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Fresh from the Festivals: July 2008's Reviews

Andrew Farago reviews five short films: Chainsaw by Dennis Tupicoff, Hot Dog by Bill Plympton, Mammon by Robin Fuller, Styri (Four) by Ivana Sebestová and Vaterschaftstest (Paternity Test) by Katherine Landgrebe.

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 attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for their exhibition, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films.

This month:

Chainsaw (2008), 25:00, directed by Dennis Tupicoff (Australia). Contact: Jungle Pictures Pty Ltd (Dennis Tupicoff, Fiona Cochrane); [T] +61 3 95101880 [F] +61 3 95291079 [W] [E]

Hot Dog (2008),6:00, directed by Bill Plympton (U.S.). Contact: [W]

Mammon (2008), 4:52, directed by Robin Fuller (U.K.) Contact Robin Fuller, 34 Buxton Road, Norwich, NR3 3HH, United Kingdom [T] 07828163850 [W] [E]

Styri (Four) (2007), 16:00, directed by Ivana Sebestová (Slovakia). Contact: Ivana Sebestová [T] +421 904 992 52; [W] [E]; Ivana Zajacová; [T] +421 905 745 667 [E]

Vaterschaftstest (Paternity Test) (2006), 3:03, directed by Katherine Landgrebe (Germany). Contact: Katherine Landgrebe [E]


Is that a Chainsaw tugging at your heartstrings? © Dennis Tupicoff.


I think that it was Yeats who first wrote, "A chainsaw brings only heartbreak and despair to all who dare wield it."

While that quote is very, very inaccurate, I have to admit that I just needed something to kick off this month's first review, which covers an epic, 25-minute tale that spans six decades and a good deal of the Western Hemisphere.

Dennis Tupicoff's Chainsaw, as you might have guessed, uses the titular tool as a framing device for his narrative, which starts and ends with lumberjack Frank leveling trees and bringing destruction to everything around him.

Things start on an up note, with a 1980s-style training video that provides all the knowledge required to safely make use of your chainsaw and begin your exciting new career in the lumber industry. The cheesy synthesizer soundtrack and nervous expressions on the actors' faces add to the authenticity of the film, in which Frank and his wife Ava star. Their romance carries them through a variety of interests -- particularly rodeo.

The opening video gives way to a narrative starring a bull named Chainsaw, a force of nature whom no man could tame during his 15 years in the rodeo. Mike Auldridge and David Herzog's soundtrack sets the mood with everything from bluesy country western music to soaring ballads befitting a world champion bullfighter's peak performance. The story of Chainsaw segues back into the tale of Frank and Ava, drawing parallels to the romance (and romantic troubles) of another notable Frank and Ava, Mr. Sinatra and Ms. Gardner. Exotic wildlife, power tools, man's mastery over nature and illicit affairs unite the disparate narrative tracks into a cohesive whole, adding a documentary feel to the part-fact, part-fiction assembly.

Chainsaw consists mostly of 2D animation, created with Toon Boom, with inventive use of collage and archival footage that further blurs the line between fact and fiction. Director Dennis Tupicoff and his crew also made use of live-action video for several scenes, using the rotoscope process to capture key frames. The final effect is not unlike watching animated clip art, or modern-day retro art deco posters move through the decades, which pulls you in like a chainsaw tugging at your heartstrings.

(I think Milton was the first to write about chainsaws and heartstrings, but I could be mistaken.)


It's rare for anyone to be so consistently talented, but Bill Plympton makes it look easy in his latest short Hot Dog. © Plymptoons Studio.

Hot Dog

What is there to say about a new Bill Plympton cartoon, other than you've gotta watch it? Hot Dog is Plympton's third "working dog" film, following the award-winning shorts Guard Dog and Guide Dog. His latest effort, which can be seen at select movie houses nationwide as part of Mike Judge's 2008 Animation Show, tells the tale of a bulldog who wants to join the fire department. After an unimpressive audition, an actual alarm leads to the intrepid pooch tagging along on the greatest adventure of his life. Though he makes a good first impression, things go horribly, horribly awry by film's end, and the would-be firedog winds up a bit sadder and a bit worse off than when he started (a recurring theme in Plympton's films).

Again, if you're at all familiar with the director's work (and who isn't?), you'll know right away whether or not Hot Dog will be worth your time. It's been just over two decades since Your Face introduced Plympton's animation to the world, and his style is still as distinctive as ever. Thousands of hand-drawn, beautifully colored cels, dramatic tension, clever variations on lowbrow comedy, catchy soundtrack, high production values, seemingly minor events that build to earth-shattering ones... It's rare for anyone to be so consistently talented over the course of 20 years, but Bill Plympton makes it look easy. His next project, the feature-length Idiots and Angels, premieres at the Tribeca film festival the weekend of July 25-27, and he'll make it look easy all over again.


Mammon demonstrates that being an artist might be the most miserable fate you can ever bestow upon someone. © Robin Fuller.


Being an artist isn't all fun and games. It's not enough to simply find paying clients who will subsidize your tortured, Bohemian lifestyle; if you let your guard down for even a moment, you might find yourself selling your dreams and ideals in exchange for a fleeting chance at fame and glory. In fact, as the creators of the short film Mammon are apt to tell you, being an artist might just be the most miserable fate you can ever bestow upon someone.

Through beat poetry and industrial music, a gray, sorrowful poet relates his own tragic tale of art and suffering, in which he sacrifices his muse (in the form of a gray, blank-eyed woman) for the promise of fame and fortune. As he turns his back on her, his muse is bound, gagged and abused at the hands of Mammon, a bloated, skull-headed monstrosity who represents the corruption of art for financial gain.

This bleak tale is told through marionettes and stop-motion animation filmed in front of a green screen, with backgrounds and additional hand-drawn animation composited in Final Cut Pro. Can an artist create something that satisfies himself, his patrons, and his audience, without compromising his ideals? I don't have the answer to that one, but if Mammon's director, Robin Fuller, is making his living as a professional animator, I'm sure he has a lot to say on the subject.


Simple decisions made by each woman in Styri (Four) result in catastrophic, life-altering events for all. © Ivana Sebestová.

Styri (Four)

Four is an engaging film from director Ivana Sebestová that follows the lives of four women over the course of a single afternoon in the spring of 1937. Simple decisions made by each woman result in catastrophic, life-altering events for all four. A stray thought here or there, a road not taken, or even a different purchase at the local grocer's can save or damn countless strangers, depending on how certain events come to pass.

The film opens with the story of Hana, a pilot, and her final flight. After her tale concludes, we see, in turn, other events that occurred that afternoon, including the daily route of Eva, the mailwoman; a typical day's work for Lilith, a shopkeeper; and a greatly anticipated seaside concert by Ariel, a beloved singer and celebrity who inspires fanatical adoration from her legion of fans.

Each individual story involves transportation and romance, and each story has a significant impact upon the other three. The film's designs are evocative of popular muralists and expressionists of the late 1930s, giving the animation an unearthly, surreal quality, not unlike watching a painting come to life in a hesitant, uncertain manner. The slightly-removed-from-reality palette combined with the not-quite-human faces and bodies of the characters and the faint, eerie soundtrack further heighten the film's sense of drama and tension.

Four women, four stories, and a single tragedy come together to produce a remarkable film that, most likely, needs to be seen four times to fully appreciate just what Sebestová has accomplished.


A simple slip of the thumb during text messaging provides a universal source of humor in Vaterschaftstest (Paternity Test). © Katherine Landgrebe.

Vaterschaftstest (Paternity Test)"Have you ever received a text message that was not intended for you?" That question is the driving force behind Katherine Landgrebe's humorous Paternity Test.

A simple slip of the thumb is all it takes to mistakenly invite the wrong person to Thanksgiving Dinner, confess your undying love to the pizza delivery guy, or complain about your boss to... your boss. It's a universal fear, and Landgrebe realizes that it's also a universal source of humor.

Through simple use of 2D computer animation, Flash MX and a fun synthesizer score evocative of classic animation soundtracks, she relates the tale of Robert, who hasn't quite gotten the hang of text messaging. When communications between his wife, his mistress and his best friend get crossed... well, let's just say that it plays out like an episode of Three's Company for the new millennium. [Editor's note: Unfortunately, we are unable to include music with the clip for Paternity Test due to rights issues.]

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.