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Zbig Rybczynskis celebrated avant-garde career is the focus of this three-disc DVD set. All images © Zbig Vision Ltd.
Zbig Rybczynski is a technician, artist, and lapsed animator. As an experimental filmmaker Rybczynski put in some hardcore hours at the animation stand in the 1970s and early 80s producing short films like the Academy Award-winning Tango (1980), a bouillabaisse of overlapping looped action sequences playing out in a small furnished room. His films constituent parts are always documentary reality captured with movie cameras, but they enter the realm of animation through his manipulations, as he collapses and reverses time, deconstructs objects into geometric patterns and applies surreal color schemes. In three DVDs now available through the artists Website, the works of Zbig Rybczynski are being redistributed, a turn of events that should gladden the hearts of avant-garde enthusiasts everywhere.
Rybczynski was born in Poland in 1949. A Los Angeles resident, he has taught at Polands Lodz Film School, New Yorks Columbia University and Colognes Academy of Media Arts. The first DVD in the set, Media, includes works he created in Poland and Germany between 1972 and 1980. The first two items are color-wheel freakouts: Kwadrat (1972) anticipates the mosaic effects of digital photography as a single screen-sized white square subdivides itself, moving from one-bit resolution to a photographic representation of a person in motion. A four-color scheme is introduced, images overlap and blend and the resolution retreats back to a single white square. Plamuz (1973) is free jazz; black-and-white footage of a small jazz ensemble is stuffed into a psychedelic food processor as images break up into multicolored grids of alternating colors and shapes.
Nowa Ksiazka (New Book, 1975) is Rybczynskis first foray into narrative, and its enough to make your head spin. Nine films play out at once in a tic-tac-toe formation. The action all takes place within a few city blocks. A man in a red trenchcoat exits his apartment, and, over the course of 10 minutes, he ventures out into the city to buy a new book, chat with a friend in a bar, and sit on a park bench. The nine cameras are strategically placed so that we never lose sight of him. Simple enough but just try to get your head around watching the interactions of the other characters, all perfectly synched between frames: a boy bouncing a ball into an open window, a blind violinist busking, workmen hoisting buckets, a postman doing rounds. Furthermore the films arent progressing at speed; theyre stopping and starting, racing and crawling, rolling forwards and backwards. The kicker comes at the seven-and-a-half minute mark, when a unifying accident occurs in all nine frames at once. Quirk of fate, act of God, or bibliographic voodoo? Who can say.
Zupa (Soup, 1974) is a slice-of-life hallucination of domestic life, a nightmare riff on courtship, marriage and living together. It opens in a dream the sound of deep breathing is played under a looped image of a building collapsing and rebuilding itself. A man opens a door to see himself drowning at sea, and he rips the sea off the wall like wallpaper. Then he wakes, and his situation doesnt improve. The film plays out as an illustrated game of free-association the food on his spoon eats a chunk off his face; a two-tailed dog dances with a two-headed dog; and theres a derailed train in his soup. The soundtrack is appropriately Dada, with a licked stamp screeching like a rusty gate. Blocks of false color jump and clash, and the piece ends as the burnt film tail seizes in the gate and melts.
Oj! Nie Moge Sie Zatrzymac! (Oh, I Cant Stop! 1976) is another short nightmare, this one with a punchline, shot from the point of view of something that has slowly emerged from the forest to terrify the local population. Over nine minutes, this unseen beast zips around and through an unnamed Polish town, jumping fences and leaping in windows and out of doors as it goes increasingly and impossibly faster towards a sudden and sticky end. Shot as a series of stills, this breathtaking piece is a breakneck tour of an entire metropolis, a sort of blitzkrieg travelogue of Communist-era Poland, and on home video its a still-framers paradise.
Orange people get the day off in Swieto (Holiday, 1975), an elaborate meditation on prosaic human activities. In just a few scenes intercut over time, a man washes his car, a couple have sex in the park and a family gathers for an outdoor meal. In every shot the camera has been locked down and Rybczynski has kept only about eight frames from every second of footage, and he rocks the action back and forth, speeding and slowing, so a simple family greeting on a staircase becomes an endless festival of smooching noises and hearty embraces. Everyone glows reddish-orange, and, diabolically, every frame is separated from its neighbor with a short dissolve. The results are drolly comic; the act of watching a man pulls his car out of the garage, wash it, and then put it back without driving anywhere is made even more poignant by the baroque means used to depict his activity.
Grouped at the end of the disc are three hilarious riffs on the concept of TV-screen-as-proscenium. Weg zum Nachbarn (The Way to Your Neighbour, 1976) is a silent-comedy era throwback filmed in grainy black-and-white. A traveler falls asleep under a road sign, and, while he naps, the camera slowly rotates clockwise 180 degrees while the gravity stays firmly planted on the bottom of the screen. Only luck and a fierce somnambulant grip on the road sign prevent the traveler from falling off the planet. In Mein Fenster (My Window, 1979); the exact opposite occurs; gravity goes for a joyride as a simple domestic scene television, wine bottle, bird in a cage is subjected to a slowly loop-de-looping gravitational force. And a TV goes spinning in Media (1980), a sweet vignette where a man stuck in a Moviola plays around with a balloon whose movements are followed by a similarly lighter-than-air television set.
The disc culminates with Rybczynskis Oscar-winning short Tango (1980), a dance choreographed for 21 teams. Theres a room with three doors, a window, a wardrobe, a bed, a crib and a table. A ball flies in the window, and a boy climbs in after it, retrieves it, and exits and a ball flies in the window. And a boy climbs in after it. Its a loop, and over the course of eight minutes, 20 more action loops appear, from a naked woman putting on a dress to a man falling while reaching for a light fixture to a man endlessly stealing a parcel from the wardrobe. Everyone darts to and fro, moving obliviously around and beside each other, until, one by one, they exit. This monster job of rotoscoping and sequencing is still capable of taking the breath away.
The second DVD in the series is Steps, and includes the title piece as well as the meditative Fourth Dimension. Steps (1987), a live-action video, has a killer film geek premise. Russia needs some cash, so its invited a group of American tourists to indulge in the ultimate filmic experience: Through the miracle of modern technology, you, yes YOU, can actually join in the famous Odessa Steps sequence of Eisensteins Battleship Potemkin! This 25-minute short subject follows a gaggle of hamburger-munching Yankees as they walk in, around and through the advancing soldiers firing on the crowd in cinemas most famous montage.
We share personal space with the baby in the pram, the woman with the pince-nez and all those notorious Just Folks victims from Eisensteins masterpiece. Its a great premise, and there are some good gags here, but the viewer gets the impression Rybczynski was more concerned with the mise-en-scene than the acting. Too often the more than a dozen speaking parts are delivered with no affect, and the comedy suffers. It could be this one is best watched like the silent film it emulates, with the sound down and some Rimsky-Korsakov on the stereo.
Also on disc two is The Fourth Dimension (1988), a trippy conceptual wonder where past, present and future share a single image. Its an impressionistic piece, shot on video, depicting classical forms and modern props in a studio interior. A man and a woman, clothed and nude, pose in still life with doors, apples, fluted wine glasses, et al. Sometimes the subjects are still, sometimes they are revolving on wires or lazy Susans. The wrinkle is, each of the 30 frames you see every second contains parts of hundreds of frames; every horizontal scan line going in sequence down the face of the screen came from a different frame. In other words, theres a continuous future/present/past scroll bar rolling down the screen at all times. This makes for some seriously surreal depictions of reality when an actor or a marble bust revolve in a circle, the top of the head gets home first; doors peel open like bumper stickers off a backing; apples materialize in thin air before a womans mouth.
DVD three is taken up entirely by The Orchestra (1990), an hour-long tour-de-force co-produced by NHK, Canal Plus and PBS Great Performances. This is Rybczynskis Allegro Non Troppo in composite live-action. The interiors were shot on location at the Louvre, the Cathedral at Chartres and the Paris Opera House; the actors were shot separately and composited via blue screen. Not a word is spoken as six classical pieces are illustrated with Rybczynskis trademark surrealist multi-element bluescreen compositing. Mozarts pastoral Andante from Piano Concerto No. 21 is the underscore for a trip through an endless formal garden populated by formally dressed elderly men and women in various stages of decrepitude. Chopins funereal Piano Sonata No. 2 is the theme to a mournful communion with the dead, as crowds of European men and women healthy, starving, courting, grieving flash in and out of vision before the ivories of a thousand-key piano.
Albinonis elegiac Adagio in G Minor is illustrated with a trip to the clouds, as a man rises into the heavens and goes for a walk along an endless curb in the sky that a group of luckless characters call home. The Louvre is the setting for a jaunty take on Rossinis The Thieving Magpie, where a group of soldiers in full dress would like nothing more than to shed their uniforms after wooing the gaggle of sexy maidens that surrounds them. Schuberts Ave Maria is played out in a cathedral, where male and female figures soar into the rafters in a delicate aerial ballet.
Rybczynski closes with Ravels Bolero, and as Maurice Ravel and Bruno Bozzetto both knew, if youre going to illustrate this mad exercise in orchestration youd better have a good joke in mind. In this case its one of the best: Communism, whose tale is told from beginning to (then-contemporary) end along the length of an endless staircase peopled with peasants, workers, and secret police with portable phones.
DVDs two and three are interesting artifacts of late-1980s video techniques; DVD one, at least, is a must-have for animators. (Sadly, theres enough in Rybczynskis oeuvre to justify a fourth disc compiling his many music videos from 1984-9, including such notables as The Pet Shop Boys Opportunities, Rushs Time Stands Still and the immortal chainsaw-showcasing Close to the Edit for Art of Noise. Unfortunately a Mongol horde of competing publishing interests undoubtedly prohibits such a collection from ever existing.) All three DVDs are zone-free NTSC and are available through Rybczynskis Website, www.zbigvision.com.
Taylor Jessen is a writer and archivist living in Burbank. He has written more than a dozen impossible avant-garde screenplays, as well as the short stories Chateau Tempestuoso and The Footnote Conspiracy. His article on the production history of the animated feature Twice Upon a Time will appear in Animation Blast #9 in April 2004.
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