Stairs: a deceptively simple film with a deep and powerful message about finding meaning and purpose in an alienated life

Stefan Schabenbeck, “Stairs / Schody” (1969)

A minimalist claymation 7-minute piece, “Stairs” is one of those teeny-tiny classics about the human search for meaning in life and the often fruitless efforts one puts into finding that meaning only to get no answer or a strange one. A little figure is mooching along the sand when he (we’ll call the figure a “he” for the sake of convenience) sees a raised platform so he steps onto it. He comes across another raised platform so he steps onto that one as well … only see more such raised platforms, all layered over one another in the form of stairs. He eagerly investigates these stairs and discovers himself lost in a maze of stairs leading upwards or downwards in random ways. He determinedly wanders all over the terraced landscape, trying to find the highest point of these stairs – but the only problem is whether his body and spirit will give out before he finds the staircase of all staircases, overseeing its ziggurat dominion, and discovers the whole raison d’etre for this massive tiered sculpture.

Comparable to a much later Polish animation, Tomasz Baginski’s “The Cathedral”, “Stairs” is as barebones in its style and story-telling as can be: the trumpet-dominated music follows the travails of the little character and reflects something of his frustrations in its melodies and plaintive tones. Although the film might seem long for its 7 minutes due to its narrow focus, there is a reason for that apparent obsession: the journey is hard and arduous, the character cannot go back or retrace his steps but must continue his quest, and the whole lanscape around him is seen to be unforgiving. There may very well be a hidden commentary about navigating one’s way through a brutal and uncaring bureaucratic society or trying to find meaning in one’s life when everything around is indifferent. Because the film is so minimalist in its theme and presentation, and lacks a context the viewer can relate to, it becomes timeless: viewers can attribute whatever message that seems most relevant to them to the film and the film communicates that message back so well. Having seen “The Cathedral”, I imputed the message of that film to “Stairs” but had I seen something else with a different message and theme but a similar story, I might have interpreted “Stairs” very differently.

Deceptively simple but very powerful indeed.

Les Jeux des Anges: blackly humorous indictment of concentration camps and police-state societies

Walerian Borowczyk, “Les Jeux des Anges” (1964)

So far the strangest film I have seen from Borowczyk, “Les Jeux …” at first doesn’t appear to have anything resembling a plot but on second viewing I realised the short is a minimalist satire of the concentration camp experience in WW2-era Poland and of Soviet-style collectivisation of agriculture in Poland’s post-war period. The first half of the film is a survey of a factory, its tools and machinery; the second half shows how human beings are processed by the machinery in the manner of a sausage-machine (I use the metaphor very euphemistically) into angels.

The original film’s colours emphasised red but in the version I saw on Youtube, the predominant colours were variations of dark blue and grey which made the film more sombre and depressing to look at but not so much so that I couldn’t appreciate Borowczyk’s blackly wicked humour which turns church-organ pipes into rifle butts and people’s heads into so many little metal balls to roll down little funnels while the camera’s focus switches from one funnel to the next and back in clockwork rhythms. A glamorous blow-up doll figure, possibly representing a warped mother / Virgin Mary figure, presides over the factory work.

A minimal approach is used to portray the factory and its interiors with an emphasis on repetition; there is no narration which forces the viewer to watch the film’s proceedings closely and judge for him/herself what the message is. Several shots are done “close-up” to various subjects and acquire a very abstract quality that Borowczyk uses to advance the film’s theme and “narrative”, and for comic, satirical effect as when he turns the pipes into weapons. The music soundtrack which features much church organ is droll, cheerful and unnerving; its association with the industrial processing of humans into angels speaks mountains about organised religion’s all-too-ready acquiescence to powerful political elites and its willingness to co-operate in the subjugation and oppression of populations.

The angels are sent out on the train tracks in a way that suggests their function is to collect more human materiel for angel-making and so the film concludes as it begins in a closed loop. A more devastating indictment of a police-state society and culture couldn’t be made in a film that blankly and silently presents its case in just under 10 minutes. Perhaps the true horror of such states is to be found in the film’s banal presentation of the factory and its inner workings: the matter-of-fact, almost casual yet relentless and repetitive mass-production processing of death.

Crime and Punishment (dir. Piotr Dumala): unusual and subtle animation no substitute for lack of plot and unsatisfactory resolution

Piotr Dumala, “Crime and Punishment / Zbrodnia i Kara” (2000)

The style of animation associated with Piotr Dumala is unusual and often emotionally intense: using plasterboard painted in black under a camera, he scratches white lines with a needle and creates drawings with considerable line-hatching to achieve a 3-D effect and subtlety in mood and changes of mood. By necessity at times, there is a strong emphasis on negative shapes and outlining, shading of characters and objects, shadows and night-time: overall, a suitable background context in which sinister, almost unconscious events can take place away from the public gaze. The look of Dumala’s films can be fragile: characters appear to be sensitive, existentially tormented people and objects, even buildings, seem impermanent in keeping with the animator’s aim to present the unsteady inner life of his main student character before and after the crime he commits.

“Crime and Punishment” is very loosely based on the original Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel. Although the film short in itself is technically accomplished, its plot is very weakly developed: it builds up quite slowly to the central student character’s killing of the old woman and her sister and thereafter falls apart. No attempt on Dumala’s part to portray the student’s internal anguish and guilt over killing the two women, no young woman to offer comfort to the student (and in so doing, add to his turmoil as he wrestles with his conscience) and an anti-climax in which the student finally gives himself up to the authorities, is tried, convicted and banished to several years’ hard labour in a Siberian camp … all this completely disappears. It becomes obvious that the novel serves mainly as inspiration for Dumala’s own superficial version in which animation artfully demonstrates emotion and changes in emotion; the film is little more than an unusual art film. In this version, the student anti-hero appears to be tempted or provoked by an older man, who may or may not be Satan in disguise, to carry out the crime; the student later feels remorse, some depression and loneliness and is driven to kill himself. There is not much character development here and viewers won’t feel much sympathy for the student. Given that Dumala by 2000 had nearly 20 years’ animation experience, the lack of a definite story narrative, whether linear or not, is a complete disappointment. While Dumala is at liberty to reject large chunks of the Dostoyevsky novel as it suits, by throwing out most of it he has ended up with a story that is banal. A man takes his time agonising whether he should dock a horrible woman, does so almost by accident and spends the rest of the film feeling guilty

The pace of the story is slow and much attention given to the slightest of movements which reflect internal emotional states; eyes and faces in particular are rendered finely and sensitively, and have a very sharp sculptured appearance. No dialogue appears and the whole film is carried by a piano-dominated musical soundtrack. The city landscapes are spooky: there’s no hustle and bustle on the streets, horse-drawn carriages are uncommon and people, on crossing a bridge over a river, make gesticulations and other movements that suggest they might throw themselves over the edge of the bridge! All the splendid artwork Dumala does here is a mind-boggling labour of love: I can’t imagine his particular style of destructive animation readily lends itself to quick, easy work – but his obsession with his form of animation means he neglects the film as a story-telling vehicle.

“Crime and Punishment” could have been a very great film indeed if Dumala had drawn more inspiration from the novel and maybe developed the film short’s plot further so it includes redemption or at least an attempt to reconcile the families and connections of the student and his victims.

 

 

Les Astronautes: droll and inventive animation collage film about an irrepressible scientist-hero

Walerian Borowczyk, Chris Marker, “Les Astronautes” (1959)

An entertaining little film short, “Les Astronautes” is a stop-motion animation collage of photographs copied, cut and pasted onto coloured or still-photograph backgrounds combined with some live action. An amateur scientist (Michel Boschet) builds his own space rocket in his garage and with his pet owl goes for a ride in the craft around his home city Paris, ogling at a scantily clad woman (Ligia Borowczyk) through a window and buzzing a big-shot businessman (Philippe Lifchitz) in his open sedan, before zooming into space and meeting a bigger space rocket which engages him in a dog-fight. The scientist saves a smaller red craft from the big space rocket but he is in for an unpleasant surprise when he tries to contact the pilot of the little ship.

At once rough and raw in appearance and apparent execution, yet witty and cutting in its plot, the film zings along with energy and creativity to spare. I’ll hazard that Borowczyk took care of the animation and Marker might have been responsible for the photography and the narrative technique used in which the particular sequencing of pictures alone suggests the story-line but does it really matter who did which? The whole film is inventive and brims with the film-makers’ eccentric creativity. The scientist grins foolishly at the young woman through a double periscope whose lens show his blinking eyes and his little rocket resembles a crude newspaper origami figure that flits about gaily over photographs of Paris and paintings of outer space and alien landscapes.

The whimiscal soundtrack is a major highlight and could stand on its own as a major piece of musique concrete: light little metalloid melodies jostle for attention with sparse spoken word monologues from the young woman and the pet owl, and various sound effects such as firing bullets where appropriate in the plot.

I wish the film had been longer and developed its story more, particularly near the end where the identity of the pilot of the red spaceship is never identified, nor is the reason for the red ship’s battle with the large space rocket explained. The film’s ending is dark and ambiguous, the owl turning out to be an avian psychopompos, and though the finale is as light-hearted and droll as the rest of the film, viewers can’t help but shed tears at all the other wannabe but ultimately failed scientist-heroes our man joins. This may say something about the irrepressible and curious nature of the human spirit, that despite its often vain attempts to go beyond dull conformist or even oppressive society, people will continue to strive to reach for the heavens – and some day, someone will succeed in breaking away.

 

The House: early foray into cut-out stop-motion animation could have done with a stronger vision and extra time

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, “The House / Dom” (1958)

Rather odd film in which a woman (Ligia Branice), seemingly trapped and bored in an apartment block while tapping away at a typewriter, daydreams about various moving objects, two men French-boxing and fencing, a man repeatedly entering a room and placing his hand on a hat-stand, and a live fur wig breaking pieces of still life on a table, “The House” is an early foray into cut-out stop-motion animation for the two Polish animator / directors Borowczyk and Lenica. As it is, the film is good if uneven: the first half of the film has more lively and eccentric animation while the second half concentrates on a series of photographic stills and only the last few moments feature any “real” animation when a mannequin’s head disintegrates.

Not much plot to speak of here though it’s possible that in “The House”, Borowczyk and Lenica were criticising an aspect or some aspects of totalitarian life in Poland: the sense of feeling trapped and apathetic in a structure you can never escape from; people performing repetitive actions in a society they don’t care about yet can’t get worked up enough over to get rid of it; and the absurdity of life where common sense is constantly being over-run by petty laws and bureaucrats. Branice’s character appears to live in a fantasy world: she kisses a mannequin and caresses it as though it can actually respond … and it does, just not in the way the woman expects. She returns to her boring typing job in the building.

There’s not very much of the cut-out stop-motion animation in the film. It must still have been a new thing for Borowczyk and Lenica to work out. The best of it is in Ligia’s first dream in which objects operate of their own volition. The fight sequence is not bad and is noted mainly for its repetition, the change in colours (the use of colour is rather crude and limited in its scope) and the musical soundtrack which suggests a UFO hovering overhead human cities while the alien pilot tries to find a parking spot. Depending on the action, the music is often very droll and even borders on the kitsch. In the second half of the film, Ligia starts thinking of distant relatives whose portraits appear in the still photographs and of how one male relation had to go to war and fight.

Cheekily, Borowczyk and Lenica deflate a tender and melancholy passage in the film for laughs: the woman kisses a mannequin, decorates it with flowers and stands back while the mannequin disintegrates. Perhaps this sequence is intended to reflect the cruelty of life, that it separates loved ones who may never see each other again.

I wish the plot had been more developed so that the woman’s motivations become clearer and we understand why she’s stuck in the building and day-dreams so much. Bits of the film can seem fussy and overdone in a way that suggests the two directors wanted to milk ideas for all that they’re worth. Even so, “The House” is an interesting film to follow to see how two animators were developing and perfecting their art.

 

The Labyrinth: absurd surrealist animated film portrays a bizarre totalitarian society

Jan Lenica, “The Labyrinth / Labirynt” (1963)

Superficially this looks like a Terry Gilliam / Monty Python animated cartoon and it is indeed very funny and quite surreal. A man with mechanical wings strapped to him visits a strange 19th-century European city whose streets and buildings are oddly empty. He has several weird adventures which culminate in his being captured by a mad scientist who early on has noted his presence and who probably rules the city. The scientist-ruler subjects the visitor to painful scientific examinations but he manages to escape and tries to leave the city. The ruler searches for him and sends out bat-winged scouts to find the visitor and bring him down.

The combination of stop-motion animation and collages of paper cut-out 19th-century figures and buildings gives the short a distinctive steam-punk look and provides opportunities for humorous sight gags. Insects with human heads and animated dinosaur skeletons don’t look at all out of place – we accept them as inventions of the mad scientist-ruler. Colour is an important feature and its use is very striking and beautiful. The musical soundtrack assumes a major role in enhancing the action and tension of the plot and of the 19th-century atmosphere as the film is completely silent.

There are passages where the action seems fussy and dragged out – the scientific examination of the visitor is probably overdone though the animation is fiendishly droll and the use of colour very original in parts – and the film could have been edited for a faster, tighter plot narrative.

Overall “The Labyrinth” presents a world at once absurd, bizarre and entertaining but which turns out to be nightmarish and deadly. The city is more Hotel-California than the visitor realises: you can visit and stay as long as you like but you can never leave. A parallel with the authoritarian state that existed in Poland in the early 1960s, and the absurdities associated with totalitarian rule that went on in that country, can be observed.

The Thomas Beale Cipher: good-looking collage / rotoscoped animation film let down by small scale of plot and concept

Andrew S Allen, “The Thomas Beale Cipher” (2010)

Unusual collage-type animated film that’s based on the legend about the three cypher-texts that supposedly reveal the location of a treasure chest of gold and silver worth millions of dollars, this is quite fiendish to watch and requires repeated viewings to understand and to find 14 supposed clues. Protagonist Professor White, a noted cryptographer on the run as a suspected Nazi spy, is on the trail of this chest and boards a train. Shadowy figures claiming to be FBI are hunting him and he must evade them. An ingenious sequence of overhead luggage improbably slamming into one another and then attacking the agents saves White’s hide and enables him to flee. That’s pretty much all there is to the plot.

The film has the look of an aged historical document and the animation technique used appears to be rotoscope with cut-outs of material and real human eyes to give the film a fresh, rough-hewn look. Bits of fabric like tweed or carpet cut out into shapes of people or objects recall textures of materials once used on clothes or objects and add particular historical flavour. Main and minor characters alike look real yet slightly eccentric and one train passenger looks downright steam-punk weird. A beautiful woman looking out the window may be a stereotypical film-noir mystery dame. Characters wear clothes of flat floral or herringbone pattern and Professor White’s glasses reproduce numbered code at various points in the short as his thoughts through his eyes lay out a hilarious plan of escape and deception.

The plot proceeds with the benefit of voice-over narration by White which allows the film to delve into a bit of flashback history about the treasure and Thomas Beale himself. The story is told with the use of first- and second-person points of view: White addresses the young woman (and the audience) and although the lady does nothing other than smoke and look out the window, she is in fact an active participant in White’s scheme.

Disappointingly the film ends with White rushing into the hills while senior agent Black glares at him from the departing train. One hopes a sequel might be made but the short is so self-contained that I doubt that possibility. There are several sight gags – one funny one being where White hides behind a newspaper whose back page is emblazoned with his portrait, in itself probably a familiar trick disguise from Hollywood films – and ingenious camera angles and points of view that take advantage of the train-carriage setting with the overhead luggage section.

For such a good-looking film, the plot is insubstantial and the whole work would benefit from an expansion into a 30-minute piece with a few more, less complicated clues as to the characters’ nature and motivations, and how White and Black are related to each other.

No I haven’t worked out what the clues are but interested readers can Google thomas + beale + cipher + Facebook to find the Facebook page where people discuss the clues and a solution by Czech computer student Miroslav Sustek has been posted.

The Bellies: delightful film about human greed and avarice, and how materialistic societies eat themselves

Philippe Grammaticopoulos, “The Bellies / Les Ventres” (2009)

Delightful short film inspired in part by Rene Laloux’s animated work, “The Bellies” features a simple story about human avarice and arrogance in controlling nature, and how eventually nature and unacknowledged guilt prevail over greed and materialism. An unnamed gentleman, gross and piggy-eyed, gorges on snails for lunch at a restaurant; his fellow diners, all much the same as he is, eat the same meal in a bizarre co-ordinated Mexican-wave mass action. After lunch he goes back to the company laboratory where visitors await him: he explains the process by which small snails are genetically engineered to grow into ginormous gastropods for human consumption and takes his admiring guests on a tour around the facility. After the tour ends and the gentlemen sign a deal, the self-satisfied owner walks around the facility grounds where giant empty snail shells abound. On a whim, he crawls inside one such shell to assure himself he’s not hearing strange ghostly noises …

The animated figures are CGI-created while the backgrounds look as though they’ve been done with pencil and paint. Special effects are computer-generated. The figures don’t appear at all realistic but they are meant to satirise self-satisfied bourgeois conformity. There’s no speech but sprightly and playful acoustic music accompanied by sound effects emphasise mood and create, sustain and build tension. The whole cartoon has a very clean, spare look in keeping with the sanitised and conformist future society portrayed.

The last third of the film is the most surreal and really fits in with a dream-like Laloux-inspired universe: our piggy-eyed company director is forced to suffer as his factory-farmed snails have suffered and must run for his life. The film makes a point about how pursuit of materialist pleasure ends up eating you, how ultimately a culture based on gluttony will cannibalise itself. The giant fork that pursues the man turns into a creepy spider predator with a life of its own.

It’s a little slow and drags out the story in parts, especially during the graveyard scene where the company director starts thinking he’s hearing distant voices … but overall “The Bellies” is an entertaining piece with a surprisingly deep message about a future, materialistic society and how it dooms itself into extinction.

Franz Kafka: lack of story and direction drag down an otherwise very fine brooding and melancholy film

Piotr Dumala, “Franz Kafka” (1992)

A 15-minute film of various episodes in the life of early 20th century Czech writer Franz Kafka, this is remarkable mainly for its style of animation rather than any plot. Dumala uses boards completely covered in black paint through which he scratches images and shadows in shades of white and dark grey and all hues in-between to achieve atmosphere, emotion and depth of perspective or viewpoint through texture and tone. Great delicacy and emotional expressiveness are achieved. It’s a pity in a way that the subject matter comes across as fragmented and disjointed with no obvious narrative beyond emphasis on Kafka’s sense of isolation and being an outsider because of his fragile physical health and his subdued nature, and how this isolation influenced his outlook, sense of being and his writing. The pace is slow and the film seems much longer than its 15-minute playing time. The music is plaintive and often very intrusive. Whatever sound is produced is very discreet; people’s voices usually aren’t much more than a series of murmurs.

The drawings and animation (stop-motion) are very detailed especially in close-ups of Kafka’s face yet are very flexible in scenes in which Kafka appears to change into an animal (and in the last scene does so definitively). Blurring of edges is used often to demonstrate a 3-D illusion and the perspective can change so that things close to us can switch from blurry to sharp while at the same time faraway objects go from sharp focus to blurry. The drawing and animation techniques allow for subtle and very delicate movement of facial expressions and hands. Shadows in most scenes heighten a sense of Kafka’s isolation from the world around him yet in other scenes encourage an intimacy between the main character and viewers. A sex scene early in the film is portrayed tastefully and voyeuristically.

Something of Kafka’s dreary everyday life, lived in shadows and the shadows (figurative as well as real) of people around him, can be discerned from the film’s details. Viewers get the feeling of being trapped with him in his existential prison. The lack of a story and direction can be off-putting for viewers but the animation is unusual and must have been very painstaking to do and is worth repeated viewing.

 

A Quiet Week in the House: becoming a voyeur to view, record and pass on news of desperate attempts to be free

Jan Svankmajer, “A Quiet Week in the House / Tichy tyden v dome” (1969)

A strange little film even by my standards of strangeness, this combines live action with stop-motion animation that also features cross-fades which give the film a rough and crude look that befits the plot and its setting. An unknown man on the run takes refuge in a deserted and decaying house in the Czech countryside. Each day for six days he drills a hole in the wall and peeks through it to observe the activity in the house. After observing the activity, he scribbles off that day on a wall diary. On cue over six days, objects come alive: nails unwrap themselves from candy wrappers and arrange themselves like erect steel phalluses; a slug-like tongue minces itself into long screws; a mechanical toy chicken frees itself from its leash only to be buried under falling piles of mud; a feathered chair attempts to fly to freedom but smashes itself onto the ground; a jacket sucks up water from a vase of flowers and ends up urinating on the ground; and a pair of dentures binds pigs’ feet with wire. All of these scenes suggest hope that is dashed by an unfortunate accident.

On the seventh day the man plugs up the holes he has drilled with dynamite, wires it to a remote control and a timer, takes his equipment outside the house and is about to run away when he remembers he has forgotten one last thing. While the clock is counting down, he rushes back inside the house …

The sepia-toned look of most of the film when the man is active gives it a fresh and rough-hewn appearance; only the animated parts have some colour. These sections are also completely quiet so as to give the suggestion that they might be projections of the man’s imagination as he peers voyeuristically through the holes. He is rewarded with rare treasure indeed: small everyday objects yearn for freedom and to determine their own identities but end up being thwarted by their ambitions and their nature or by something beyond their control. A psychosexual message is hinted at when the man plugs up the holes with phallic dynamite, intending to blow everything up.

As with most Svankmajer films, “A Quiet Week in the House” can be creepy and puzzling, and the animations and the man’s actions at the end of the film can be interpreted in very different ways. The man may be a spy and the secret activities in the house, not the house itself, may be the target of his bombing attack. We ought to feel lucky then that we have seen what goes on in the house and are able to remember and pass on the knowledge to others. Having been made a year after the Prague Spring, this little film could be about as politically subversive and biting in its comment on then-current events in Czechoslovakia as the authorities allowed.