 1988) is it. Death, reaper in hand, hovers over the work, engendering disaster with a tap of his scythe. In a lonely shack a monk is scribbling a life story full of the messy energy of medieval village life. Death gets interested and hovers over the writers shoulder before slipping into the narrative himself, dealing death blows to one character after another. The writer counters by inventing a magical youth aglow with life. To every child crushed under Deaths falling rocks, the boy appears to reinvigorate life and transform the peasants into cuddly animals and rainbows. At last theres too much life for the Grim Reaper and he retreats, materializing before the writer as a pile of bones that the writers dog takes away and buries.

But Death gets the last word, turning the writer and his creation into just another piece of paper over which Death stands, at last silencing all the color and noise with a tap of his scythe. Driessens techniques are wonderfully dynamic, with desaturated colors giving way to more intense shades and solid paint slabs mingling with watercolors and pencil scratches.

To follow The Writer Driessen created the first of three familial comic scherzos, Uncles and Aunts I (1989). To the sound of a scratchy 78 RPM disc, we view a series of living family photos. This is indeed an eccentric family the caption Babys first steps accompanies a standard image of a diapered baby at the top of a stair step, while the next image, Babys last steps, repeats the shot with a distressing final sound effect. How Grandfather Did It portrays an elderly man rising from a coffin late at night, putting in his dentures and hovering over the bedside of some beautiful maiden. Why Grandfather Stopped Doing It depicts him rising from his coffin only to see his wife, armed with a rolling pin, rising out of an identical foreground coffin. Driessens exquisite timing makes the series the funniest in his filmography.

In a parallel universe, the dikes of Holland keep water in. The Water People (1992).

In a parallel universe, the dikes of Holland keep water in. The Water People (1992).

The Water People (1992) is a unique and unforgettable depiction of a few days in a parallel Holland where the dikes keep the water IN. The sun rises, dad and mom catch the toast popping out of the toaster, and their boy sneaks a finger of something sweet from the jar on the table. Its like any morning anywhere, only this family is living in five feet of water, with Mom hanging up her wash to dry and then pulling it back underwater to make the bed.

There are pet fish following children like puppies and there is a single shark on the prowl. The village keeps its water in thanks to a shoulder-height wall surrounding the town like the lip of a childs pool, and at the center of it all the kings castle rises on a pile of sand. The king, a hydrophobe, is lining up maidens to kiss the frog hes installed in the queens chair.

A typical Driessen universe, interrupted only by the arrival of two giant holidaymakers outside the protective dike carrying ice cream cones and swim suits. Theyre looking for a nice day at the beach, and they do what it takes to get the water flowing in their direction, to the citizens horror. The backgrounds are alive with the most color yet seen in a Driessen short (watercolors, naturally) and the sight of a sun rising from the sea, wringing itself dry and shining feebly on a city of forever waterlogged villagers is reminiscent of the moist, shivery mise-en-scene of Andrei Tarkovsky (particularly Stalker and Solaris).

3 Misses (1998) is Driessens take on Intolerance. He intercuts between all three ages at once, but features both a spaghetti guitar soundtrack and Puss in Boots.

3 Misses (1998) is Driessens take on Intolerance. He intercuts between all three ages at once, but features both a spaghetti guitar soundtrack and Puss in Boots.

Also in 1992 Driessen made two sequels to Uncles and Aunts, appropriately titled Uncles and Aunts II and III. Part two isnt included on this DVD, but we do get part three, this time featuring snapshots of Juniors first meal (a cute widdle bear), Juniors Last Meal (a cute widdle bear, with angry Mama hovering behind), Dad trying out a new car (think culinary tests), Mama trying out Dad (think cartoon violence primer) and Sister Janes Blind Date (think the meekest, friendliest character from Wind in the Willows).

3 Misses (1998) is a cartoon Intolerance, or more accurately a cartoon Three Ages, Buster Keatons classic rip-off. In this triple chase scene happening in three worlds at once, a man in a high-rise flat tries to save a woman whos fallen off a building, while an Old West cowboy races to save a damsel tied to railroad tracks, and seven dwarves in a fairy-tale landscape race to save Snow White. The city man in his building faces many challenges just getting down to street level, including unfriendly company in the elevator, a banister too rough to slide down which he greases by leaning forward to lick it in advance of his falling body, and impassible street traffic which he defeats by pretending to be blind.

Back in the Old West a cowboy faces a lost horse, pesky arrows from the natives, and a herd of cattle preventing him from reaching the screaming maiden. And in Neverland, the seven dwarves are picked off one by one by interfering characters from other fairy tales as the dwarves rush to rescue Snow White from a witch with a poisoned apple.

Like Intolerance, the film intercuts between all three ages at once; unlike Intolerance this film features both a spaghetti guitar soundtrack and Puss in Boots. Driessen noticeably goes digital in 3 Misses, with traditional animations imported into the digital world, with tasty results. The backgrounds for the three worlds are all in strikingly different styles, with the city depicted in gouache over subdued red-browns, the Old West painted in saturated blue and yellow watercolor, and Fairyland painted in solid blocks of storybook-drab greenish tones.

2D or Not 2D The Shortcut (2004) isnt so much a polemic about traditional versus computer animation as it is the dilemma of one unlucky character. A heavy-girthed Tyrolean boy is out for a walk among some rolling hills alive with the sound of yodeling. A girl approaches from the opposite direction. At the top of a hill the boy looks left and right to see who else might be out having hilly adventures that day spotting, hilariously, a certain daughter from a Michael Dudok de Wit short and Cordell Barkers cat who came back before he sees the girl staring at him from the opposite hilltop. They rush to the valley floor to meet, but stop before they embrace. Theres something in the way, which in profile is nothing more than a line of no thickness; but seen dead-on its an impassible wall.

Paul Driessen. Courtesy of Anima Mundi.

Paul Driessen. Courtesy of Anima Mundi.

Knocking on his side, a door unexpectedly opens to the boy, and instead of stepping through to the other side the boy finds himself trapped in Flatland, where men and women go about their day as sheets in the wind, their paper-thin bodies full and fit in profile but flat as nothing when they turn ninety degrees. The breeze is their avatar, and people and pets are regularly carried off and deposited far away.

While the girl back in the land of depth perception wonders after the sudden bulge in the wall, and her pet goat tries to butt it home, the boy makes himself useful by attaching a flat chicken to the roof of a flat church as a weathervane. Now everyone can anticipate wind changes and turn their bodies appropriately, and he gets a medal for his efforts. His transition back to 3D world, however, is marred, with tragic results.

The central joke here works on several levels at once. Driessen is depicting worlds both flat and funky; but everywhere his line style evokes bits of string on glass nothing could be flatter, or more freewheeling. Even funnier is the idea that Driessen could ever go fully CGI. Goofy as that might look, you could no sooner do it than you could unflatten Stick Figure Theatre.

The DVD is rounded out with some nice making-of extras, including multiple storyboard-to-final comparisons and a bonus short, an homage to his longtime producer Nico Crama called Oh What a Nico. Finally theres a short 1988 documentary about Driessen done for Danish Public Television, where you get to see the famously white-headed and black-eyebrowed artist cook macaroni and talk about his craft. For anyone who missed picking up all those Expanded Entertainment videotapes in the 1990s, and now cant find the damn things anywhere, I highly recommend grabbing this home video item forthwith.

The Dutch Films of Paul Driessen 1970-2004, Nico Crama Films; a www.AnimationWebshop.nl release; (approx) 105 minutes; bonus selections include storyboards, designs, documentary on the making of The Writer ($30.33); available www.illuster.nl/webshop.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is also an unemployed sea lion trainer living in Copenhagen, but the two rarely get each others mail.

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