Taylor Jessen reviews five short films - Latent Sorrow by Shon Kim, Infinite Justice by Karl Tebbe, Tyger by Guilherme Marcondes, Eva by Martin Quaden and Golden Age by Aaron Augenblick.
Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short format productions, whether they are high-budgeted commercials, low-budgeted independent shorts or something in between. The growing number of short film festivals around the world attest to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for exhibition of them or even written reviews. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting with short, descriptive overviews.
Latent Sorrow (2005) 3:30, by Shon Kim (S. Korea). Contact: Shon Kim, 24934 Walnut St. Room 218, Newhall, CA 91321, U.S.A.
Tyger (2006), 4:30, by Guilherme Marcondes (Brazil). Contact: Guilherme Marcondes [E] firstname.lastname@example.org [W] guilherme.tv
Latent Sorrow is an abstract short so in, there's no way out. It eschews opening or closing titles and there are no credits, creating no safety zone transition to tell you where the art ends and your life begins. Starting with flashes of globs in muted blues and browns that look like fragments of a movie shot down the lens of a focusing manual microscope, the short takes all of its three minutes slowly evolving into something else, and only gradually reveals its secret intentions.
Beginning in grainy video with scan lines busting out like black corduroy on the screen -- itself a look that's now somehow period, as if it were video art from the 1980s -- the visions on the screen only slowly begin to include human features. Faces morph from young to old women, heads scatter in blowing dots, giant surrealist mechanisms pump with organic life.
The industrial soundtrack hums with dramatic portent, the action intensifies -- and then it's over. It's a singular experience, beyond language or maybe before it, explaining nothing, simply peering into a monkey-mind of loss like a movie projected out of an open skull. Shon Kim is the animator, and the short is his MFA thesis project for CalArts (smash both his names into one word and add a .com to visit his generously illustrated website).
Infinite Justice is like an old razor scraping the back of the arm of your moviegoing experience, a slow-motion fall down a flight of stairs, geopolitics baked into a field pie with electrodes attached. This two and a half minute short is animated completely in G.I. Joes and other large-scale collectible action figures, and it's the first animated short I've seen that is directly rather than metaphorically addressing the messy topic of Iraq War 2.
The piece is a chaotic, inchoate assemblage of random news footage of the war as captured off of German TV, with the audio intact but with George W. Bush, the American soldiers and the Iraqi civilians -- not to mention the entire landscape -- being played by various Hasbro toys and tiny set dressing. The action starts right before the first volleys were fired in March 2003 and carries through to Abu Ghraib. Iraqi dolls surrender to G.I. Joes, blobs of green dart around the screen in a stop-motion simulacrum of night-vision, a toy car burns in the street.
All the greatest hits of George W's Middle East Misadventure are here in miniature, including the videotaped beheading, the scarecrow-esque hooded detainee and the female soldier leading her prisoner around the jail on a leash. It's not really agitprop (too old news) and it's not satire (for all the good that could do in a Dick Cheney world); it's just a simple and highly effective expression of disgust. These historical landmarks don't get any easier to watch in re-creation; but the obscenity of watching this happen in a land of "let's pretend" is a refreshing reminder that, yes, we have permission to be disgusted -- and stay disgusted -- by the obscenity of the original acts, freshly, forever.
An ancient precursor of animation mixes it up with the latest technology in Tyger, a musical mood piece where the Earth's dominant species turns over the reins to a few well-chosen beasts from elsewhere on the food chain. The whole thing unfolds under a throbbing electric guitar assault that cruises through the darkness like the middle section of "Interstellar Overdrive."
It's night; it's the city. Out of an amusement park on the outskirts of town, three black human silhouettes rise up and with them a Bunraku-style tiger puppet. The tiger and its puppeteers, stretching a dozen stories into the sky, start to wander Godzilla-like through the city streets -- only the destruction they wreak is strictly morphological mayhem: all the people start turning into different animals.
Everywhere the tiger steps grow little red-hot wire-frames of jungly tendrils and vines, and as they sprout and make contact with the families in hi-rises and men alone watching TV and crowds on the sidewalk, the people shift species, turning into their own zoological metaphors. A line of scenesters waiting to get in a club turn into toucans and exotic birds, while the bouncers become pit bull and gorilla; a guard vegetating in a parking lot booth morphs into a big-mouthed fish from the bottom of the sea; two lovers enmeshed on a couch turn to squids with all arms intertwined.
As the tiger and its silhouetted masters skulk across town towards the mountains, turning soccer fans to wasps and power-forwards into cockroaches, even the human technology starts to mutate. A helicopter with searchlights spills out crows and cars in gridlock turn to slugs. When the tiger reaches the hills, it roars, the transmission towers go dark and the whole metropolis below swarms with glowing jungle canopy and former people, now swarming bees and bats, taking to the sky.
Director Guilherme Marcondes is a native of São Paulo who's been around the block and then some, having worked in his native Brazil for an animation studio called Lobo, then relocated to London to work on an MTV campaign, and now planting his feet in California at Motion Theory studio in Venice. Marcondes created Tyger in cooperation with the animation collective Trattoria Digital out of São Paulo, with generous assistance in the form of a $10,000 funding prize from the 2006 Cultura Inglesa Festival.
The Brazil-based cinema festival is a celebration of all things British and Marcondes took his inspiration for Tyger from a poem by William Blake. The poem is an uneasy confrontation of nature from the point of view of a pious man who isn't sure he approves of that stripy thing with the big teeth ("Did He who made the lamb make thee?"), and although the short has no dialogue, it manages to neatly wrap its teeth around the same thesis from the opposite direction. In Tyger the ancient, no-electricity-required art of Bunraku is mashed up, here for possibly the first time ever, with the brash young technology Flash in a way that stops the viewer dead -- hey, we're an artistic little species, look, we invented both of these cool animation techniques! -- right before all the humans on-screen have their DNA lifted out from under them by a marauding jungle beast. Wild, man, wild.
Funny how sometimes all it takes to break our hearts is a bit of music and some coiled-up wire. Eva is a stop-motion short done old-school style with a single-frame-advance Bolex and some junk from the garage, and it somehow manages to tell a mythic love story in nine minutes with 39 cents' worth of props.
Eva is a thin mechanical creature, her body made of wires, her three legs perched on little cup-like risers, her head a Y-joint with the bar code still attached. The windows into her soul are two frosted light bulbs, one for each half of the Y; the engine driving her body is a nine-volt battery she must plug into her stomach. Every day Eva wakes in her lonely shack on the edge of some great metropolis, and she goes out to the little meadow nearby with the tree in it perched atop a hill to harvest nine-volt batteries. The batteries are just another flower growing wild under the tree, and she needs this fresh food daily -- as we have hunger pangs, Eva has warning lights and buzzers that flash and whine when the juice gets low.
One day she's picking batteries and she sees two fish quietly kissing in the tall grass. Worse, she's at home later and happens to look out the window and see two birds nuzzling on a branch, and her shoulders slump in unbearable loneliness. Lo and behold, the next day a strange Coke can-sized object hurled from the sky knocks the battery out of her hand while she's foraging, making the battery roll down the hill and into an unfamiliar city street. When she gives, chase she unexpectedly meets the Streetlight, glowing and occasionally flickering as it stands, unmoving, on the sidewalk. Eva falls in love.
In her dreams that night, she finds herself in the meadow pulling the streetlight down into her waiting arms -- so the next day she wastes no time and presents the streetlight with a bouquet of flowers. The streetlight does not move. She sits beside it and waits. The streetlight still does not move. Rebuffed at his indifference, Eva leaves. But she returns the following day, and in a last-ditch display of altruism she opens a loose panel on the streetlight's trunk, removes the battery from her torso, and plugs it in to the streetlight's own wiring. This one-sided love affair doesn't end well for poor Eva.
Eva is a compact little drama that goes down easy despite the obviously tough conditions of its creation. Principal filmmakers Martin Quaden and Sinem Sakaoglu didn't make it easy on themselves... from the ancient camera that captured it all to a main character with no facial articulation, Eva was an acting challenge mixed with a materials challenge wrapped in a budget crisis. (Had they cashed in their entire props budget, they probably could have scored one pack of Camels.) And the last sequence, where Eva goes back and forth between the street and the old hillside while she makes her last decision, must have been especially tough -- it leaves itself open to a misapprehension of Eva's intentions precisely because she's obviously full of so many conflicting emotions, all of which have to be expressed by the speed of her walk and a little shoulder movement.
But the cinema is superb -- not least in moments where the camera lingers on empty space and lets the sound tell the story -- and the Eva's end is guaranteed to evoke an emotional response, which is all any of us are in this business for in the first place. Director Quaden and animator Sakaoglu are part of the Eyefoolery collective, with their primary base of operations in Germany. Sakaoglu also worked on the 2005 traditional short Bo, a hilarious/poignant/slightly demented story about a man learning to fly; to which I hope you've had the pleasure of exposing yourself (as indeed a naked Bo exposes himself to two birds on a telephone line before jumping off his roof).
At least 10,000 words deserve to be written about the output of Augenblick Studios and its proprietor, Aaron Augenblick. He's got mad skills, starting with a line so sharp it can draw blood and proceeding on to a sense of humor that can do likewise. Augenblick started his professional career drawing for Daria and Cartoon Sushi, and by 1999 he'd stored up the chutzpah to found his own namesake animation studio in Brooklyn. In just eight years that studio's filmography has stretched off the résumé page, down to the carpet and out the door, and includes a passel of independent shorts and many exquisite minutes of commissioned work for the likes of Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
Augenblick's branded himself mainly as a purveyor of hardcore satire, but he's equally at ease with lighter, goofball stuff and even melancholy dramatic works. Maybe the reason he's so adept at satirizing 101 different historical styles of cartooning in the studio's notorious segments for Wonder Showzen is that he's so damned good at them all, and perhaps more insistent on showcasing versatility than the other satiric fare like TV Funhouse. There's the avant-rubberhose of his early works like Ramblin' Man, the rough and scratchy line of Flash shorts like The Dignified Devil in Shirley Temple or the "Two-Fisted Tales"-esque line slashes of the adventure parody Winobot from Wonder Showzen -- and it all looks perfect, not from an "oh look, I got it right" school of necessary imitations, but from truly restless historical curiosity.
The latest to hit the festival circuit from Augenblick's studio is a longish 22-minute omnibus of short episodics commissioned by Comedy Central called The Golden Age. Originally parsed out online at Comedy Central's "Motherload" broadband site (and still there -- knock yourself out), The Golden Age was produced in 2006 in the form of 10 two-minute shorts all about the 20th century's most notorious (nonexistent) cartoon scandals, all in Shocking! Expose! educational-film format. There's the story of Marching Gumdrop, one-time member of a chorus line of dancing candy from a 1950's-era movie intermission cartoon, who left his friends to become an investigative reporter and then ended up homeless after the work dried up. Then there's Kongobot, a giant anime robot with a gorilla head whose career went south when he tried to play character roles in teen adventure dramas.
In another episode Lancaster Loon, a sugary cereal shill, is loony for Loony Puffs and is taunted endlessly by three elves in commercial after commercial over several decades, until one day he cracks and stabs them all on the set. Then we learn of WWII-era slapstick villain team "The Whacksis Powers," who get plenty of work during the war, but turn to instant has-beens after '45. And brother-and-sister team Hansel and Gretel go from child stars to personae non grata after an incest/child abuse scandal, but enjoy a comeback after playing themselves in their own biopic.
And so it goes, mutating from animation industry gags to riffs on corporate malfeasance and troubled pop-music geniuses. (In the episode "Antsy and the Bugaboos," cartoon ant Antsy of imaginary pop group The Bugaboos turns from a Brian Wilson-esque knob twiddler to a seriously freaked-out Captain Beefheart clone; in "Mortimer Koon," a 1920s cartoon raccoon rises to studio head, but the lure of insider trading changes him from an avuncular Walt Disney-type into Jeffrey Skilling.)
Every short is concentrated goodness: it's super-clean, the timing is tight, the parody artwork is spot-on and period-perfect. It's animated on ones, and whatever technique best serves the story, from computer to traditional, is delivered with aplomb. Watching it in its current festival incarnation with all ten episodes in one chunk is a bit too much to take, but it also has unexpected benefits -- when viewed in sequence, the series acquires an arc that pays off well in the peak absurdity of the last episode, a faux documentary on a cartoon insane asylum.
You can surf to all 10 episodes directly from the Augenblick website. Give yourself at least 90 minutes, though, because practically the whole studio filmography is there for the sampling: miniature standup comedy adaptations, Flash pieces, some samples from Wonder Showzen and original festival shorts. (In particular Augenblick's oddly upbeat, World-of-Tomorrow adaptation of the decidedly downbeat Hank Williams song "Ramblin' Man" is a must-see.)
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He freelances for Bigelow Tea, to whom he recently pitched a new early-morning pick-me-up called "Vivisection."