Archive for the 'Animation' Category

Ontological Carousel

Already a fan of Jon Clary’s stuff, Friends of Painting at Eleanor Harwood allowed me both the opportunity to get lost in some of his new stuff and served as an introduction to Bruce Wilhelm’s work.
Some of Wilhelm’s acrylic paintings actually reminded me of Clary’s wonderful Campfire, which was included in Root Division’s Three Angles show last year. There are the multiple layers, slices of reality that pierce through the painting’s top surface. What begin as droplets of simple patterns and repeating designs in Invited to the Party eventually engulf the visible space in molten surges in Little Bites. The superposition reaches it’s most violent contrast in the collision of planes of Plaid Stab.
The most engrossing stuff though was Wilhelm’s series of looping animated shorts, playing on monitors mounted on the walls of the gallery in wooden frames. Racing through Ocean is a painted horse whose upper half has been sheered off, like the canopy of a car in a Hal Needham flick. Rows of waves slice back and forth: see-saw obstacles at a carnival fairground game. Land features a bent tree springing upward, the ground constantly aswirl with fat brushstrokes of brown and gold. There is the immediate absorption in the subtle variations of the repeating sequences but you could easily burn through an hour marveling at all the variety in each painted frame as it flickers by. If you’ve been lamenting the closing of William Kentridge’s show at SFMOMA, here is your antidote.

Quicktimes are available on the gallery’s site, but you’re going to want to pay a visit to fully appreciate the vivisections in Wilhelm’s painted works and the invasion of nature upon the man-made (and vice versa) in Clary’s latest dreamscapes.

Reckless With Other People’s Hearts

I’ve been dreading writing up a review of a doc that I wasn’t really crazy about to begin with. Instead, I thought I’d point you to this work by David OReilly that I recently stumbled upon that’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.
Please Say Something has more interesting ideas and comments on life than films twelve times its length. I’m usually way behind the curve on stuff like this, which is why I rarely post them, but according to the creator’s blog, the short recently won a Special Distinction award at the Festival International du Film d’Animation d’Annecy. So if you’re already hip to this, consider a celebratory re-viewing.

Six Guns and Sinta

As this blog is rapidly approaching its terminal point, this will likely be the final update about films that I put on my must see list last year (the previous capsule reviews can be found here). Didn’t manage to see very many, but I place the blame squarely on distributors not knowing a good thing when they see it. Hopefully more will find their way to Region 1 DVD release soon.

Sukiyaki Western Django

sukiyakiIn the shadow of Mount Fuji, a drifter spins a tale about a hidden cache of gold left behind in a town that was once the battleground between two warring clans. That town just happens to be in Nevada, and the drifter is a sharp shooter played by none other than Quentin Tarrantino, so you know right off the bat that you’ve entered Takashi Miike territory.

With his usual daring, the director up and plunks down the American Old West squarely within Japan’s borders, working within the framework of the Spaghetti Western. Since the genre itself blossomed into glorious excess at the hands of Italian directors re-imagining Andalusia as the American Southwest, and many a Japanese chanbara inspired American knock offs set at High Noon in a dusty street, Miike is not so much completing the loop as giving the wheel another spin.

It’s as over-the-top as its forebears and everything you’ve come to expect from a Miike film (that is, you never know just what to expect). When one of the clan bosses begins instruction on catching a falling katana with your bare hands, you can tell something is up, and simply have to wait to see how Miike will spin it. Shakespeare, otaku references, critiques on the sweetness of sukiyaki (reminding me of another fav, Tampopo) and quick draw goddesses in human form: it’s always better to be disappointed by a director’s daring misfire than settling for reheated seconds, and for me anyway, Western Django didn’t disappoint.

Opera Jawa

operajawaIt was fortuitous that recently I was able to enjoy a taste of Balinese wayang kulit as performed by ShadowLight as well as finally getting around to watching Sita Sings the Blues online. You get a brief glimpse of the clashing puppets here, as well as the gender wayang instruments employed during the Yerba Buena Gardens show. In truth, Opera Jawa incorporates a bewildering number of artistic performance and presentation types, from wayang orang dance to contemporary styles, traditional tembang sunda song and sets dressed like a Matthew Barney exhibit. Nina Paley’s animated marvel proved a great primer for the myth of Sita (here referred to by her Indonesian name Sinta), the abducted wife of Rama who is accused by her husband of infidelity with the demon Rahwana (check out blogger Engineer’s Daughter’s impressions here).

Just like in Sita Sings the Blues, the mythological tale looms large over events in a contemporary story. Jealousy begins to stir in Setyo (Martinus Miroto), a potter, when faced with the attention that a local thug named Ludiro (Eko Spruyanto) is paying to his wife, a former dancer named Siti (Artika Sari Devi). The fact that Siti was famed for her portrayal of the role of Sinta gives the ensuing events the air of tragedy replaying itself.

While no doubt the production must have had a lavish budget, it is amazing to see the small improvisations that are made with relatively common materials. During a contentious scene in their bedroom, Setyo resisting the entreaties of Siti wraps his t-shirt around his head as he dances, making implicit in action his attempts to shut out his wife emotionally. After he spies her returning from an encounter with Ludiro, lump of clay resting in his hands, Setyo imagines Siti sitting atop his potting wheel as if he could mold her desires to his wishes. Woven cones for scooping and covering steamed rice are converted into any number of things from scene to scene: the head and tail of a caterpillar-like beast, a mask, the larger versions even becoming tent-like blinds from which Ludiro’s gang members spring out to startle Siti.

It’s shocking actually that the three elements of song, dance and set design work in concert so well considering how dream-like and memorable is the visual element. I was reminded of Gummo director Harmony Korine’s stated intention in the DVD extras of that film to create images he’d never seen before, but wanted to see. Ludiro dancing in a room of silver heads next to a suspended slaughtered carcass, a servant reverently laying flower petals on a sculpture of a television set next to an ancient temple, mannequins with candle heads that bleed wax down their length: in the hands of an individual artist any could be a work unto themselves, but here each is seamlessly interwoven into the whole.

Boundary Testing

Entering from the fat end of tunnel, I stare down its length to view the projected image: branching straw-colored fibers revolving in the unhurried fashion of a carousel. They’re not quite recognizable, but neither are they unfamiliar. They remind me of dendrites splitting off from a neuron, partly because the resolution has about it that cloudy/sharp dichotomy and uniform coloring (or lack thereof) I associate with electron microscope images.
It is in fact the digital model of a plant, although you’d be excused for not identifying it as such straight away. Pae White, with the help of an animator and visual effects artist, scanned the original and then proceeded to tweak the image and set it in motion. As it pirhouettes, the limbs fold in upon one another, collapsing and expanding in kaleidoscope fashion. Inside the trapezoidal structure installed within New Langton Arts’ second floor gallery space the glass walls reflect the forking growths tumbling and morphing. Recognition plays a part in In Between the Outside-In, but perhaps only in so far as to intimate that what we thought we knew isn’t as matter-of-fact as we’d like to believe, or that there are ways of knowing that have yet to be exhausted.

As you can imagine, White’s mixed-media work is really an experience more than it is a work. You need to get inside the Willy Wonka-esque edifice yourself to fully appreciate the artist’s ability to make the mundane appear so alien. Elsewhere in the gallery, projected against a wall, is another example of the fruits of White’s experimentation, this one appearing like languid tendrils of smoke. Patience is required for the works to achieve their full effect, but that probably won’t be a problem: only the most phlegmatic of individuals, coming up the stairs and turning their head wouldn’t be drawn into the weird organic psychedelic constructions.

Terminal Case

Saturday was closing night for William Kentridge’s staging of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses at Project Artaud, a production that incorporated puppetry, hand drawn animation and a diverse sampling of various body-imaging video from MRIs to CAT scans. A command to disable our “reproductive devices” before the performance began elicited a chuckle from the audience which was met with annoyance by the seemingly distracted SFMOMA director.

ulyssesKentridge moves the action of the Prologue to an operating theater. As the musicians look on from the raised tier above, Time, Fortune and Love examine the huddled form of Ulysses on his bed, employing a pointer to delineate the many sufferings he has endured during his travels. Ulysses, represented by one of the nearly life-sized wooden puppets, barely stirs beneath his bedsheet. The accompanying projection on a screen above interweaves animation of the ills the flesh is heir to with actual footage from medical videos: disquieting glimpses of organs being probed and journeys through quivering canals. So in actuality Ulysses is somewhere betwixt the two states hinted at by the stage and screen: hospitalized but perhaps barely clinging to life.

As far as visual input goes, that’s a lot of balls to keep juggling in the air at once, and at times I had to concentrate so that my attention wouldn’t fixate on one aspect of the production over another. There are a number of nice touches that help bridge the divide. As the puppeteer manipulates his character on the right, the singer keeps one hand on it from the opposite side (the puppeteers of Cape Town’s Handspring Puppet Company appear in full view onstage, Bunraku-style, but dapper in suits or dresses rather than swathed in black). Together, the singer and the puppeteer keep their eyes fixed on the character’s face and you can read the range of emotions in their countenances as well as in the puppet’s movements and the swelling of baritone and soprano. At times the screen becomes a backdrop. After Ulysses finally finds the strength to leave his sick bed, he arises and, sheets wrapped about him like a toga, strides confidently in front of the projection, footage of hospital corridors trailing behind him.

Unsurprisingly though, it is Kentridge’s signature animation that holds everything together. Cartoonish renderings of a knee being sutured abstract into dozens of stitches appearing first as little macaroni curves piercing the positive space before pulling taut into straight lines by an invisible hand. As they multiply we are reminded of Penelope’s tapestry needlework which she builds up only to unravel later. Stitches become threads, which in their turn become the string of Ulysses’ bow and the very arrows with which he dispatches the suitors.

It is this mingling of physical trauma and pathology with our life’s journey that form the backbone of the production. In Kentridge’s Ulysses we are always aware of the hair’s breath that we all are from illness and bodily harm and that our lives can be seen as ones of rapid growth followed by continual decline. Kentridge pairs Ulysses’ distraught wandering and all its attendant woes with the vicissitudes of aging: the degradation of our mind’s sharpness and the wasting away of our physical selves. Disease mirrors dis-ease. The deterioration of our bodies, and with them our intentions, hopes and resolve, is metaphorically represented by images of temples crumpling into ruin, of the ancient succeeded by the modern as scrolling pastoral landscapes fill with the choking presence of the street signs and highways of contemporary Johannesburg. Cross-stitches too must eat up the blank cloth; animation is a succession of images wherein the new one must kill the old in order to come to life, like a cancerous growth. It is a lament perhaps, but Kentridge, by blending the many visual sources together is also reminding us that it is the natural order of things.

Of course, Ulysses does eventually recover his resolve and vigor, and like Penelope unraveling the tapestry and beginning anew, the temples rebuild themselves. Spreading ventricles in a anatomical cross-section sprout into trees in bloom. Kentridge recognizes that the arc of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses is one of reawakening to purpose and as the opera progresses the number of joyful moments begin to increase in number. The suitors that appear late to the tale stole the show when they punctuated each chorus that Penelope would love again with a little waggle of their bodies. When the old shepherd Eumaeus and Ulysses walk through the fields, their gaze darting about as if to take in every bit of wonder in the landscape, the accompanying duet between Jason McStoots and Ross Hauck made me almost wish people sang their lives in the real world. Transformation of the decrepit to the fecund is part of the magic of the opera, and Kentridge tries to help we the viewers relearn how we react to images that we respond to based on association. Video of a cardiac operation may strike us initially as morbid, but Ulysses tries to teach us to appreciate the fact that our heartbeats are the tempo of our lives keeping time for us whether we bow to our suffering or not.

It’s Pronounced “Nuclear”

My Neighbors the Yamadas represents an oddity amongst the other films in Studio Ghibli’s roster, most of which are made up of the visionary films of Hayao Miyazaki. Directed by Isao Takahata, it is distinguished not only by its watercolor-inspired look but by focusing on the humor inherent in the everyday lives of a middle class family. We’re a long way off here from the Shinto-infused phantasmagoria of Spirited Away.
After a dream-like literalization of metaphors sequence that compares marriage to, among other things, a bobsled run, we are dumped unceremoniously back into reality, as the Yamadas realize that they’ve left behind the youngest member of the family accidentally at a department store. What ensues is not the slapstick un-hilarity of the Home Alone variety, but the pleasures of looking on at a stomach churning, very possible situation viewed from a safe distance. While everyone in the car begins to boil over in worry and recriminations, back at the information desk, the lost daughter Nonoko calmly informs the attendant that her whole family are the ones who are lost.
The movie is comprised of little vignettes like this, all of which have their own separate conclusion, followed by a thematically appropriate poem, usually by Bashō. Struggling to find an American equivalent, I suppose that the tone and subject matter are closest to the Peanuts strips and films, the difference being that with a few exceptions, the focus remains pretty squarely on the family unit. You half expect any secondary characters to erupt in the “Wa-wa-wa-wa” language delegated to the adults of Charlie Brown’s world. The grandmother is one of the singular creations of this film, her unremitting air of capability only making it all the funnier when she makes a mistake.
Speaking of mistakes, I listened to a bit of the English language track to see how it stacked up against the original Japanese with Subtitles and it was as bad as I could have imagined. The least of the crimes of translation are when the familiar is substituted for the inconceivably alien world of another culture, like inserting the word “hamburger” whenever someone might say “donburi.” But more often, whole reams of dialogue are re-written and when the film fails, it is deemed that the original was simply too “foreign” to begin with. The voices are relatively well-cast, but the timing and delivery are terrible and the lines as rescripted are atrocious. Among the “improvements” to Yamadas is a sequence where the mother breathlessly runs to the front of a bus and explains frantically that she has missed her stop. The bus driver, with a face of stone responds mechanically (and all too familiarly), “Please step back behind the white line, Ma’am.” In the English track, he instead barks out “You didn’t need to ring the bell to tell me that!” A line still funny in translation is replaced with something unfunny in any language.
In fact, both the scenarios and characters are recognizable enough: a grouchy dad is a grouchy dad in any culture, whether he employs chopsticks or not. Whereas the cartoon strip-like narratives hew pretty much to real-life situations, there are oft-times imaginative flourishes, such as when the mother’s constant nagging to “Study Harder!” to her son multiplies in the moment into a chorus and the room fills with chanting mother clones.
The film hits you hard over the head with the sentiment of family, but unlike a Pixar film, it means that misfortune and its consequences are something you bear together. No one is going to be granted superpowers to spare the audience from the hardship of identification. It is not unrelentingly funny, but it all rings true, which shouldn’t be daring in this day and age. Finding humor inspired by the real world and characterization is something of a waning art. The Japanese still have the West over the barrel when it comes to deriving emotion from the closely observed, no matter how fantastical the surroundings, whereas Americans are still settling for observations on the fantastical (although from everything I hear, Wall-E raised the bar for us on this side of the Pacific).

Fighting Nature Everyday

I usually don’t post viral stuff since I’m fairly confident it’ll be harder for you to avoid than find, but this is too good not to pass on. The Pinky Show fulfills their promise of “gently poking your brain with a stick” with Kim’s critique The Creation of Value: meditations on the logic of museums and other coercive institutions.


I found this on Art Fag City who had grabbed the baton from C-Monster, so be sure to complete the loop and pay them both a visit.

The truth is always somehow easier to swallow coming from a cat.

On the Masthead

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