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Fresh from the Festivals: September 2005’s Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films The Guilt Trip or, the Vaticans Take a Holiday by Lisa Barcy, Journey to the West by Moto Sakakibara, Intolerance by Phil Mulloy, Journey to Mars (Viage a Marte) by Juan Pablo Zaramela and Morir de Amor by Gil Alkabetz. 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.

This Month:

The Guilt Trip or, the Vaticans Take a Holiday (2004), 14:00, directed by Lisa Barcy (U.S.). Contact Lisa Barcy [T] +1.733.841.9067 [E] lisabarcy@hotmail.com, lbarcy@artic.edu

Journey to the West (2005), 1:23, directed by Moto Sakakibara (Japan). Contact: Grace McNamee, Sprite Animation Studios, 6701 Center Drive West, Suite 1100, Los Angeles, CA 90403 [T]+1.310.528.4187 [W]www.spritee.com [E] grace@spritee.com

Intolerance Part I (

2000, 11:00), Part II: The Invasion (2001, 14:00), Part III: The Final Solution (2004, 24:00), directed by Phil Mulloy. Contact Sonja Waldraff, Studio Film Bilder, Ostendstraße 106, 70188 Stuttgart [T] 0711.481027; [F] 0711.4891925 [W] www.filmbilder.de [E] studio@filmbilder.de

Journey to Mars (Viaje a Marte) (2004, 16:00), directed by Juan Pablo Zaramela (Argentina). Contact: JPZtudio, Riglos 735 1B - 1424, Capital Federal, Argentina [T/F]+5411.4923.7484 [E] contact@zaramela.com.ar [W] www.zaramella.com.ar; www.viajeamarte.com.ar

Morir de Amor (2004,12:40), directed by Gil Alkabetz (Israel). Contact: Gil Alkabetz, Sweet Home Studio [E] info@morir-de-amor.com, [W] www.morir-de-amor.com

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The house is a mess, the Popes driving me crazy time to take The Guilt Trip. © L. Barcy, 2004.

The Guilt Trip or, the Vaticans Take a Holiday

The Guilt Trip is a stop-motion puppet film about a dysfunctional little church with an unlikely staff in a remote forest glade. Its run by the Pope, 2D Jesus (the Popes sneering toady), 3D Jesus (an unhappy full-size icon), and Mary Magdalene. Mary, Jesus, and a brood of other religious icons spend their day like all good icons should Jesus crouches in an alcove looking weary, and Mary strikes mournful poses in picture frames. 2D Jesus gets in everyones face, brownnosing his boss and keeping an eye out for shirking. Meanwhile the manager of this lonely sole proprietorship, the Pope, scurries around on wheeled feet with a blue duster, compulsively tidying up.

One desperate day, with the Pope secluded in his study listening to French pop music and building endless clay Pietà replicas, Jesus cant take it anymore and he writes a resignation letter, hops in his hotrod and splits for parts unknown. Mary follows suit and shimmies down a rope to freedom, heading for the nearest motorway to try to thumb a ride. By accident Jesus drives by and nearly runs Mary down. Shes furious, but he prostrates himself before her and she agrees to tolerate her temperamental former co-worker. Meanwhile the Pope finds Jesus note, and he leaves his little timberland Vatican in hot pursuit.

On the road the pair tries various odd jobs to support themselves, including renting themselves out as ready-to-pose graveyard statues, and the longer theyre together the closer their bond becomes. One quiet afternoon in the woods in their parked car, Mary starts getting ideas, and the two strip to bare armatures and embrace. Theres a river nearby and Jesus goes for a post-coital swim just as the Pope finally catches up with the renegade pair. The pontiff conjures up a confession booth, sits in the woods and waits; and as Jesus emerges from the river he cant resist the sentimental urge to come home to the familiar guilty ritual. Mary, abandoned, takes off in Jesus car, as Jesus goes home with the Pope and takes his familiar place on the crucifix.

Seeing Jesus behind the wheel of a classic American car is always a welcome slice of surrealism, and The Guilt Trip is an appropriately blasphemous attempt to inject some human frailty into unfeeling plaster icons and their supposedly infallible historical counterparts. Lisa Barcy animated The Guilt Trip all over the United States, in bedrooms and backyards, one shot at a time, over 10 years. Her set and character designs are richly textured, and, without articulating her characters faces or giving them a single line of dialogue, she gets all her acting done splendidly through pantomime.

Her timing is both dramatically and comically effective, but the tech specs drag the piece down somewhat. All animation contains repeated frames added in postproduction for the sake of pacing and dramatic beats. The Guilt Trip was mastered from DigiBeta, and whenever the footage stops, the scan lines of a video still frame pop up conspicuously. I wish shed used a fully scanned hard drive solution for editing and she probably does too so heres hoping more publicity brings her more funding, enabling her to raise the technical levels to match the quality of her innovative and very funny scenario.

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Care to make a Journey to the West? © Sprite Ent. Inc. 2004-2005. All rights reserved.

Journey to the West

Journey to the West doesnt actually exist yet, but it would very much like to. That is, the makers want it to exist it cant want anything, its a movie. Then again, by the looks of the sizzle reel cooked up by Sprite Animation, this thing could become self-aware any day now. The story, according to director Moto Sakakibara, takes place within the Buddhas sphere of meditation, a place buzzing with wooden mechanical animals and snot-dripping Youkai, traditional Japanese ghosts and folk monsters.

The colors are bright, the movements chipper, the personalities of the many small chunky characters active and happily malevolent. The world is sky bound, and the vistas on view in the shorts minute and a half are breathtaking. Its unknown where all of this is going, which is appropriate for a trailer. Its also unknown when Sakakibara, who co-directed Final Fantasy, will get to this new venture, having announced in July of this year that hed be helming a feature adaptation of GON, a popular manga about a knee-high dinosaur. But in a movie landscape with precious few CGI features making it to the American market from overseas, any new product is good product, especially when it looks this nutty.

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Guys and dolls and Zogs tear space a new one in Intolerance III: The Final Solution. © Juan Pablo Zaramela.

Intolerance

The characters in Phil Mulloys Intolerance trilogy all share the directors signature, raw style of punch-out eyeholes, spindly limbs, and bulldozer mouths with zipper teeth. The backgrounds have a terrific rough hand-painted texture, all very distinctive and reminiscent of both the Altamira-Caves school and the single-piece-of-construction-paper school of design. Unfortunately the writing is just as primitive. This is some scraggy-ass filmmaking, but unlike Line of Life, where the jagged visuals externalized the horror of a thoughtfully told war story, Intolerance is unrefined inside and out.

In the first installment, Intolerance (2000, 11 minutes), some humans doing a little space vacuuming come up with a piece of detritus in the form of a film can labeled only Zogfilm. Projecting it, they find surprising evidence of an alien race of Zogs who resemble humans but whose faces and genitalia have switched places. Simple acts like eating and defecating, and social acts like greetings, farewells and sexual encounters among this race of dickheads prove unpalatable to human viewers. When the film is screened for the general public, the religious elements grow restless, storm the projection booth and launch a fleet of spaceships to destroy the planet Zog, which coincidentally has also come upon a movie of human social customs and has sent its own fleet to wipe us out.

Intolerance II: The Invasion (2001, 14 minutes) is the story of the Zogs adventures on Earth. In space a massive battle between the Zog and Human invading fleets is avoided when the two fleets completely miss each other the Zogs are distracted by endless sexual escapades, while the human pilots sit in a trance of panty fetish. Reaching the planet Earth unencumbered, the Zogs do some crude reconstructive surgery and practice saying motherfucker so they can stay inconspicuous in modern-day America.

A redneck named Dwight Hokum discovers the aliens are among them, but his cries go unheard, mainly because everyone from the man on the street to the president has a penis under his false head. Dwight founds his own TV ministry, gets married and tries to make as many children as possible to stock the Zog-defeating army of tomorrow; but discovering his wife in the tub playing with her fake head, he murders his entire family and holes up in a remote cave in the Rockies. Finally one dark, match-lit day he finds himself a disembodied head looking up at a penis mounted Zog-like atop his former body.

Mulloy completed the trilogy with Intolerance III: The Final Solution (2004, 24 minutes), a breakneck horror/farce/satire/epic about the fate of the human army sent through space to destroy the Zogs. Its an exhaustive octuple-decker sandwich of plot machinations, but to sum up, it describes the war between two factions that develop among the human fleet those that are sure Zog exists and must be destroyed, and those who doubt it ever existed at all. Abe Hokum, a commander for the believers, is trying to flush out the unbelievers, who now worship an all-powerful Elvis (who, in a pleasant cultural transference, now only sings in German).

Abe discovers his wife Eva is allied with the unbelievers and he loses his faith, runs away with her, goes on a quest among self-mutilating body artists and self-adorning tattoo artists, participates in a bloody civil war, and eventually blasts out of the ship in an escape capsule to an Edenic planet Zog populated only by he and his wife and the whole process of civilization starts anew.

Parts one and two of Mulloys trilogy take rough to a new, iconic plateau the animation is minimal, the brushstrokes crude, the humor puerile and scatological. Fine, except the writing is similarly sunk to the level of a drowsy pre-teens afternoon of notebook scribbles after a hard day on the playground. In part three, on the other hand, its the same, only different. Mulloy headed a larger team of artists this go-around, and the timing is crisper, the animation more liquid and the scope expanded to Zeppelin proportions like a Readers Digest condensation of Foundation. Yet hanging a labyrinthine plot on drama this juvenile feels like the big sci-fi plot that should have stayed in the spiral notebook. Yes, in the satirical arts, characters are supposed to be cannon fodder but even General Jack D. Ripper had a personality.

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A grandparent and a red pickup truck are all some lucky children need to make a Journey to Mars. © Juan Pablo Zaramela.

Journey to Mars (Viaje a Marte)

Journey to Mars is a charming fantasy in Plasticine on the subject of fairy tales, a spun yarn that neatly reverses the moral of every disillusioned-boy-becomes-a-man story ever told. Its sort of Capricorn One meets Baron Munchausen in Argentina.

Somewhere in rural Argentina in the 1950s a boy watches his favorite science fiction program on TV before going outside to threaten local wildlife with his raygun and fry deadly space ants with a magnifying glass. Running into Grandpa coming around a corner, the boy pauses in his play to assert that hes going to go to Mars in a rocket someday. Why wait? Grandpa says, pointing to his red pickup truck in the driveway. A few minutes later theyre on their way out to the countryside, where Grandpa says he knows a shortcut to the Red Planet.

This is a special tow truck, Grandpa says as they cruise down the highway. When it picks up speed WHOOSH, he gestures, Off to Mars! The lazy afternoon heat makes the boy drowsy, and sure enough, he wakes from a nap to the rays of a rust-colored sun. Outside the truck is a collection of red rock formations that just have to be Martian, and to boot theres a souvenir stand run by a lady with black pigtails and a sweet smile. Can you buy me a Martian souvenir, Grandpa? the boy asks, and he points to a spacemans helmet in the glass case. Taking home his keepsake, which has the typical mid-fifties B-picture panache of a water cooler with rabbit ears, the boy is more than satisfied.

Later in school, though, having put a few years and a lot of physical lankiness behind him, he makes the mistake of speaking up when the teacher brings up the subject of space travel. When he claims that Grandpa took him to Mars, the boys and girls explode with laughter. Returning to his bedroom with a bitter awareness of adults and their well-meaning lies, he packs the helmet in his toy chest forever. Cut to the living room of the same house decades later, where theres a different TV, now in color and sporting a crawl at the bottom of the screen. The boy, now a father, watches his child watch a report of the American manned mission to Mars, set for takeoff that day. Daddy sighs at bittersweet memories of long ago, but his reverie is interrupted by a phone call; a car needs towing.

Outside, Granddads red pickup truck gleams, still the family workhorse for Dads small business after all these years. Dad heads out into the countryside to look for the distressed party, but his directions are contradictory, and the shadows start to grow long as he goes through the same four-way intersection again and again in different directions. Driving off the road in a moment of distraction and cracking an axle, he finds himself lost in an unfamiliar countryside at night. But at sunrise theres a surprise in store, which is to say nothing of the surprise awaiting a group of American astronauts.

Journey to Mars is solid from top to bottom, with clever editing, bright, saturated set designs and well-tooled props. The characters heads are stylized noseless creations, flattened ovals reminiscent of Fisher-Price people, and their iconic, almost expressionless nature only increases the viewers empathy. The story was based on an experience the writer had as a child, at a time when he was obsessed with the program Route 66. A family member defied the notion that the famous highway was half a world away by taking the boy on a day trip by car to that very same Route 66. That this was just a street in a village a few miles down the road never registered with the boy until years later. On a scale from The Big Lie to The Harmless Fib, this kind of untruth registers more as simple generosity in the context of the endless dreary afternoon we call childhood.

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Two green avian pets discover what it takes to die of love in Morir de Amor. © Gil Alkabetz.

Morir de Amor

I wish I could tell you more about the work of Israeli director Gil Alkabetz, director of a slew of shorts including Rubicon (1997), but before now Id only seen Bitzbutz, a miniature wildlife adventure included on the first International Tournee of Animation tape and of course I loved his great animated transitions for Run Lola Run. Now get your hands on Morir de Amor if you can, because depending on in which months it received its 14 (so far) festival awards, this 2004 short is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination next spring. Its a superb and bittersweet creation born in traditional techniques and textured in the computer, and it concerns two elderly parrots and their elderly human.

The piece opens on a shot of a loving parrot couple on a branch in a richly colored jungle paradise. The corresponding jungle noises are absent, though, and as we pull back we see this is only the label on a box of parrot food, a lone patch of colorized, sentimental Then in a monochrome world of Now. Theres a man asleep in an easy chair, a wall of photos of a wife and son long gone, a window to the street, and, in a cage, two bored parrots. The clock goes tick tock. The first parrot goes TICK TOCK! A car in the street goes whirr. The second parrot goes WHIRRR!

Out of the blue one parrot closes its eyes and starts to play Remember When, imitating a babbling brook and chirping birds. Their memories come flooding back as the second parrot remembers the crackle of car tires on gravel, triggering images of a happy couple and their chauffeur picnicking under the parrots jungle branch long ago. Oblivious to the grammar of human communication, they replay an onomatopoeia of popping corks, gurgling wine and human chitchat as pure sound samples, aural pictures evoking visual ones.

One parrot starts to scratch like a Victrola with the needle stuck in the inner groove. The other starts singing the A-side melody of the record that the woman brought to the picnic, a lyrical piece for guitar, but things really get interesting when they switch to the B-side. It was a passionate duet called Morir de Amor, which both parrots belt out without a clue to the lyrics meaning. (This, Im afraid, is where non-Spanish-speaking viewers are going to get more out of this short than fluent ones, because in a work thats about language as sound pictures divorced from context, I can appreciate the parrots point of view much better when, like them, I have no idea what theyre singing.)

The trick is, this is the side of the record that the woman played after her beau went out with net in hand to collect birds, and while he was away she had an amorous adventure with the chauffeur. The parrots in the cage, with their master still asleep, imitate the smacking of lips, the mumble of carnal sighs and the womans cry of Oh Pedro! with enthusiasm. His brow knitting, the old man starts to strangle the box of parrot food in his sleep. The afternoon doesnt end well, as the man wakes with the word Pedro on his lips and he compares a photo of his chauffeurs shock of orange hair with the incongruously matching orange hair of the son he thought was his.

Morir de Amor is extremely well timed, the animated acting is exquisite, the voice characterizations are hilarious, and the gouache color textures are almost tactile. And if youre lucky enough to score a viewing copy of your own, do right by yourself and read Michael Chabons The Final Solution first. This novella by the author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (and comics lovers and laymen alike should read that too) concerns a retired detective, a German child refugee, and his pet parrot, and it wraps a vivid description of a parrots interior life into a whirlwind detective story that you should be able to knock back in three hours flat. With Gils short and Michaels book under your belt, you may think twice about putting one of these lovely plumed creatures in a cage.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is the author of the bestselling neurotic diet book Eat and Stay Calm.

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