Fresh from the Festivals: September 2004's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Love Tricycle by Andrew Goode, The Monkey and the Bananas by Nate Mulliken, Son of Satan by Jean-Jacques Villard, JoJo in the Stars by Marc Craste and Harmony in Red by Niki Yang. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short format productions, whether they be 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.

This Month:

Love Tricycle (2003), 13:58, directed by Andrew Goode, Australia. Contact: Andrew Goode [W] www.lovetricycle.com [E] info@rendition.com.au

The Monkey and the Bananas (2004), 5:00, directed by Nate Mulliken, U.S. Contact: Nate Mulliken [E] contactnate@yahoo.com

Son of Satan (2003), 12:30, directed by JJ Villard, U.S. Contact: JJ Villard [V] 805.331.0315 [E] jjvillard@hotmail.com

JoJo in the Stars (2003), 12:33, directed by Marc Craste, U.K. Contact: Sue Goffe, Studio AKA [W] www.studioaka.co.uk

Harmony in Red (2003), 8:36, directed by Niki Hyun Jeong Yang, Korea. Contact: Niki Yang[E] niki919@hotmail.com

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Love Tricycle explores two-wheeled love. © 2003 Andrew Goode/Pacific Film and Television Commission.

Love Tricycle

There's nothing prurient about Love Tricycle, despite into what exotic locations your mind may currently be wandering. It's just a story of a love triangle among bicycles, geddit? This pleasant romantic actioner about a lovable Everyman, a leading lady and a bully takes place in an alternate reality populated by bicycles.

In a stadium packed with young bikes doing laps and calisthenics, a blue/red instructor bicycle named Beau drills his plebes in proper wheelie techniques on the last day of classes before the holidays. As the stadium empties and he locks the gate, a beauty of a bike done up all in purple glides by. Bec, for that is her name, is being pursued by a bellicose extreme mountain bike with mean-looking grips and painted-on flames. Harley, who is her jilted ex, tries to make nice with Bec while being mean to everybody else, including Bec's pet skateboard Ollie, and the gear-shaped flowers he offers her aren't getting him anywhere.

Later in the local mall, luck goes Beau's way and he saves Bec from falling down an open manhole. Harley is steamed to see Beau and Bec riding off handlebar in handlebar, and he follows them to the park, where things get downright ugly between the two suitors. Beau tries to be a gentleman about it, but when Harley goes too far and forces Beau to run for his life, Beau tricks him into following him back into the stadium where they engage in the ultimate two-wheeled showdown.

A bicycle in its normal state isn't the least bit anthropomorphic, and it's all the more impressive that director Andrew Goode and his animators have telegraphed recognizable emotions for each character from nothing more than the position of a pair of handlebars. This CGI world has a tone akin to the early Pixar short Red's Dream, although the universe on display is several orders of magnitude deeper (it being 17 years on and all). Some good visual puns and inventive cinematography make this compressed and transmogrified Better Off Dead scenario, a wholesomely goofy experience.

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Charm and giggles are offered up in The Monkey and the Bananas . © Nate Mulliken.

The Monkey and the Bananas

If you were reduced to giggles by the Dexter and Computress Get Mandark! episode of Dexters Laboratory, wherein McCracken and company animated an episode to accompany a story sent in on a cassette tape by a six-year-old fan, your heads in the right space to enjoy The Monkey and the Bananas by Nate Mulliken. Mullikens story is a basic tale of friendship that could only come from the mind of someone still in his first decade of life.

A monkey and a giraffe, it seems, live in a cave above a jungle full of banana trees. The monkey is afraid of heights, so the giraffe nicely retrieves the bananas for his monkey friend. When, um, winter comes to the jungle and a light dusting of snow blankets this sub-Saharan landscape, they retreat to the cave to shiver, having forgotten to gather firewood. Then spring comes, and the monkey is so happy he rushes down to the jungle floor and up the banana tree, where he remembers to his dismay that hes afraid of heights and cant climb down. He falls and sprains his hand, which the giraffe kisses-make-better. Finally theres a forest fire, and the monkey fears his banana supply will be gone forever; but again the giraffe offers a practical solution to save the day.

Material like this inevitably walks a fine line between serious and risible. On one hand, the director can become Mary from Mrs. Wrights afternoon class, devoid of guile and flush with a kindergartners good advice. (It will be okay. Animals are cuddly. Friends are nice.) On the other, the artist can become John Simon, cranky critic with a checklist. (Giraffes cant talk. Also, they have four legs. One feels basic research requirements were neglected.) The Monkey and the Bananas nicely straddles that line its outlines and movement are primitive but effective, and the staging and editing are driving and cinematic.

Mulliken doesnt dodge the charming storytelling gaffes of his five-year-old narrator, but he also takes her story at face value, mainly because its actually his story, which Mulliken typed up at age eight. Mulliken is a former storyboard artist for Nickelodeons Little Bill, and for his first self-produced short has appropriately dug through the treasure chest of his own juvenilia for inspiration. All smart artists should do likewise.

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The controversial Son of Satan : psycho posture or required artistic pummeling? © JJ Villard.

Son of Satan

Jean-Jacques Villard could just be putting on a psycho posture à propos of his visually astonishing CalArts graduate film Son of Satan. Or not. Why dont you send him a nice email and ask? Viewers at last years got both the film and the director, and his screaming Fuck you! performance post-screening left quite an impression. I dont know the man, but I can unequivocally recommend his work the aggression in his animation is the kind of artistic pummeling everyone needs.

The text of Son of Satan comes from a short story by Charles Bukowski, and its as blunt as youd expect from a guy who lived life from the floor up. Before Bukowski wrote hed hit the grit merchant for half a hundredweight, and Son of Satan, a story of three bullies and their victim, is like sandpaper on the neurons of anybody who ever got shit beaten out of them as a kid. The narrator and two friends are bored in the backyard one day when they decide to beat up a fourth kid who claimed he had sex with a girl under the narrators house. They harass him, then beat him up, then drag him away to the narrators front porch to give him an improvised hanging.

The narrator is the putative leader of this hell-bent gang and he cant back off, which he realizes he desperately wants to do. Unable to go through with the execution, he cuts his victim down and threatens him some more before leaving his bloody, piss-stained hulk on the ground to crawl away.

When he comes back, the boy is gone but the narrators father is home, and hes royally pissed. Dad wants to lay waste to this demon spawn, and the kids more than happy to bring the fight to him. After the violent episode that follows, the narrator hides under the bed and bites his fathers hand as he tries to pull him out. The film and the story end as he sits waiting for Dad to do the next thing. The epiphany that the next thing is this kids whole life, which is sure to roll by in one violent episode after another, is amplified by Villards art.

His animation channels Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele in a 30-frame-per-second battle royal. His line drawings exaggerate characters shortcomings into grotesque, eye-popping, acne-vulcanizing brutes. Black line drawings compete with color swatches, xerographic noise and coruscating paragraphs of handwritten text.

The textures of Villards other shorts are just as rich. Most often the music is doing at least half the emotional legwork, and he takes advantage of student status to mine some choice cuts. (Hell join the real world soon enough, and you can stop being jealous of the fact that he can animate to Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells and you cant.) L.A. residents who watch KCET may have seen his earlier short 9 in a Chimney 10 in a Bed, or Hate Is a Strong Word. This animated take on Pink Martinis fin-de-siécle creep-out cover version of Que Sera Sera is a lusciously eerie parade of zombied-out nuns, red dresses and hopeless bliss. I eagerly await the day someone at VH-1 drops acid and puts it in rotation by mistake.

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Never sappy or cloying, JoJo in the Stars is incandescent and infused with showbiz tragedy. © StudioAKA.

JoJo in the Stars

Marc Craste is an animator stabled at London production house StudioAKA. Hes directed several appealing commercials, from a traffic safety PSA to a truly mind-bending, "have to watch it three times every time" spot for Compaq (all downloadable from the StudioAKA Website). Between projects Craste has hatched a series of three black-and-white short-shorts that take place in a world hes created called Pica Towers. JoJo in the Stars is the elegiac, 13-minute film that has blossomed from these early vignettes.

Pica Towers is a mile-high office block, or apartment block, or gulag anyway, its definitely multi-purpose sitting alone in a deserted plain. In the three short-shorts The Good News, Hound of Flesh, and Pizza Sangre there are odd shenanigans afoot, from a sniper killing a pizza delivery boy to a dog stealing a blind mans cane to a religious proselytizer with a knife in his back. Crastes short-legged characters are plump and chunky in the manner of Pokémon, but built from discarded TVs and covered in a tough outer shell that gleams dully like Michael Keatons body armor from the first Batman movie.

But what really puts this intangible CGI world into the realm of Good Christ, Ive been there recognizability is the weather. Trapped in late afternoon, beset by towering anvil clouds, and choking in more particulate matter than central Idaho in fire season, this is a place youll swear you visited on vacation the year your vacation was ruined.

JoJo in the Stars focuses on Madame Picas freak show, held regularly inside Pica Towers. JoJo is a winged trapeze artist and the shows star attraction, and one fan comes night after night in the throes of obsession to watch her act. After yet another evenings performance, Jojo retreats to her locked cage for the night, but her bunny-eared, bright-eyed admirer approaches by stealth and unlocks the cage, whisking her away. They spend a few blissful minutes in another room lost in the moonlight fancy of each others eyes before the furious Madame Pica and her minions burst in. The pair jump out the high window in desperation, Jojo holding her suitor aloft as best she can, but her wings and her grip are too weak and the man slips from her hand and falls to his doom.

Far from being sappy or cloying, the scenario and the epilogue that follow are incandescent with classic showbiz tragedy. Like The Saddest Music in the World and Tod Brownings Freaks, with which JoJo shared a festival bill this July, JoJo lives in a world of arch melodrama anchored by a doomed romance. Thats a genre with a built-in wink, which is appropriate given Crastes goofy design sense, partial as he is to characters resembling phosphorescent Pikachus in black leather. But beyond all its component parts, this is simply strong filmmaking, of a caliber to make you forget its animated.

Around your fourth viewing, youll be able to take yourself out of the film long enough to notice the animation technique, which is superbly textured and acted. Lacking eyebrows or shoulders, and without a word spoken by the two main characters, the animators get their acting done almost entirely with eye shape. Special mention is warranted of the shorts signature tune, performed by offbeat instrumental ensemble Die Knödel (The Noodle): Harlem in Br*nn is an achingly melancholy, three-hankie wonder made from equal parts Schubert and Nino Rota.

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Harmony in Red evokes Dr. Seuss and childhood dreams. © Niki Hyun Jeong Yang.

Harmony in Red

Niki Yang followed up her 2002 short Demitris Violin with her 2003 senior project at CalArts, Harmony in Red. Again an eccentric visual sensibility grounded in the works of John Hubley is on full display as Yang illustrates an arboreal tale of a raccoon and a pinecone.

In an open landscape a raccoon is curled up dreaming on the ground, the passage of time marked overhead by an ever-kicking bicycle wheel a-rollin way in the middle of the air. He dreams of a forest full of life, but wakes to the same old rolling hills with their blighted earth tones. Unexpectedly, though, theres a yellow balloon hovering nearby, tied to something. To his surprise its a pinecone, a real one, and he doesnt hesitate to plant it and give it shade. There are other creatures nearby, benign and giggly, but the raccoon chases them away trees are his bailiwick.

In short order theres a patch of green on the ground, the only green for miles and it grows into a giant psychedelic bonsai with red trunk and green and yellow leaves. The forest spreads, but until the raccoon can figure out whats missing from the picture he repudiates the outside world and lines the forests perimeter with a barbed-wire fence. Finally its up to a family of monkeys to breach the fence and make the raccoon see the error of his ways.

Harmony in Red would perform well on the bottom half of a double bill with The Lorax; its a sequel of sorts to the ecologically-minded Dr. Seuss story, a tale of a forest rebuilt told not with humans but the forest animals themselves. Really, though, as the prologue and epilogue suggest, this is a people story, and the tone of the motherly murmurs of Its going to be all right in the opening frames suggest this was mined from the artists own childhood dreams.

The visuals will certainly make you flash back to naptimes of yore: Yangs original drawings in watercolor, pencil and charcoal were digitally manipulated in After Effects and Premiere to give a soaring, seamless feeling of infinite possibility.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. His article on the making of Twice Upon a Time will be published at some point. Meanwhile look for his new novel, Gethsemane for Chim Chim. (Dont buy it, just look for it.)

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