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Fresh from the Festivals: November 2006's Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films -- A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process by Chel White, Kernseif (Curd Soap) by Alexander Kiesl and Sebastian Stolle, I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor by Thomas Hicks, Eels (Aal im Schel) by Martin Rahmlow and Nocturne by Guillaume Delaunay. 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.

A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process (2005), 1:30 by Chel White (U.S.). Contact: Chel White Films [E] [W]

Kernseif (Curd Soap) (2005), 4:04 by Alexander Kiesl and Sebastian Stolle (Germany). Contact: Alexander Kiesl [E], [W]; Sebastian Stolle [E] [W]

I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor (2005), 4:40 by Thomas Hicks (U.K.). Contact: Thomas Hicks [E]

Eels (Aal im Schädel) (2006), 17:40 by Martin Rahmlow (Germany). Contact: Martin Rahmlow [E] [W]

Nocturne (2005), 4:30 by Guillaume Delaunay (France). Contact: Annick Teninge, La Poudrière [E]


Secrets of the creative life revealed in A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process. © Chel White.  

A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process (In Less Than 60 Seconds)

Don't wanna write. Anything but that. Nap time, time for orange juice, have to return the videos, have to scrub the pan, have to DEADLINE DEADLINE DEADLINE DEADLINE DEADLINE. Type something, burst mode, vomit up some prose. Polish. Send. Wotta relief. Never again. New assignment... As public service testimonials akin to "Drugs. I stopped. You shouldn't start" or "I thought condoms just got in the way" have long attempted to wheedle young ones off the vices of dope and unsafe sex, now there's a similar preventative for the scribbling disease: A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process (In Less Than 60 Seconds), a hilarious express-train screed from the point of view of one badly blocked poet.

Animator Chel White returns to his cutout animation roots to illustrate the monologue, which as promised explodes in just 59 seconds. The narrator ticks off the items on his creativity checklist: cold sweat, lie on the floor, channel-surf and look for something to steal, drink a six-pack, nap. Wake up, do jumping jacks, eat cookies, read some Hemingway. Cry, fall down the stairs. Put on the writing underwear with Emily Dickinson emblazoned on the crotch. Write something, then throw it in a pit in the backyard. Eat sandwich, castigate self, go drive recklessly towards cliff, suddenly get great idea. Write idea on leg.

Painful Glimpse began as a vignette by poet Scott Poole, which made it to animator Chel White via email from a friend of a friend. White decided it would make a killer short, so he adapted it as a PSA for a local literary festival (this theatrical version is slightly longer). Painful Glimpse bursts at a lightning clip, with cutout images cascading across the screen alongside modified live action footage, text fragments and explosions. Still-frame the video and you can linger on White's usual eclectic source material, including leggy pin-up babes, cross-sections of the human brain and armless fingers doing calisthenics on a shag carpet.

White is a creative partner at Bent Image Labs in Portland, Oregon, where a dozen or so full-time employees and about 30 more "perma-lancers" produce ads and short films, including a well-received Christmas campaign for OfficeMax and some notorious and superbly disgusting anti-smoking PSAs. Many festivalgoers first got turned on to White's work in the early nineties with Photocopy Cha Cha, and, more recently, he's progressed from abstract collage-driven work to narrative-based stop motion with Magda. (Both Magda and A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process will be on the Animation Show Vol. 1 and 2 box set in January.)


Turtle sells snake oil to rabbit in Kernseif. © Alexander Kiesl and Sebastian Stolle.  

Kernseif (Curd Soap)

Verbal humor is notoriously difficult to enjoy in translation, and sketch comedy nigh impossible. So I think I'd be better off expressing my admiration for the setup of Kernseif (Curd Soap), a 2005 German short from the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, and reserve any judgment on the execution -- the aural portion, anyway -- which I necessarily have to enjoy secondhand.

The action takes place in a public toilet; an amalgamation of every seedy men's room in Germany with the usual rampant stains on tiles, roaches and moths, and personal hygiene posters. At one urinal stands a man-sized rabbit, a bit skittish, who's moving down the row of urinals to avoid a cockroach. Suddenly a turtle enters the room. The two know each other, and the turtle asks after his health. The rabbit says he's suffered some tick bites.

The turtle tut-tuts him, and says the rabbit should take better care of himself. Maybe wash more. And his wife should, too, for that matter -- her hair looks like hell. "She has psoriasis," the rabbit cries. The turtle comes back with the same advice -- wash more, that'll take care of it. And with what? "Curd soap," he says simply. Three times a day with the curd soap and goodbye personal problems -- and that goes for your son, too. "My son's a drug addict!" the rabbit yelps. Exactly, the turtle says -- use the soap and the smell alone would drive away all those no-good enabling friends of his.

As the pitch escalates, the turtle reveals he's got 15 boxes of the soap -- he scored them from a friend who worked at Wal-Mart, and he can let the rabbit have them for... say... £200. In a state of panic, the rabbit readily agrees. Exit the turtle. Alone in the bathroom, the rabbit mutters to himself uncertainly: "Great... deal."

It's a wonderfully bizarre setup, and for all I know it killed in the original German. The English-dubbed version unfortunately is voiced by two non-comic actors, and their dialogue is crammed with a lot of invented chatter to cover the original German of the animated characters' lip flap. The new content and new execution deliver a K.O. to whatever rhythm and musicality the original comic sketch may have had. The memorably vile decor, though, and the lively character animation are both well done.


Violence in the theater, not the movie, in I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor. © Thomas Hicks.

I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor

I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor is a music video with a primitivist style and a nasty tang. The tune is an uptempo folk ballad in minor with some precision guitar picking from the members of Gravenhurst, a band on Warp Records. The refrain says it all: "You're only a stone's throw/From all the violence you buried years ago."

Atop this mood of menace animator Thomas Hicks injects line drawings, occasional bursts of color, and rephotographed and altered looping movie footage of people performing simple movements. A projectionist loads a film; an audience sits down to watch it; and over several minutes they slowly begin to murder each other with guns and knives. A woman in a dress sways back and forth (impressively looped -- I can't see the edit point); rain falls; silhouettes of anonymous proles crowd across the screen with their heads bowed on their way to unknown destinations.

Hicks operates in a milieu akin to Stanley Donwood, designer of booklet art for Radiohead, as seen in the CD packages for OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac. The song by Gravenhurst is haunting and explicit, like something Simon and Garfunkel might have done if they'd had a murder ballad phase circa 1966. Hicks earned his illustration degree in 2004 and worked as a runner for London's Framestore CFC in Soho, before moving to Passion Pictures. He has a distinctive traditional animation style, which he isn't mining here as much as in his earlier shorts, such as Look at the Monkey and, especially, Luckycat (Luckycat in particular has a priceless image of a mustachioed old-time magician with saws in both hands furiously trisecting a cartoon cat in a wooden box.) Forest Floor, as well as Monkey and Luckycat, are all available on the DVD Animatic Vol. 3 from Between his Donwood-esque graphic design and his more idiosyncratic traditional animation, I'd love to see more of his 'tooning work in future.


A soul in need of succor goes on a quest in Aal im Schädel. © Martin Rahmlow.

Aal im Schädel (Eels)

The first time I saw Aal im Schädel (Eels), produced at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, I saw it without subtitles, and it's a sumptuous visual feast. A tall gaunt man wanders a deserted city square one winter night, suffering little electric tendrils of anxiety that burst from and retreat into his skin like curious time-lapsed ivy, getting in his face and driving him to despair. He finds a statue of a woman in the park, and, when he makes contact with her, he's pleased to discover that his nervous tendrils are retreating. He collapses in her arms in relief, but the next morning she's gone, her footprints leading off in the snow towards a pier.

He follows, and proceeds to board a gondola piloted by a crow-like beast in a death shroud with a talking fish in a bowl. They take him across the sea to a land of war, where he wanders through trenches and is lectured by a scary-looking doll-faced man in red before he is reunited with his statuesque love, who again takes away his pain as the little man in red exits.

Enigmatic, surreal, elegiac and creepy, it has in its visuals what Waiting for Godot has in its dialogue: a deep and penetrating absurdity too big and desolate for any of its characters' comfort. Watching Eels sans language really gave me pause. The potential animation has to enhance theater, absurd or otherwise, it is extraordinary. It's one thing to traffic in metaphor on stage, but when your actor's body is itself a metaphor in a shape or condition that physics wouldn't tolerate in our world, the mind reels at the potential flights of dramaturgical fancy. Chris Landreth has pursued the technique with the most conspicuous success, especially in his Oscar-winning Ryan from 2004.

You can probably see where this is going, which is to say that of course I was let down when I saw Eels with subtitles. When the meaning of that German dialogue was unknown to me, Eels was an inscrutable wonder -- the rising and falling voices an affect of longing, pain, regret, irritation and contentment all divorced from any context. The pageant played out, crescendoed and resolved, and if I didn't get it I believed it anyway, because I believed the characters believed it. With subtitles, the mystery's over, and, unfortunately, it turns out that these characters with the metaphoric bodies have precious little concrete to say. ("I am war"... "They are searching for freedom"... "Don't we all meander through the wafts of mist, goaded by our anguish?") My eyes are engaged, but my brain needs more of the sticks and stones of drama -- bread and water, a chair by the window, a lost glove, a telephone call.


Night hunters move in and out of the light in Nocturne. © La Poudrière 2005.


The predators and prey in Nocturne cavort and carouse in a blue-tinged world under the dim light of a midnight moon, making light and chasing light and lurking in the shadows. The four-minute film intercuts between various beasties, animal and mechanical, that pass through a forest one night: a firefly, a frog, an owl with twin searchlights for eyes, a cat with glowing diamond orbs and a car cutting through the dim forest murmur with its engine a-roar and headlights blazing.

Over the course of the piece, creatures high and low on the food chain get in each other's personal space and then escape again. The lowly firefly is towered over by the frog, while the owl eyes them both from atop a tree. The cat purrs and slinks across the road, just in time to cross the path of the oncoming car. Tires squeal, the cat looks up, the frog leaps on the firefly.

The curious motorist steps out of the stopped car to peer at the empty road, and, after a beat, shuts the door and continues down the road, reaching for the glowing dials of the radio. Meanwhile the owl surveys the countryside with its searchlight eyes, and the frog considers itself safe until the firefly it's just eaten decides to glow again, lighting up the frog like a will-o-the-wisp. The owl spots it immediately and swoops down to give chase. On the road, the car hasn't gone far before two cat's eyes poke down from the ceiling. Panicked hands let go of the steering wheel, and all of the participants of the night's adventure come crashing together below a pine tree at the side of the road.

I'm in love with this short all the way down to my toes, and it has such riches to offer that my eyes and ears can take turns sans noise/sans pictures and I'm still sated either way. The color palette is limited to whites, blacks and that particular sky blue that's directly overhead a half hour after sunset. Animator/director Guillaume Delaunay's flora, from giant trees down to brush at the side of the road, all take the form of long snaggle-tooth triangles with a rich, rough texture, and his fauna are charming iconic creatures reminiscent of the work of the great Ed Emberley who taught grade-schoolers everywhere how to build whole zoos from a dot, a line and a greater-than sign.

The sound design by Loïc Burkhardt is a miniature masterpiece, executed with playfulness and fiendish exactitude: the firefly buzzes with the tinkle and complaint of a fluorescent bulb, the forest is a fathoms-deep melange of nat-sound chirps and rustles and croaks, the purr of a cat becomes a tiger's growl that morphs effortlessly into the roaring engine of an approaching car.

Delaunay created Nocturne in Flash, and it nicely complements his two previous miniatures, Crise de Croissance and Le Grand Plongeon -- of which Plongeon, where a red frog-like amphibian in a bossa nova latitude does some reverse bungee-jumping off a submerged lily pad, is a thing of such pure concentrated joy it's as good as a vacation.

Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He should NOT have repartitioned.