Dr. Toon discusses one of the joys of being an animation fan — discovering unexpected gem moments within something seemingly awful.
One of the rewards of animation fandom is to be taken suddenly by surprise, hit full in the face and wowed for days by a piece of work that resonates to the very roots of your love for the art. It might be a short. It might be an entire film, or even a snippet seen within the context of that larger piece. The effect, however, is the same: Awe, delight, and the uncanny sense that everything in the piece is right, that this is what animation is supposed to do. The feeling is immediate and visceral. Only later, do you reflect upon the technical details or the specifics involved in production. When you do, you realize that this piece is a highlight for a class on animation appreciation. Not to analyze said details and specifics, as instructive as that may be, but simply because it exemplifies the way animation truly works.
I have been stunned several times of late, and each time the shock came at unexpected times from unexpected places. Out of curiosity, I recently purchased a DVD of Pannonia Studios 1987 animated film Cat City. This movie, made in Budapest, is so bizarre that several reliable animation histories do not get the synopsis right. Neither, for that matter, does the DVD cover. Not that you might care this film is unwatchable dross from virtually beginning to end, an exercise in shoddy animation, bad timing, sloppy editing and grotesque character design. Except except for one incredible four-and-a-half-minute sequence.
It seems that a feline crime boss wants the mouse hero of the film murdered. He gives the contract to a fat black cat representing the 4 Gangsters, a quartet of nasty hit rats (two male and two female) who are so modern that they have their own demo tape. The fat cat proceeds to play the tape for the crime boss and the film, for a few moments, is elevated into brilliance. The Gangsters are voiced by a vocal group called Guild and sing of their exploits in a rapid jazz-scat style a la the Manhattan Transfer. These rats, alone and as a gang, gaily bebop to a colorful montage of themselves committing murder, extortion, blackmail, seduction, theft and sundry other crimes. The depictions, however, are so silly and imaginative that the effect is comical. Rapid cuts keep perfect pace with the offbeat singing (which, incidentally, is excellent).
There are more spirited ideas in this brief vignette than exist in the rest of the picture, and, after the Gangsters demo tape ends, the movie instantly descends back into unrelenting drivel. Even so, Cat City illustrates the joys of being an animation fan. In the midst of the most pedestrian productions there is always the possibility that a jewel will jump from the trash pile directly into your unbelieving eyes and ears.
Not long ago while tapping through the remote, I caught the opening minutes of a Teen Titans episode; I believe the title was Birthmark. In this sequence, the Titans face off against their old foe Dr. Light in a frenetic tour-de-force of action. Dr. Light, spindly as a spider and every bit as agile, commences a fast-moving battle against individual Titans and the entire ensemble in one of the most dazzling feats of layout I have seen in a mainstream cartoon. Movement and placements are flawlessly coordinated between multiple characters. To make things more difficult, the scene brims with special effects such as light blasts, power rays and explosions for almost the entire three-minute duration of the fight. Perspectives change constantly and the fight seems to speed up as it progresses; one can imagine the complexity of the storyboards.
Better yet, at the height of the battle and amidst Dr. Lights triumphant boasts, his arch-nemesis Raven floats up behind him and with two words (Remember me?) brings the warfare to an instant halt. Dr Lights face freezes in terror and morphs into a pale, shriveled skull. He meekly holds his hands out and announces, Id like to go to jail now. Thats it. Sixty-to-zero in five seconds. This short sequence, which turns out to be irrelevant to the rest of the episode, is the sort of unexpected treasure that animation fans go to festivals to find. All thanks to a random, casual surf through the channels.
While recently in Boston I dropped in on Newbury Comics (Bostons equivalent of Golden Apple in L.A.) and found a DVD compilation by First Run Features called Cartoon Noir. This DVD contains six short films, and five of them, in my opinion, are nothing special. One, touted as internationally celebrated in over 70 film festivals, looked like a mundane student project to me. However, when one reaches the sixth and final feature, one is amazed to find Suzan Pitts 1995 masterpiece Joy Street. Pitt is a masterful veteran whose career spans nearly 40 years of independent animation. I somehow remembered reading about this film, but had never seen it, probably because it was released after I had moved from Boston to east central Indiana, where opportunities to view independent animation in theaters are rare.
And what a film it is, a wondrous tale, sans dialogue, that begins in depression and suicide only to end in joy, vibrancy and healing. During the opening scenes, the animation is minimal with several held shots of a despairing female who lives on Joy Street. Pitt gets her point across with strongly defined poses. She uses colors, shadows and perspectives that suggest depression, and backs it all up with a languid jazz soundtrack that fits the mood. We know before a minute passes that this woman is more than unhappy; shes suicidal. In the depths of her misery she slowly crushes out cigarettes in an ashtray, just as she will attempt to crush out her own life. Sitting atop the ashtray is a silly little figurine; an animal of indeterminate species and this is the hero.
After the woman trudges down the hallway (in distorted, forced perspective that matches her own) to do herself in, the small figurine inexplicably comes to life and separates itself from the ashtray. Some reviewers have called it a mouse, but, in truth, we never really discover what it is. In some scenes, it does resemble a mouse, but it seems to change size, shape and color as the story develops, and I sincerely doubt that Pitt adhered to a model sheet for this creation. He is the womans life force, her unsullied child, the joy that remains on Joy Street among the shadows of her soul. His awakening is accompanied by a series of rubbery cartoon sound effects, which continue through his first movements.
The wee beastie clambers up the shelves to the stereo and fiddles with the stations until he finds an upbeat version of Nat King Coles Wonderful World. The use of Wonderful World is inspired the song reflects not only the fantastic images on the screen, but the perspective of the creature, who represents the bright side of the womans psyche. In addition, the song provides an aural foreshadowing of later events in the film. The moment the song begins, the film turns into a bouncy cartoon filled with imagery straight out of Disneys Silly Symphonies; even the figurines fingers come to life and sprout happy faces. The tiny anima descends the shelves and finds the woman sprawled on her bed, her wrists slit. It responds by growing 10 feet in height and turning blue (the color of dysthymia). The now-giant creature carries the comatose woman through the streets in desperation, looking for help.
As he places her under a tree the film shifts into images of abject depression; the dying woman floats in a dirty river, surrounded by insects, bloody logs, dead flamingos and ruined cars. She finally sinks amidst the garbage, her passage over this River Styx complete. But is it? The camera pulls back to reveal she is still beneath the tree. With a tender, sorrowful look on his face, the former ashtray decoration pulls a bright red button from the chest (heart?) of his costume and places it over her severed wrist.
Here the film shifts mood yet again. The button is absorbed into the womans wound. Green tendrils sprout from the ground and enfold her hand. Her eyes flutter open and she awakens in the midst of a tropical rainforest bursting with colorful flowers and animals. Pitt has created a counterpoint to the fantastic animated world that the ashtray animal is born into earlier in the film, and the womans sense of discovery is no less dramatic. The montage ends with a gorilla picking a large red flower and sniffing it deeply in a repeating cycle, an analogy to the woman sucking life back into her body by absorbing the red button.
Fade back to the apartment where the woman stirs in her bed. She sees her tiny friend marching triumphantly across the floor. She smiles at him, and he fades away before her eyes. Renewed and exuberant once again, the woman throws open her sealed window and revels in the sunlight, the wind playfully tossing her hair as she smiles down on Joy Street. This marvelous short did not belong on the same DVD with the other films. It is not even noir, for that matter. However, in keeping with our theme, sometimes the most delightful prizes are found in the most unexpected places, and they are all the sweeter for it.
Finally, I came across a gratifying surprise that stands out for both quality and uniqueness of style. The anime trilogy Memories dates back to 1996, but has only recently appeared on DVD. Katsuhero Otomo, a name instantly recognizable as the mastermind behind Akira and Steamboy, presents the tales. All three short films are of very good quality, but the final one (directed by Otomo himself) truly raises eyebrows. Otomos film Cannon Fodder is notable because it steps far outside of the visual and narrative content found in more typical anime. Contrast this film with the preceding one on the DVD (Stink Bomb) and the stylistic differences are immediately apparent.
Otomo places his film at some indeterminate point in the future where an entire city has become a deadly fortress and every domicile seems to house menacing cannon. Here lives a family under militaristic rule including a young boy who dreams of commanding a mighty gun crew. The lads education consists of nothing but the mechanics of aiming cannon, and no one in the dark, crowded city seems to be concerned with little else. His father goes to work each day loading a mile-long cannon, a dreary, hazardous job requiring dozens of steps just to fire a single shell at an unseen enemy.
One minor mistake by a single individual results in terrible punishment for the entire loading team in this cold, totalitarian society. There is considerable question as to whether or not an enemy actually exists. Not until the very climax of the film does Otomo tip his expert hand, and, even at that point, several interpretations may still be possible.
With this film, Otomo makes a severe indictment against both militarism and the economic and political complexes that support it. The predominant color in Cannon Fodder is red, recalling the monolithic Soviet state. Posters seen in a train station are reminiscent of those seen on Communist kiosks and the lettering on them is vaguely Cyrillic. Later in the short, the boys crayon-drawn fantasy sequence morphs into a parody of Soviet propaganda cartoons. Throughout the film, the symbol of Hitlers SS also appears in various places, and one shift supervisor even resembles the Führer. The State motto blares over radio and television, Shoot and blast with all your strength for our country. The citizens wholly accept the necessity of devoting their lives to lobbing shells into the far distance and every evening glowing reports of victory are broadcast in the best Orwellian fashion.
Anti-war films such as Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen are common to anime, but Otomo harkens back even further, taking as his inspiration European propaganda films of the 1940s. The theme extends to the animation Nothing (save for a few backgrounds) much resembles anything found in anime. Therein lies the shock of the unexpected. The hollow-eyed, drab style used for the characters and overall design strongly suggests the sort of work found in the Communist bloc during WWII or in the immediate postwar period. Nestled within an anime trilogy, Otomos film is a striking statement that channels Eastern European propaganda films while transcending any particular culture or style of animation.
Because animation finds its source in human imagination, unpredictable delights can appear from anywhere, at any time. The first piece highlighted in this column is European. The second originated from a commercial network. The third piece is by an American independent and the final one comes from Japan. All that is truly required to appreciate the surprises animation has to offer is an open mind, a modicum of discriminating taste, and a respect for creativity that includes artists of every stripe. You will then have no need to seek out the unexpected; indeed, it will come looking for you.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.