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Fresh from the Festivals: October 2005’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films At the Quinte Hotel by Bruce Alcock, The Back Brace by Carolyn London and Andy London, It's Like That by Southern Ladies Animation Group, Jona/Tomberry by Rosto and Overtime by Oury Atlan, Thibaut Berland and Damien Ferri Includes QuickTime movie clips!

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.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

At the Quinte Hotel (2005), 3:38, directed by Bruce Alcock (Canada). Contact Tina Oulette [T] 604.733.7475 [E] tina@globalmechanic.com

The Back Brace (2004), 6:00, directed by Carolyn London and Andy London (U.S.). Contact: London Squared Productions [T] 917.841.8527, 917.841.8507 [E] andy@londonsquared.net, carolyn@londonsquared.net [W] www.londonsquared.net

It's Like That (2003), 7:15, directed by Southern Ladies Animation Group (S.L.A.G.): Louise Craddock, Susan Earl, Sally Gross, Emma Kelly, Nicole McKinnon, Elizabeth McLennan, Sharon Parker, Sophie Raymond, Dell Stewart, Yuki Wada, Justine Wallace and Diana Ward (Australia). Contact: S.L.A.G. [F] +61.3.9481.3632 [E] slag_contact@hotmail.com

Jona/Tomberry (2005), 12:12, directed by Rosto (the Netherlands). Contact: Studio Rosto A.D. [E] info@jonatomberry.com [W] www.jonatomberrycom, www.rostoad.com

Overtime (2004), 4:55, directed by Oury Atlan, Thibaut Berland and Damien Ferrié (France). Contact: Annabel Sebag, Premium Films [E] animation@premium-films.com

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Blood, beer, and metonymy At the Quinte Hotel. © 2005 Bruce Alcock.

At the Quinte Hotel

Al Purdy was a beloved Canadian poet whose work was reminiscent of Charles Bukowski, and Bukowski and Purdy counted each other as friends during their lifetimes. Purdy died in 2000, leaving behind a bibliography of over 30 books of poetry. His signature poem At the Quinte Hotel is about a night in a tavern, full of drinking, brawling, and, unexpectedly for Purdy's captive audience, poems about flowers.

Purdy, captured in a 1968 live reading for CBC, is the soundtrack to a new animated short by Bruce Alcock, director for the Vancouver B.C. collective Global Mechanic. The piece is a whirlwind tour of figurative speech and blunt objects, both verbal and visual, and it's exhilarating:

I am drinkingI am drinking beer with yellow flowersin underground sunlightand you can see that I am a sensitive manAnd I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man tooso I tell him about his beerI tell him the beer he drawsis half fart and half horse pissand all wonderful yellow flowersBut the bartender is not quiteso sensitive as I supposed he wasthe way he looks at me nowand does not appreciate my exquisite analogy

After parsing the metaphoric ingredients of his beer to the unappreciative barkeep, the narrator witnesses a bar fight that blocks his way to the toilet, and when he tries to get by the belligerent party dares him to "Come On". "so I Come On/like a rabbit with weak kidneys I guess," Purdy says, and he knocks the shit out of the little guy and sits on him while insisting "Would you believe I write poems?" A look of doubt passes on the face of his assailant, and among the other patrons of the bar. Purdy defies their disbelief and recites one.

"It was a heart-warming moment for Literature," Purdy notes, as they all cry and shake his hand. But when he tries to trade the poem for a free beer, he's refused. "[I]t was brought home to me in the tavern/that poems will not really buy beer or flowers/or a goddam thing," he notes, "and I was sad/for I am a sensitive man."

It is a heartwarming moment, and not a little hilarious, and maybe 50 proof poignant as well all of it amplified by Alcock's exuberant animation. Alcock is a traditional and stop-motion animator who's directed a bevy of commercials you can download from the Global Mechanic web site. You can also see Wrong Number Phone Message, his 24-frames-of-delerium-per-second interpretation of an angry voicemail that ended up in his box by mistake. The 2002 short is two colorful and unhinged minutes inside the mind of one pissed-off Canadian who wants the powers that be to lay off his mother and stop taking stuff from his yard.

At the Quinte Hotel in Alcock's hands becomes a whirligig of bottle caps, paint splotches, real cut flowers, oils on paper, color reversals, cutup comic books, refracting glass, shadow play, and metal constructions with yellow and blue neon. It was shot on ones and edited with explosive vigor. It's incredible fun for the eyes and in its swift velocity is a perfect analogue for spoken poetry, a poem after all being a medium of extreme efficiency, sensation and simile and a life lesson folded into one compact phrase, the mess of life and language dry-cleaned to bare fibers.

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Watch your posture young man, or its time for The Back Brace. © London Squared.

The Back Brace

The Back Brace is a bright collage-based tale of woe done in a grammar-school arts-and-crafts style that evokes days of glitter, string, and styrofoam egg cartons glued to construction paper and hung on the refrigerator. The story comes from the animator's childhood, and concerns the prosthetic device of the piece's title. Standing in a doctor's office posing for an X-ray, the boy is warned not to strike a pose but he does anyway, and his hip-swiveled "go screw" posture is interpreted by his doctor as scoliosis.

On goes the back brace, immediately turning him into persona non grata at school. He can't do pull-ups; some snappy wit gives him a nickname that's sure to stick forever; and a dozen buckles prevent him from going to the toilet on time. Life sucks, and he takes up smoking to punish Mom and Dad, who are blasé about the social implications of this plastic beast.

Our hero takes a number of bold steps to defeat the prosthetic scourge, including abandoning it in a pit he's dug in the backyard. When that fails he goes straight to the source of all his problems and, in a surreal tête-à -tête with his maker, confronts God in the form of a rubber eraser and lays the blame on the deity's shoulders only to get the same "Oh well, life sucks" excuses the divine deadbeat gave to Job.

It's a highly colorful six-minute piece, and truly handmade, built from found trash and household items digitized into After Effects body parts, props, and clothing are made of food, found paper, and stuff from the broom closet. Mom's head is a potato, Dad is a bagel, a bucktoothed girl in class has a yogurt bowl for a head and a tin can for a mouth. Pigtails are pencil shavings, the gym teacher's head is rusty metal, mouths and Mohawk hairdos are made of matches, the janitor has sandpaper arms, a punk girl has a sponge for a face, and her friend's head is a mop.

It all moves briskly if jumpily, given the South Park-y low-tech approach to the animation, but the writing could have been stronger. If this is meant to be a look-back-on-it-and-laugh revisiting of a painful true story from the artist's life, he's clearly still angry about it, which comes through in the voiceover. The flash-forward ending is intended to wrap everything up in a tidy narrative bow, but if indeed this back brace "made me what I am today," we could have used a how and why.

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The caged bird sings in Its Like That. © Southern Ladies Animation Group (S.L.A.G.).

It's Like That

In late 2000 or early 2001, some refugee families arrived in Australia by boat. Australia has had a Migration Act on the books since 1958, and it dictates that all non-Australian citizens who are unlawfully in the country must be detained, and those who don't get permission to stay must be deported "as soon as practical". Practicality has a sliding scale, unfortunately, particularly with regards to government bureaucracy, and these families ended up in detention for four years. Imagine being in jail from age 10 to 14and you'll have some idea of what life was like for the three children at the center of the 2003 animated short It's Like That.

By 2002 the children had already been incarcerated with their families for a year when Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Jacqueline Arias produced a story about detainees. Journalists aren't allowed in the detention centers, but through an advocacy group, Arias was able to get word through that she was producing the story and that if the detainees wanted to phone her and talk, they could. She recorded six hours of conversations with three children, and when the piece was broadcast, SLAG decided an animated appropriation was needed.

You'd think an English-speaking collective of 13 women directors calling themselves SLAG would have to be political, but so far It's Like That marks the only political work to come out of the Southern Ladies Animation Group. (For non-Brits and people who haven't seen Closer, "slag" is a synonym for "slut.") Women of different artistic specialities, these 13 visual artists all bring different scenes to life in It's Like That, and in depicting three cooped-up children whose names and faces must remain anonymous, they did the sensible thing and turned them into chickens.

The piece starts and ends on stop-motion chickens made of what look like stuffed baby socks in various primary colors, mulling about a tiny enclosed space with only a small window full of sky. The children talk about the fence that's the color of cigarettes, the rice with the chiles that are too hot to eat, and the day-to-day desperation of purposeless living. Most harrowingly two children tell independent stories of how the boat that brought them to Australia was constantly taking on water, and one child appends the tale with a description of an entire boatload of refugees climbing aboard another raft before the first caught fire and sank.

The animation styles vary from stop-motion to traditional line drawings to a brief 3D segment. Not a movement among the posed figures is wasted; those red, green, and blue socks with pasted-on eyes are articulate enough in eyebrow movements, wing flaps and shruggable shoulders to get across true misery and anguish. The draftsmanship of the 2D animation is just as effective; a door draws itself as fence posts and barbed wire grow like ivy around its impending frame. The birds-in-a-not-so-gilded-cage metaphor is effective without being obvious. Even though these children were eventually freed to live among the local community, their status remains uncertain and far from spreading their wings and taking off, the only thing about them that's up in the air is their fate.

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Not be scared! Only withering gothic attack of Jona/Tomberry! © Rosto A.D.

Jona/Tomberry

Jona/Tomberry is exquisitely beautiful to look at. So is a fire, but that doesn't mean there's any drama in it. And there isn't any in Jona/Tomberry, either; but as a brief, vague, and tempestuous nightmare it delivers the goods and the Rammstein-esque soundtrack doesn't hurt at all.

The story, as it were, is a Matrix-y pastiche of through-the-looking-glass shenanigans where there's a colorful world here and a monochrome world there, and on the monochrome side an anonymous prole with frizzy hair is given a vision of a wildly scraggy mountain peak into which he is dropped, hovering just feet above a twitching baby with a human torso and a mermaid's tail. The man's guide and the producer of this virtual reality event is an angular-faced S.S.-type who gives the prole a gun and insists he shoot the infant it's only an illusion, after all. He refuses.

Surrounding the mountain peak is a forest of mysterious creatures, and one of them sneaks up on the pair of men, snatching away the infant. It's a walking tree with a bird's nose and a nervous darting head, and she takes the baby down through the forest to the sea, where she and the baby disappear beneath the surface. Things quickly go wrong, and the mirror in which the prole has been viewing all these illusions explodes, spiking one eye with a shard of glass and sending him and the contents of his room flying backwards and, surprisingly, up towards the ceiling, where the gravity has suddenly relocated.

The producer rushes in; a bunch of miniature versions of himself scramble blindfolded at his feet; there's a whale trapped in a glass ball; the baby sings a song about not being scared; the whale escapes the bowl and appears in the baby's arms; and the producer starts throwing his little ones into the mirror one at a time to "go in there and bring back pop's fish".

Title cards that read "Based on the Graphic Novel" are never a good sign. It's a genre where the Graphic too often outweighs the Novel, and you get a fantastic and vivid world peopled with ciphers who have really good tailors. And Jona/Tomberry isn't just based on the graphic novel it's based on the graphic novel based on the song. The auteur in question, Rosto, has a band called the Wreckers who do some pretty bitchin' riffs, and the animation was retrofitted to match what he later decided his songs were actually about.

Naturally there's a lot of shouting "No" and "Are - you - fucking - me?" and cryptic declarations about the nature of reality; meanwhile there's a deficit of recognizable human behavior that could convince us this is how real people would react under these extraordinary circumstances.

Director Rosto and the Rocketta Film studio have thrown a simply huge amount of money and talent into this short, and it looks breathtaking. The sound is wonderful and demands headphones; the collection of noises to be heard as the content of the man's room fall up to the ceiling is terrifyingly convincing. Even the DVD screener came with a 32-page full-color glossy booklet with pictures and explanations. Sadly the short, which is the reason there is a booklet, doesn't feel the need to explain itself. Then again, a subconscious experience probably never should.

Films with no story can be fine, too I just saw a lovely and completely wordless abstract short called Fade into White by Kazuhiro Goshima with no pretensions to explanation whatsoever but Jona/Tomberry clearly wants to evoke that familiar horror and pity that real drama provides. That isn't here, probably because the piece by itself isn't reasonably self-evident in its execution (hence the explanatory booklet). Still, with the right substances and the right amplifier, Jona/Tomberry could fuckin' rock. Watch it before bed.

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The puppets enjoy a day off with the puppeteer in Overtime. © Premium Films.

Overtime

Supinfocom is a secondary school for denizens of the French TV and film industry, with courses open to professionals or students with two years of experience or study under their belt. The degree program takes three years, and in the last year three students team up to create a short subject for their thesis. In 2004 the Arles branch of the school spawned an alternately melancholy and goofy tribute to a dead puppeteer, the sublime black and white masterpiece Overtime.

The short opens in darkness, into which rises the sound of a tragic orchestral lament, a doleful tune of mid-20th century vintage that provides the only soundtrack to this word-free piece. A simple cloth puppet with an ovoid head and two white, pupil-less eyes appears under a spotlight with a trumpet to play an elegy. Then out of the darkness a man at a workbench appears, dead face-down on the countertop. A group of his puppets surround his body and, not suspecting a thing, carry him to bed. There are about 60 of them, it appears, all of whom gather about him to supervise his rest.

The next morning the house is abuzz with glee and manic energy. The puppeteer can't shave himself for some reason, so a handful of puppets do it for him, while a dozen more wearing striped bathing suits toss an inflatable ball and make for the beach. Then everyone adjourns to the living room for story time, as puppets do acrobatics, tickle the marimba, throw paper airplanes, and play Boy Scout.

In the screening room the puppets don 3D glasses and run old home movies, with the puppeteer propped up in the seat of honor. Then it's time to make dinner, as the cloth creatures don flamboyant chef's hats and do little dance routines shaking spoons like maracas. The dinner is a riot of thrown food, and one errant potato strikes the puppeteer in the head, making him face-plant his soup. Watching him as he refuses to budge, the other shoe drops at last, and the assembled group bow their heads in sorrow. They put him in his best suit and, joining him in one last waltzing swoop by puppeteering the puppeteer with sticks attached to his arms, they lay him down and close his eyes.

Far too much juicy action transpires in this short for the eye ever to catch in real time, so never mind our 30-second clip flip over to a search engine and look up Overtime together with "Supinfocom" until you find a QuickTime movie of the whole thing, which escaped to the net in 2004.

It's a rare piece of computer animation that can fool the viewer for more than a few seconds into thinking a thing was photographed. Director/animators Oury Atlan, Thibaut Berland and Damien Ferrié get their movements so fiendishly smooth and naturalistic that Overtime sustains that illusion for most of its five-minute running time. There's particulate matter in the air, pools of light eroticizing every surface, and a deep-focus cinematography that wouldn't embarrass itself on a double-bill with Citizen Kane. But most of all it's the depth and breadth of the characters, the liveliness that's been stuffed into every puppet on the screen, that drives the comedy and tragedy.

There's no string of triangles around the puppets' necks, nor are there plus-sign pupils in those eyes, but there's a good helping of Kermit the Frog in all these merry creatures not just in their appearance but in the bouncy joie de vivre we all adored on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Wisely, the directors have not designed their dead puppeteer to resemble Jim Henson the bald, imposing corpse in Overtime looks more like an elderly Patrick Stewart. The tribute can lay at Henson's feet, or you can transfer it to any artist who brought life to inanimate objects the choice is yours.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Somewhere in the world on October 21, 2005, a boy named David Kim was born, and in 18 years he'll find this paragraph while doing an Internet search on his own name and it'll really blow his mind.

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