Thursday, December 6, 2007

Quay Brothers

One of my favorite classic stories is the The Epic of Gilgamesh. Even though the story is the oldest known written text it is not very often that it is retold or referenced in modern story telling. But it seems that the Quays once again wanted to stand out of the crowd by creating a short animated film based on this classic story. However, for the life of me I cannot make the connection between the text and the Quay film "This Unnameable Little Broom (Epic of Gilgamesh)".

For those who have not read it the story is about a king, Gilgamesh, who befriends a man who is somewhat like a beast. Both are supposed to have strength beyond normal men. They go on a few fantastical adventures until Gilgamesh's friend is killed in a battle. Gilgamesh is beside himself with grief for he became so close they we as if lovers. But Gilgamesh is also reminded of his own mortality and sets off to find immortality. However, his travel is in vain and is told that the only way for a man to gain immortality is in his actions as they are retold through out history.

The Quay film, on the other hand, is about a character (who seems to represent a boy) who takes joy in torturing helpless and unsuspecting victims. At one point the film cuts away to an other worldly realm (possibly a post-death state) where life continues to decay.

Possibly its the relation to mortality that connects these two pieces, but I recommend watching the film for yourself and making your own judgements.

Florian et Malena

During my travels in Europe a few years back I came a cross a DVD of recent European animated films at a small art gallery in Paris. I was intrigued so I purchased it knowing nothing of the films or filmmakers. All I knew was that I had not seen enough European animated films.

Within it I found many beautiful animated pieces and one in particular was by Anita Killi entitled Florain et Malena. I know very little French and none of the films have English subtitles, but I was able to understand the story with no issues for it is a story we have all heard time and time again and yet it never looses it's original power.

The film is about a boy, Florain, who has a friend who lives a cross a small river named Malena. They go to the river every day to play, but one day they are divided by war and a wall is put on the very river that they play at. Florain's father goes to fight in the war. Florain's mother tries to explain why he can't go to play with Malena, but he is unable to comprehend.

The piece uses cut-outs and is heavily character based with perfect timing and brilliant replacements. It is extremely moving especially the scenes of battle with demons riding horses and the dissolve to a devastated land and Florain looking for a place to play in the unfamiliar landscape.

Watching this film one can't help but think of World War II and Yori Norstein's representation of the effect on people's lives in his films. I find it interesting how those messages and memories are still alive today in Europe (and they can be found in a lot of Japanese art and animation). It makes me wonder about the effect of war into continuing generations when the war occurred upon the homeland. Europe (and Japan) were fairly devastated by the war physically, but the United States was not. It makes me curious about the current situation of war and the difference between the United States and most of Europe.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Alchemist and his animation

Harry Smith has been dubbed by many to be one of the worlds last Alchemists. Sensational in life,
excessive in collection and larger in life in creativity Harry Smith made many films and many works of art in his time on this planet.

Perhaps one of the most famous art work of his (and the one that is almost constantly being showing somewhere in the world with the appropriate Magic Lantern technology he envisioned) is "Heaven and Earth Magic".

This bizarre concoction of cut out animation, for the most part, using replacement rather then traditional inbetween illusion of movement was all made with a theoretical single take. Throught out the different scenes of the film there is always something that is kept from the previous scene to the next. Whether it be the artificial frame, the primary "character", for lack of a better term, or at least one of the magical objects that are presented something always stays from one scene to the next, which creates the illusion of one entire take. However, being from 1966 and shot on film; this was created on at least 3 different reels of film (and probably more). So the piece took a certain amount of perfection to hide each reel cut.

The film itself tells an abstract story of dark magic where skeleton horses dance and enormous static female heads poses small men to work wonders before our very eyes. Nothing about the film makes any sort of exact sense and even from an abstract point of view the images seem like they should be fairly uninteresting. But there is some sort of hypnotism about the film. It runs just over an hour and from the first minute your eyes are afraid to blink out of fear of missing something crucial. It is memorizing in a way that no other film is (except maybe "The Tin Woodman's Dream" another cut out animation by Harry Smith). It is magical within the film's own reality, but somehow, even after 40 years, the film has a certain amount of magic in our reality that keeps us fixed upon the screen.

"What's going on?"
"I don't know, but its fascinating and surprising at the same time!"

Thursday, November 29, 2007


There was an interesting Japanese animation series that came out about five years ago that was really quite spectacular. Both in its animation and in content. The story was very heavy in philosophy and science (fictional and factual). The story was really quite complex and, at times, could lose it's audience. But it always kept to very spectacular images and didn't have very much preaching (unlike most anime from the past couple of years). So, it made being lost bearable, which, in turn, evokes an certain amount creativity within the audience to fill in the gaps.

This show had one episode in particular that was a very interesting integration of factual science and fictional narrative. This was a constant theme through out the entire series, but in this particular episode, entitled "Protocol", the show jumped into an information documentary type of film (similar to something on the science channel). It explained the history of the Schumann Resonance and how it is related to a collective unconscious. The theory, originated by NYU professor Douglas Rushkoff, goes that the extremely low frequencies that radiate from the electromagnetic field of earth and the people of the earth might awaken a kind of unconscious communication with the earth and with each other if they all resonate at the same frequency.

Its kind of a mouthful, but within the show it explains it fairly simply. From there it jumps into the fiction of the story where a man continued with that theory of Douglas Rushkoff and was somehow able to connect with the Earth's ELF (extremely low frequency) and hens forth commits suicide while continuing to live within the neural network of the earth with the help of the internet (aka "the wired"). At which point he refers to himself of the God of the wired.

It is really a well constructed story in the same vein as Neil Stevenson and other cyberpunk writers. However, this is much more fascinating with it's strong integration of complex "factual" science - jumping to "artificial" science and the fictional narrative that the story tells.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Powers of Ten

Now I must admit that Quantum of Mechanics, Relative theory and String theory really leave me in the dust a lot of the time. Lots of times I find it quite frustrating because I studied lots of Post Structuralist Philosophy as an undergraduate, which, in a lot of ways, leaves people in the dust with rhetoric.

For the most part these forms of deeply theoretical sciences are either explained with the most complex forms of equations or through highly flawed analogies. And given my background in Post Structuralist Philosophy I have a hard time with the analogies and I can't even begin to understand the in depth equations.

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Animation!

When I was in maybe 3rd grade I saw this film in class called Powers of Ten. It was an extremely fundamental representation of space and time in relation of Quantum Mechanics, the Theory of Relativity which all relates to String theory. The film does so in such a subtle way that even an 8 year old was able to understand the film and the way the filmmakers were able to communicate to me such astronomically theoretical concepts is quite astounding. And it was all animation. The original Rough Sketch version from 1968 was certainly much more demonstrative of relative time and space more then the 1978 version; even though the 1978 version is much more polished and nicer to look at.

I just hope that my old 3rd grade teacher is still showing that film in class, but I, unfortunately, doubt it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Late Stan Brakhage

Brakhage died because of animation. He died in the pursuit of pushing the technique founded by Len Lye....or Harry Smith (no one seems to know for sure): hand painted film. It was from the paints he used that gave him cancer, which he eventually died of. And long before his death, in fact, all through out his life his films were filled with analogies to death (and life). One of his animated films in particular, "Mothlight", he describes as "What a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black". The entire film is simply clear leader with bug body parts, blades of grass, leaves and other things that Brakhage found around his cabin in the mountains of Colorado pasted on to it.

This is interesting because over ten years later he used the same technique over ten years later in his film "The Garden of Earthly Delights". A direct reference to Hieronymus Bosch's painting for what he sees a lying between Heaven (Eden) and Hell. However, in this he oscillates between a negative and positive image begging the question: is this what a moth actually sees through out its life in the eyes of Stan Brakhage?


One film in Japanese animation (anime) that has received quite a bit of spot light is Akira from 1987. The introduction is one of the most pivotal points in anime history. It starts with a nuclear explosion which engulfs the city of Tokyo. Nuclear explosions and rhetoric surrounding it is not uncommon in Japanese art. From "Godzilla" to the recent anime series "Paranoia Agent", Butoh dance to the "Time Bokan" paintings of Takashi Murakami - the bomb and its impact on the Japanese society, politics and art have been extremely palpable.

However, Akira stands out because it shows the explosion. Most often it is the mushroom cloud that dominates the popular signifier for a nuclear explosion. And really it is more then just the explosion because in just about any sorcery anime (i.e. Dragonball or Slayers) you can't go 5 minutes without seeing some sort of explosion that can be considered atomic in size. It is the way Akira treats the explosion. It is silent. The sound of destruction of an awesome scale can only be demonstrated with silence. In a way it is similar to Stan Brakhages take on the concept that he used sound on a small fraction of his 300+ films because he felt that sound distracted the audience from the visuals; that they had to choose one or the other. In the opening of Akira the visual is so dramatic, so focused upon that sound is completely erased; there's not even an ambient track - it is pure silence in a sense that is not usually seen this day in age.

This, in fact, harks back to historical accounts of the bombs that devastated the country of Japan (and in a sense the entire world). Where most eye witnesses recalled the utmost silence and stillness in the air just before the explosion occurred in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, in a way, I suppose, nature has in one respect a similar rule to Brakhage and other filmmakers that silence will accompany a scene of astronomical proportions.