The Animated Films That Got Away

The best thing to happen to the Los Angeles film scene in some time is the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s “The Films That Got Away,” an ongoing series they’ve sporadically programmed at UCLA and the American Cinematheque. (Among the gems: Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871) and Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinÈma.) Maybe my expectations are impossibly high at this point, but the series’ latest installment–“The Animated Films That Got Away,” programmed this weekend at the Cinematheque–was somewhat disappointing.

It began Friday with a mediocre collection of shorts that, with the exception of FrÈdÈric Back’s All Nothing (1980), were relatively recent and quirky but largely unprovoking; it felt like a random swipe at somebody’s private collection rather than a compendium of unseen world classics. (Though it must be said, Igor Kovalyov’s Milch and Lisa Barcyís The Guilt Trip, Or The Vatican Takes A Holiday boasted striking technique.) Saturday night offered a screening of Jacques-Remy Girerd’s Raining Cats and Frogs (2003); in its time, the first French animated feature in over 20 years, but its simplistic colored pencil aesthetic, static characters, and formulaic riff on the story of Noah’s Ark left a lot to be desired.

Fortunately, this was followed by The Turning Table (1988), a charming presentation of shorts by the French master Paul Grimault (1905-1994)–a major influence on Hayao Miyazaki–presented by him on his flatbed editing machine (the live action scenes were shot by Jacques Demy) with various animated characters making guest appearances. It’s a fine introduction to Grimault’s work, yet it contains no narration and doesn’t provide any biographical details; this is merely a chance to see rare shorts like The Lightning Rod Thief (1944) or The Diamond (1970) (co-written by Jacques PrÈvert). But it must be noted that The Turning
is included with the fabulous 2-disc DVD set from Studio Canal in France of Le Roi et L’Oiseau (1980), Grimault’s masterpiece and truly a film that got away (from distribution in this country). Why wasn’t that screened instead of Raining Cats and Frogs? The DVD set doesn’t contain English subtitles, but most of Grimault’s work has scant dialogue anyway, so you won’t miss much even if you’re not a Francophone.

My favorite of the Grimault shorts was The Music Loving Dog (1973), an acidic critique of international arms dealing. An evil aristocrat (who, not inappropriately, resembles Nosferatu) invents a violin that incinerates objects when it strikes certain notes. He sells the instrument to opposing armies, makes a bundle of money, and a macabre duet decimates a continent. But while the inventor is out hawking his wares, his dog discovers a rare talent for the instrument…

The tightly-constructed film is drawn with a loose style that suggests a lot of detail: the inventor’s home is a fusion of Victorian parlor and imposing missile silo, and the vaguely surrealist landscape beyond the windows is dotted with silent, shadowy figures. It’s slightly frightening, slightly comical, and thoroughly memorable, with all the sophisticated wit of the best Warner cartoons.

Sunday offered a screening of the immensely charming The Story of the Fox (made throughout the ’30s), the first feature-length stop-motion film and one of the earliest animated features of all time, by Russian-born Pole Ladislas Starewicz (multiple spellings), known for his macabre shorts like The Mascot and The Cameraman’s Revenge (the title of an Image DVD compilation; you can also watch many of his shorts on Google Video or YouTube).

Widely acknowledged as a classic of its form, this was apparently the first time the film had been screened with English subtitles in the US, although I have since discovered a French DVD is in existence with English subtitles, which includes a partial commentary by Starewicz’s daughter.

Seeing the film on a recently restored print, however, was a special treat that showcased Starewicz’s intricate character animation and set design. The film is a fully-realized epic fable set in medieval times involving a crafty rogue fox who plays tricks (sometimes harmless, sometimes not) on various animal personalities, eventually upsetting the lion King, who orders a siege on the fox’s castle. Starewicz creates delightfully detailed courtly settings with rich, photographic backdrops; his lighting and camera movements (always a difficult flourish with stop-motion animation) are technically exquisite, and the film dramatically benefits from the animator’s off-kilter humor (the fox’s amoral tricks are often hilarious in their devious insensitivity). Some reports claim it took Starewicz ten years to complete the film due to newly developed sound technology, WWII, and a couple of redubbings; its Berlin premiere was in 1937 and Paris followed in ’41. It has also been suggested that part of the reason the film was never released in the US was its connections with Vichy-era financing–a dubious charge, both in light of Starewicz’s internationalism and the film’s thematic subversion of authority and power.

It’s rumored that this print will become the centerpiece of a touring Starewicz retrospective; those interested should definitely keep an eye out for this unique and highly entertaining work.

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