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Paul Driessen -- Images and Reflections

Nicole Hewitt proves that animation does not need to be done in the solitary confinement of a studio. With her film In Between, she took to the streets of Zagreb to animate the cast off possessions of hundreds. Includes QuickTime clips!

Paul Driessen is a slender, bearded, smiling gentleman whose auteur short films have made him the hero of two generations of animation fans worldwide. A native of Nijmegen, The Netherlands, he officially lives and works in Canada, France and his home country, but is actually a citizen of the unrecognized international nation that we currently call animation. You go to a festival, you see him. Normally not as a visitor: as the guest of honor. Just to mention the current year, a huge one-man retrospective of his works was shown in Annecy, France, and he received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Zagreb, Croatia. (Paul: if I'm forgetting some other 2002 homage -- and I'm probably doing so -- please correct me).

The Auteur

He never participated in big-money, big-crew, big-press-coverage productions; his only contribution to a feature film being storyboarding and animating for George Dunning's Yellow Submarine, 1968 (but it was a beginner's task). You'll rather find his signature under such "personal" films like Cat's Cradle (1974), David (1977), Elbowing (1980), The Writer (1988), The End of the World in Four Seasons (1995), Three Misses (1998) and The Boy Who Saw the Iceberg (1999). I doubt that these unlinked-in-a-series shorts were widely screened in theatres or aired in prime time, and that the average filmgoer or the average TV anime otaku, then, knows who Paul is. But among specialists he's unanimously considered one of the rare true masters of animation, and his style, based on perfect timing, tremulous-line drawings and the subtle use of sound, was/is imitated everywhere.

Until now, a detailed, monograph on him had never been written. Marc Glassman from Canada and Ton Gloudemans from The Netherlands redress this shortcoming. The book, a unique joint project of HAFF and CICA Annecy, was part of a larger tribute to the artist that included the aforementioned screenings of his films and the unveiling of a documentary at the 2002 Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

In very few lines the two writers state the case very clearly: "Driessen's world is populated with ravenous, vulture-like birds; immense spotted cows; a wide variety of aggressive cats; ships that always seem to list and capsize; huge and very nasty fish; annoying flies; spiders; and blob-like, romantic but sexless men and women. They are the stuff of comedy -- black comedy -- and Paul Driessen has taken full advantage of them to make his films accessible to the public."

To add a personal note about his ability to capture the public's attention, I'll recall the Annecy festival of 1977, when Paul presented the audience with a character so small as to be invisible (title of the film: David), and everybody very enthusiastically interacted with a screen that was most of the time white.

So, this is his comedy and we laugh with it. It is probably the most rarefied, abstract, pure kind of comedy you can imagine: very few connections with the everyday world, no easy shortcuts like vulgarity or parody, no caricatures, no tongue-in-cheek cracks. We laugh, and a lot. "To regard Paul Driessen as a mere entertainer, though," the writers add, "would be a mistake. His special gift is to walk the line between comedy and philosophy. (...) His films are comedies of ideas: visually provocative and, like his stories, intricate and devised to stimulate thoughts."

The Text

I'll stop the quoting here, in order to let readers get the pleasure of going into the details on their own, and understanding exactly what this philosophy is, by reading the book. And the book is good; deep and insightful. I didn't say that at the beginning, but I am doing so now. Glassman and Gloudemans not only show an excellent grasp of their subject matter, they know their trade. They are good animation film critics, and discerningly explore for us the films and their inner meanings.

The book is a biography, too. You detect a manifest liking for Paul Driessen as a person, both in the authors' text and (obviously) in the declarations of associates and colleagues elegantly scattered around the pages. Luckily, this doesn't imply a fan-club taste and you feel there is a refreshing respect both for the film-maker and for the readers.

What else? A wealth of illustrations in black & white and color, which will especially please the visual artists, a filmography (by Nico Crama), a glossary and a bibliography. If you want me to split hairs, I'll say that I would have loved an index and maybe a photograph of Paul Driessen himself... But never mind.

Paul Driessen Beelden en bespiegelingen / Images et reflections / Images and Reflections by Marc Glassman and Ton Gloudemans. Holland Animation Film Festival (Utrecht, The Netherlands), Centre International du Cinéma d'animation (Annecy, France), 2002. In Dutch, French and English. 239 pages. ISBN: 90-802264-6-7.

Giannalberto Bendazzi is an animation historian whose latest book is Alexeieff - The Itinerary of a Master.