Taylor Jessen reviews the two recent animated shorts DVD collections, Spike & Mike's Cutting Edge Classics and The Animation Show.
Pasadena City College holds a swap meet the first Sunday of every month. Among the booths in the music section, a half-dozen dealers stand behind tables covered in videos with homemade art, famous names and no bar codes. Shopping for bootlegs is a tricky business. On one hand, chances are no one will ever legitimately re-release Sparks playing "I Predict" on Saturday Night Live, so if you want to see this witty 1982 pop performance you're getting it through a tape trader or not at all. On the other hand, that bootleg is a dub of Bob's VHS dub of Rodney's VHS dub of Veronica's VHS dub of Tyrone's VHS dub of Pamela's VHS dub of Justin's VHS dub.
Only a few years ago those tables were ruled by VHS tapes in big plastic clamshells; they were bulky and expensive and they looked like crap. Then the videotapes were swept away in a home-burning brushfire, and now the tables are full of DVD-Rs. They're slim, they're cheap to produce and they look like crap. They still look bad, by and large, because they're still dubs of dubs of dubs. The medium has improved but the source material hasn't.
There's a dirty little secret on display, here in Pirate's Corner at the Big Home Video Bazaar, and it holds true for everyone from UMG to you and me: DVD doesn't make moving pictures look better. Old film and video is like bubblegum on the sidewalk you can't expect it to turn pink again just because you're taking a digital snapshot.
I'm very annoyed by the new omnibus DVD Spike & Mike's Cutting Edge Classics. Mainly I'm peeved because, in all honesty, I unhesitatingly recommend you buy it for what it is a reference copy for a slew of important animated shorts despite the fact that it is also covered in blackened bubblegum. There is a wealth of great material here. Zohar Shahar's An Old Story turns obvious potty humor into a somehow poignant tale of an old man's final exit down a bathroom drain. Mariko Hoshi's Hello, Dolly! riffs on cloning through the laboratory adventures of a bug-eyed mad scientist and his hapless sheep. Jakub Pistecky's Maly Milos (Little Milosh) looks at the story of a man-boy, a goat and a domineering wife through a decidedly Grimms-esque lens.
There are great transfers of The Pigeon and the Onion Pie, a fairy tale in verse so offbeat it's virtually a delirium tremens; the dryly hilarious One Day a Man Bought a House and its predecessor Katten Mons (Mons the Cat) from Russian-born stop-motion animator Pjotr Sapegin; and caveman humiliation in the form of Stubble Trouble from Calabash Animation. Also included are animated shorts from popular successes we know from other media, including four Maakies shorts based on the weekly strip by Tony Millionaire, the early audience favorite Iddy Biddy Beat from Sheep in the Big City creator Mo Willems, and former MTV animation director Patrick Smith's Drink, a mind-altering peek at the nation of millions teeming inside us all.
Cane Toad is also included (see January's Fresh from the Festivals). Hopefully you were lucky enough to see this crass, hilarious short screened at a festival, because this is where Spike & Mike's Cutting Edge Classics starts to scrape the sidewalk. If you haven't seen Cane Toad, whatever you do, don't let this be your first time the aspect ratio is wrong, the color saturation is weak, and, on top of that, it's been censored. (Snipped is a one-second reaction shot where beleaguered toad Baz mouths the word "fuck" silently to camera as he is confronted with a lawnmower the size of a 747.) For a video series that apparently has no trouble with full frontal nudity, it's odd that this unrated DVD should duck the f-word.
The real crime, here, though, is Seiltnzer (Rope Dancer), a 1986 short from German animator Raimund Krumme. You may recall this charmer from any of a number of Tournees from the 1980s and '90s: a tragi-comic meditation on perspective and negative space featuring two men, a length of rope, and a multi-purpose rectangle. What's on this DVD isn't just a bad transfer; it's the platonic ideal of bad transfer. Blurry, scratchy, trembling with gate weave and pierced with rolling white lines, it looks like it was telecined directly from workprint to a recycled VHS tape.
Bad source material, of course, is a fact of life. Many DVDs come with trailers or deleted scenes glazed in scratchy emulsion or digital compression artifacts it's understood that no better copy of the material exists. I know a better copy of Seiltnzer exists, though, because I own one. (Animation Celebration Vol. 1 from Expanded Entertainment.) So what did Raimund Krumme do to deserve this humiliation? Here's a clue: the song running under the title menu is "Jealous Hearted Blues," a 1925 side from Ma Rainey. It has nothing to do with the rest of the DVD. It is also public domain, meaning and this is the crux of the matter it cost nothing. I see the faintest outlines of a trend forming.
Jerry Beck's book paints a picture of Messrs. Craig "Spike" Decker and Mike Gribble as tireless animation enthusiasts, partial to pamphleteering in moose antler costumes and given to mounting live shows full of boisterous, bare-breasted sound and fury. It's difficult to reconcile the good-natured boosterism of the festival's founders with the curatorial ineptitude displayed here. There are no fewer than three DVD versions of Stanley Donen's Charade currently in print, but the Madacy and Passport versions will never look as good as the one from Criterion Collection because of the extra hours the zealots at Criterion are putting in behind the scenes to make sure their releases are as close to camera-original and ruthlessly spit-shined as possible. Spike & Mike's Cutting Edge Classics looks less like historical preservation from lovingly fanatic devotees of the artform and more like exploitation.
The Animation Show
The Animation Show was launched in 2003 largely in response to frustrations surrounding the Spike & Mike festivals. Mike Judge (Beavis & Butthead, Office Space, King of the Hill) is the financier, Don Hertzfeldt (Ah L'Amour, Billy's Balloon, Rejected) the curator. Their debut theatrical program hit theaters in fall 2003 and eventually played 37 American and five Canadian states.
This annual program of animated shorts is very good news for fans of the genre, not to mention fans of Genre. If you liked the early Hertzfeldt short of the same name you're sure to dig The Animation Show Vol. 1, the artist's own personal mix tape of animated favorites plucked from a wish list influenced in equal parts by Stanley Kubrick and Monty Python. Genre isn't here, but four other Hertzfeldt shorts are, including three generous links made especially for Volume 1. Hertzfeldt can do downright cinematic things with simple stick figures, and if you were impressed by his comic timing and Dada outbursts in Rejected, you've probably already downloaded audio samples from Volume 1, and your computer's critical errors now occur to the sound of Don's trademark fluffy mystery creature screaming, "MY HEAD IS NOW A GIANT EGG!"
Again, there's no shortage of fine animated shorts in the biosphere worthy of anthologizing, and the producers have captured some outstanding game. Atama-Yama (Mt. Head) from Koji Yamamura is an old joke about a miser who eats free cherries, pits and all, from the sidewalk, only to find himself with a cherry tree growing from the middle of his hairless head. Naturally the tourists start to gather at this perfect picnic spot, and the man goes mad.
This is a hand-drawn, digitally manipulated folk story with appropriately gruff sung-spoken accompaniment by a narrator with a shamisen change languages and substitute a guitar and you'd have something akin to the shaggy-dog temperament of Shel Silverstein's "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out".
Moving Illustrations of Machines from Jeremy Solterbeck is a haunting example of the kind of thing Richard Brautigan probably had in mind when he wrote about "machines of loving grace." This monochrome meditation on the ecclesiastical mentality of self-worship lurking behind cloning advocacy tells no story as such it just sits back and watches The Machine as it pumps out white spheres that land in neat rows, are sucked on by mysterious leech-like worms and drawn on by inky motorized nibs, then sprout spikes and fly away to where they will accrete into some newly-awakening life form. Baleful, non-verbal and magnificent, this ambient film with soundtrack to match reminds me of the work of Jim Blashfield (Boy in the Bubble, And She Was, Suspicious Circumstances), with which it shares a similar landscape of far-out visuals and creeping loneliness.
The program is top-heavy with Academy Award nominees, including Katedra (Cathedral) from Tomek Baginski, Fifty Percent Grey by Ruairi Robinson and Seamus Byrne, and Das Rad (The Rocks) from Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger. Oscar-winners are here too, including Bill Plympton, whose 2002 short Parking is included, and Adam Elliot, who contributed his entire trilogy of familial examinations Uncle, Cousin and Brother.
Heavy items like Aria from Pjotr Sapegin a stop-motion adaptation of Madame Butterfly so grueling its central character actually leaves the film, rending her flesh until there's nothing left but armature alternate with lighter fare like a trio of clay animation shorts by Corky Quakenbush. Quackenbush delivers The Adventures of Ricardo in three short episodes, which are deployed wisely not only for quick laughs to break the tension between dramatic items, but also as a punked-out alternative to the extreme production values on display everywhere else.
(Man, clay animation is always gonna be punk. Never mind plasticine, I'm talking drag-the-lake, clean-your-fingernails, French-kissin'-Mother-Earth CLAY. It's cheap, it's sloppy, the colors get mixed but dude, like, we did the whole movie in an HOUR, all right, so shut up.)
Mike Judge contributes his own Office Space and other vignettes like Huh? from his earliest days as an animator. There's also a full-fledged music video, Bath Time in Clerkenwell, a bit of high-strung chiaroscuro screwball comedy from Alex Budovsky accompanying the tune of the same name by The Real Tuesday Weld.
The Animation Show Vol. 1 DVD omits several items from the theatrical program, including the Disney properties Vincent from Tim Burton and Ward Kimball's To Mars and Beyond, which fortunately are available on the Nightmare Before Christmas and Tomorrowland DVDs, respectively. The producers more than make up for this with the extras, which include director commentaries, storyboards, animatics, concept art and production photos from a variety of the participants. All this on a DVD with no bar code and a press-on paper label. Most directors have to wait half their careers to earn such a deluxe treatment; most animators never get it at all. As a fan, I feel spoiled.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. The cow goes "moo." Centripetal force equals mass times velocity squared over radius.