AFI FEST, entry 2

This year’s animated shorts program at AFI FEST proved to be a mixed affair, but well worth a look. While there was the usual style-over-substance and slapstick-yelling-hitting-scatalogical humor entries, a handful of the thirteen pieces were works with a little more ambition. Here are my top five.

Tower Bawher

Bulgarian graphic designer and animator Theodore Ushev‘s exhilarating homage to Soviet constructivist art is set to Georgy Sviridov’s rousing score from Time, Forward! (also heard in Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World and, apparently, nightly on the Russian news program Vreyma). The music’s driving momentum unifies Usher’s abstract shapes and mechanical movements suggesting a utopia of machines and technology, from trains to searchlights to proletariat who could build Vladimir Tatlin’s iconic tower–and watch it crumble to the ground. Along the way, you’ll see references to a variety of works, including Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye (1924). Best of all, you can catch the entire film online while it’s still available, here. Crank the speakers and enjoy.

Destiny Manifesto

By her own admission, Martha Colburn grew up in Appalachia “cutting wood and bailing hay and skinning animals,” and has since become one of today’s stars of experimental animation. Her 40-plus films since the mid-’90s–mostly a combination of collage and paint-on-glass–have screened at festivals and museums worldwide. Her latest is a beautifully disturbing merging of Old West paintings and cutouts with images of the Bush Administration’s mayhem in the Middle East, a phantasmagoria of cowboys morphing into soldiers, and Native Americans morphing into Iraqis. Deserts intermingle and blood trails into pools between dead and dying civilians, figures dissolving into skeletons whose souls emanate upward like vanishing shadows; worlds collide and hundreds of visual details erupt in an organic, extended metaphor for the thirst and bitter cost of conquering frontiers. Technically, it’s astonishing, and if it sounds flippant, it’s not, not only because it appropriates the Administration’s own favored metaphor, but also because its tone is one of deep sorrow and lament.

Yours Truly

This is the second entry in Osbert Parker’s trilogy of films that pay homage to film noir. The cliches run fast and furious (rain slicked streets, a femme fatale, men in hats) but what really sets it apart is its execution: an exciting mixed media pastiche comprised of old film clips (a treat for noir fans, who can try to name the sources), paper cutouts, miniature sets, live action, and a lot of hard work. (You can see a portion of the first film here.) Like Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine and Giradet-M¸ller’s Kristall, the film recombines iconic movie imagery in ways that recontextualizes it, offering a viewing experience that is at once nostalgic and new.

Everything Will Be OK

Don Herztfeldt’s latest film won notoriety for being the first animated film to win Best Short at Sundance in many moons, and it’s not hard to appreciate why. It’s a powerful combination of the cult animator’s absurdist dark humor, brilliant pacing, minimalist drawing, and highly sophisticated camera technique. (It’s so gratifying to see someone today dedicated to the art of animation without the use of computers, and part of the thrill of his work is its tribute to the possibilities of physical, old school cinematic tricks like hand-cranked, multiple exposures.) Having said that, I can’t shake the feeling that Hertzfeldt continues to play the mocking hipster to his legion of fans, and the film’s incessant irony eventually feels too clever by half. I prefer his previous masterpiece, The Meaning of Life (2005), which tempers the farcical cynicism with astonishing visuals that invite genuine cosmic contemplation. Here, a narrator drolly recounts tragicomic episodes in the life of a man named Bill that culminate in a mental breakdown, shown through an array of artfully shifting multi-panels. Herztfeldt’s work is always witty and often hilarious, but like someone who never stops joking, it makes me long for a time when he might not always feel like he has to.

I Met the Walrus

This visually inventive film, animating James Braithewaite‘s pen drawings, is a cornucopia of detailed images that quickly and precisely illustrate key phrases of a 1969 interview with John Lennon. (The interview was conducted and recorded by then-14-year-old Jerry Levitan, who produced the film.) Lennon’s comments are idealistic and rambling, serving as a rich text to generate images that fluidly evolve from one idea to another, and the merging of the two media (spoken word and graphic animation) intensifies and enriches both of them. You can watch the film’s trailer here.

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