A is for Atom (dir. Carl Urbano): educational propaganda film presents a mildly benevolent view of nuclear energy

Carl Urbano, “A is for Atom” (1952)

Created and produced by John Sutherland and sponsored by General Electric, this promotional / education film is aimed at junior high school students, perhaps to inspire them to consider taking up science and mathematics subjects at senior levels of high school as preparation for the appropriate university studies. The entire film is delivered as an animated piece in the style common to many cartoons of the 1950s with sharp-edged animated figures and a colourful, 1950s-“modern” look. An off-screen narrator delivers the involved science lesson in mildly bright and carefully neutral tones so as to suggest the neutral nature of atomic energy in itself.

The film begins by carefully and clearly explaining what atoms are, what they are made up of and how atoms can be used to create energy. The narrator goes into some detail about what atomic weight is (it’s determined by the total number of protons and neutrons in the atom’s nucleus) and how isotopes of an element may differ by the number of neutrons in the atom’s nucleus. Sprightly animation likens stable elements to ordinary middle-class denizens minding their own business and going to bed early in their own tidily numbered houses while radioactive elements are restless beatnik types dancing wildly to jazz! The narrator then continues onto the history of how atomic energy was discovered by scientists in 1939 and the process of transmutation that they used to split uranium atoms and obtain massive amounts of energy. With the discovery of nuclear fission and chain reactions within nuclear fission, physicists could go on to create and design atomic bombs, learn to use neptunium and plutonium in the process of nuclear fission, and discover uses for atomic energy in agriculture, industry, other areas of science such as biology, and medicine. The film concludes by speculating on further uses of nuclear energy in transport technologies and in society generally, and emphasises that human wisdom and control of nuclear energy will open up a new world of discovery and material comfort for future generations of people.

The bright clarity of the narration and the stylish yet funny cartoons in explaining what an atom is, what elements and isotopes are and how artificial transmutation of uranium-235 created atomic energy make this film highly relevant still to current generations of young school students. Visual explanations and metaphors are straightforward and moderately paced if at times a little bizarre and are sometimes an unintentionally funny commentary on social classes and life-styles of the 1950s! The science presented in the film appears to be fairly accurate although the strong and weak nuclear forces are presented as semi-transparent liquid glue. There is a lot of information given and a couple of viewings might be needed but the imaginative animation is great to watch and even the backgrounds and settings are smart and bright. Atomic energy is presented as a strong, silent, stern but benevolent muscular giant standing over cities, hospitals and farms: a little bit like Dr Manhattan in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” or Zac Snyder’s reverent film of the same name but without that character’s dangly bits or moral hollowness. Of course this film having GE as its sponsor, the tone of the film is positive about atomic energy and completely ignores its potential for destructive annihilation and crippling long-term health effects on individuals, their families and communities.

Of course the reality in the 1950s was much more complicated: not all physicists and other scientists in the United States and other countries agreed with the use of nuclear energy for industrial, agricultural, scientific and military purposes. The adoption of nuclear energy for such uses in many countries was driven more by political and ideological motives than by economic need and was often against public opinion (Japan being a notable example where politicians like Matsutaro Shoriki and Yasuhiro Nakasone pushed for investment in nuclear power). In 1957, a nuclear accident involving plutonium waste stored underground in Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union rendered a large area of nearly 1,000 square kilometres highly radioactive (it still remains dangerous to this day) and resulted in the evacuation of 22 villages with a combined population of 10,000 people; the Soviet Union suppressed reports of the accident for a long time but it has been suggested that the CIA in the US had known about the accident almost as soon as it occurred and also hushed up publicity about it to avoid loss of public confidence in the US nuclear industry. Doubtless the sponsors of “A is for Atom” would have approved.

 

Arrietty: disheartening social conservatism and narrow prospects for a plucky heroine mar a charming film

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Arrietty / Karu-gurashi no Arrietti” (2010)

A charming offering from Studio Ghibli, based loosely on Mary Norton’s novel “The Borrowers”, this film is beautiful yet melancholy with themes of children on the verge of adolescence and a promise of love dashed, and a reconciliation between humans and nature, with all that that might promise, thwarted by ties of family and tradition. Sho is a young boy sent to live in the countryside with his grandmother to rest before major heart surgery, his parents having divorced long ago and with very little time for their son for reasons particular to them. During his stay he learns of a family secret: that the mansion his grandmother inherited from her parents has been host to a family or families of little people no bigger than the proverbial grasshopper’s knee. As it turns out, a tiny family does live below the house: Arrietty and her parents have made a comfortable home and eke out a living taking bits and pieces from the family mansion at night when everyone is asleep. However during her first night foray with her dad Pod, Arrietty is accidentally seen by Sho. Over the next several days, Arrietty and Sho form a friendship but inquisitive housekeeper Haru, spying on Sho, discovers the little people’s home and devises her own scheme to flush them out. Fearful of the human “beans” and their possible intentions towards them, Pod and Arrietty’s mother Homily make arrangements to leave their home and migrate to a new territory where they hope to meet others of their kind.

Let’s get the best and the worst bits out first: The film’s main joys are to be found in the detailed visual backgrounds of lush green nature and an ambient soundtrack of chirping crickets suggesting a late summer atmosphere in which days are hot, humid and often rainy. On the other hand, the musical soundtrack by Breton singer / harpist Cecile Corbel, whose style initially seems appropriate to the film’s whimsical subject and lightly serious scope, is instead loud, intrusive and saccharine. The animation hasn’t significantly advanced since the early days of “Nausicaa and the Valley of Winds” – Arrietty’s dress even flips up a bit to show off her pants – and a brief appearance is made by sinister rats, drawn to evoke the malevolence of the black monsters encountered in the likes of “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”, which turn out to be the film’s red(-eyed) herring. Apart from these self-references, Studio Ghibli thankfully makes no other attempts to butcher motifs from previous works to insert into “Arrietty”.

That said, we can go on with the plot and narrative which skilfully combine beneficent and sinister aspects of both human and Borrower nature: both Sho and the housekeeper Haru are curious about the Borrowers and wish them no harm but whereas Sho desires to help them in their precarious existence on the margins of human activity, Haru wants to keep them as pets and curiosities, perhaps to show off to friends or to treat as a little circus. Sho’s grandmother exemplifies a different attitude: she has long had a doll’s house ready for the Borrowers to accept and we must accept her generosity at face value; but it is possible that she also views the Borrowers as a secret family curiosity, something to pass down to younger people as a weird heirloom. The Borrowers for their part shun contact with humans to the extent that when an opportunity for reconciliation and a better, more mutual understanding is offered to them, they reject it and force Arrietty to bow to family ties and the need to be with others of their kind.

Character development is weak and one-dimensional and the friendship between Arrietty and Sho appears not so deep that Arrietty will necessarily remember the boy. He may well remember her as giving him hope and courage for the future. Arrietty is a typical plucky Miyazaki heroine but the film doesn’t give her much to play on her strengths and parents Pod and Homily play family man and woman stereotypes: the patriarch as physically strong, stoic and whose decision is final, the mother as kitchen-bound, fearful and hysterical. Sho is a quiet, sensitive boy who meekly accepts what Fate dishes out to him and Arrietty, and the elderly, child-like Haru is played for slapstick laughs.

I can’t see much really to recommend “Arrietty” to a family audience: the social conservatism is disheartening and it seems Studio Ghibli has all but given up on hope for young people to question and change their society, be it human or Borrower, in a way that accepts other cultures and points of view as equal and valid as their own. The message seems to be that the Borrowers as a metaphor for First Nations are doomed to die out anyway due to the sheer size of human populations compared to the number of Borrowers left: what a despairing message to leave with young viewers. The future for Arrietty herself looks dismal: settlement in an unknown territory might sound good in the short term but there’s the possibility that her family will find it necessary to uproot itself again and any new friends the girl makes will have to be abandoned and forgotten like Sho. Rootlessness will always be this family’s lot. Marriage to Spiller, a Borrower befriended by Pod, beckons and Arrietty will be expected to settle down to Homily’s level. The treatment of adult women like Homily, Haru, the grandmother and Sho’s unseen mother, however much played for laughs, is cruel to them and to Arrietty’s prospects.

Howl’s Moving Castle: cut-and-paste job of previous Studio Ghibli films masks a conservative message for women and girls

Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2005)

Up to and including “Spirited Away”, the animated films by Studio Ghibli are of a high standard both technically and in spirit. With “Howl’s Moving Castle”, the soulful quality of the earlier films that peaked with “Princess Mononoke” disappears and what we get is an empty shell of a story that exploits typical Studio Ghibli motifs and themes and the studio’s technical virtuosity. All the familiar devices of earlier films – a young female protagonist on the verge of adulthood, elderly women, a flawed hero with shamanic characteristics, heroes and villains manipulated by more powerful characters of uncertain quality, sophisticated flying technology in an alternative 19th-century steampunk world – are worked over in a fantasy aimed (cynically it seems to me) at a mainstream Western audience and the result looks very cheesy and manipulative with an ulterior message that superficially celebrates female bravery but channels it into socially restrictive roles.

The story’s heroine is a plain-jane working-class hat-maker called Sophie who accidentally meets a young wizard Howl and so arouses the jealousy of the Witch of the Waste who turns her into an old woman. Sophie runs away and meets a scarecrow called Turnip who takes her to Howl’s over-sized trailer-park home. Here she meets a fire demon called Calcifer and Howl’s child assistant Markl. Sophie insinuates herself into Calcifer, Markl and Howl’s lives by claiming to be a cleaning-woman and through her association with the unlikely trio, is drawn into a war between Howl’s country and an enemy realm missing its Crown Prince; during the film’s course the war also moves into Sophie’s country. Howl is forced to participate in this war at the cost of eventually losing his humanity through repeated transformations into a bird creature. Sophie comes to realise that Howl and the Witch of the Waste are pawns of more powerful forces, represented in part by Madame Suliman, the former mentor of Howl, and Sophie’s work for the rest of the film is cut out trying to locate Howl’s missing heart, the mysterious connection between Howl and Calcifer, ending the war and locating the missing Crown Prince.

Working out all the different strands of the film and connecting them together might take viewers 2 – 3 viewings which would expose them to an excess of saccharine musical schmaltz and a deadly “love conquers all” radiation cloud in the tradition of Beauty-and-the-Beast stories. I think if I had to sit through this film again, my hair and teeth will start falling out, my skin will break out into ulcers and bruises will mysteriously appear and spread. Characters are poorly developed and the love Sophie feels for the feckless Howl is so unbelievable as to be laughable; she would have been better off taking her chances with Turnip who performs a noble act of voluntary self-sacrifice in comparison with Howl who fights because he is compelled to, not out of free will.

The war merely forms a backdrop to the events and all the various characters can do is try to stop it without understanding anything about the lead-up to it and why Suliman forces Howl to do her dirty work; or participate in it. Even the animation of the war and its participants looks like a cut-and-paste job of previous Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films like “Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds”, “Porcorosso”, “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” and “Princess Mononoke”: several flying machines look like those giant bug monsters of “Nausicaa …” with wing-flaps added as an afterthought. Backgrounds are visually gorgeous at first but turn out to be generic according to the role they have to play so, for example, town scenes have a dreamy alternative-universe quality similar to scenes in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” which takes place in a similar alternative 1950s universe that might well follow on in the future from “Howl’s Moving Castle”.

The film is too long and its story is too intricate to work as a family film, the characters are shallow and implausible, the animation is cynically overwhelming and unoriginal. Worst of all is the film’s message about what happens to girls eventually: they get to play brave heroines for a brief while and once they are adults, they can be either beautiful scheming bitches like Suliman or domestic-goddess workaholics like the geriatric Sophie slaving away for love. Issues like the nature of war – Miyazaki made the movie partly in protest at the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – are sidelined so much that all the eye-blinking in the world couldn’t make them more missed. No way in the world would I recommend this film for families with young daughters. I feel so cheated having seen it.

 

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello: beautiful layered Gothic steampunk film steers viewers into a heart of darkness

Anthony Lucas, “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” (2004)

A nominee for a Best Animated Short Film Oscar in 2006, this is a visually beautiful and richly layered Gothic steampunk adventure story that is equal parts Lovecraftian and Conradesque horror. Young navigator Morello (voiced by Joel Edgerton) in the industrial city of Gothia accepts a commission to help fly a dirigible to parts unknown. He does this partly to atone for a previous voyage in which, due to a mistake he made, a crewman fell to his death. Morello leaves his wife Emilia at home as she is needed at a hospital to nurse patients dying from a mysterious plague.

An eccentric scientist Claude Belgon joins the crew and the ship chugs away; it crashes into an abandoned vessel and the crew quickly transfer to that vehicle. In his regular radio correspondence with his wife, Morello hears her hacking coughs and realises she has contracted plague. Nevertheless the men continue their journey despite one man also sickening from plague and they soon come across several sky islands. By accident, they discover that the boiled blood of a strange creature on one island cures the sick crew-member so they collect cocoons and take them back on board the ship. While on the journey home, Morello realises that crew-members are mysteriously vanishing and stumbles across the awful truth about the hatched larvae from the cocoons and their link to the disappearances.

The story is very focussed, not too complicated, and the pace moderately fast. The animation is a mix of layered 2D pictures and cut-outs made to resemble 3D objects and the characters themselves appear as silhouette cut-outs reminiscent of an Indonesian wayang shadow-puppet play. The use of first-person narrative makes the film resemble a Joseph Conrad novel and Joel Edgerton’s measured and refined tones make his young navigator a sensitive character. Morello does tend to be passive and easily influenced by the sinister Dr Belgon and the blustery Captain Griswald, and this passivity brings a touch of J G Ballard to the proceedings. The mix of Australian and near-English accents brings a salty nineteenth-century flavour to much of the film. The story gradually transforms from the thrill of adventure in its first half to quietly macabre and devastating in its second half, topped by an open-ended conclusion in which Morello, in the manner of a Ballardian hero, submits to the advice of the malevolent Belgon in the near-hopeless belief that by so doing he will save his wife’s life if not his own.

Themes of sacrificing one’s own life for the greater good of society and the advancement of scientific knowledge, and of the moral dilemma that faces Morello when he discovers what the last larva from the cocoons needs to survive – yes, if he kills it, he’ll save his own life but not his wife’s life; if he allows it to live, then he must offer himself to it – give “… Jasper Morello” a deep, dark intensity befitting its Victorian Goth look of sepia, blue and grey tones. Belgon is a typical mad-scientist type who embodies Conrad’s Kurtzian hero: his thirst for knowledge and fame drives him to commit heinous acts of murder. Interestingly the film has as its climax a conflict between Belgon and Morello that forces Morello into choosing whether or not he should repeat a past mistake, and it is this choice that determines whether Morello becomes his own man, albeit with horrifying consequences.

Morello’s passive nature, the switch from Jules Verne adventure to macabre horror and the anti-climactic cliffhanger ending probably counted against the film in competition for the Best Animated Short Oscar but I find this is a very immersive short piece of great intensity, technical detail, bittersweet tragedy and many allusions to great horror and science fiction writing: depending on where viewers are coming from, they can probably find hints of Edgar Allan Poe, H P Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, H G Wells and Bruce Sterling. The film is aimed at a general audience though it is very creepy and chilling for young children, and it’s well worth watching a few times to appreciate its distinctive animation.

 

 

 

The American Dream (by The Provocateur Network): informative if biased documentary on money and American banking

Tad Lumpkin and Harold Uhl / The Provocateur Network “The American Dream” (2010?)

This is a well-made animated documentary that tries to explain how the American people have been misinformed and exploited by agencies of the US government to support the current financial system and the banking industry’s control of it. Everyday man Pile rejoices in having bought a beautiful McMansion house only for his bank manager to foreclose on it because Pile can barely afford the hefty monthly mortgage payments. Desperate to get his house and dog back, Pile is visited by an old childhood friend Hartman who takes him on a voyage through time and space to show Pile how money and banks originated in response to human needs for the exchange of goods and services, and how debt became part of early financial systems. They find out how Pile’s bank gets its money from the Federal Reserve Bank through the Federal government which then taxes the public through income taxes to pay back the Federal Reserve with interest. Hartman then shows how through the ages banks and financiers profited from lending money to governments to pay for expensive wars. They stop off in Revolutionary America to see how Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued over the merits of having a central bank (Jefferson was against, Hamilton was for). Viewers also discover when and how the US Federal Reserve Bank was established in 1913 after several previous attempts to establish a central bank failed. Owned and operated by private interests, the Federal Reserve took over the power to print money from the US government. Interestingly the film pauses for a moment in 1963 when then US President John F Kennedy signed Executive Order 11,110 to regain US government control of creating money instead of giving that power away; six months later, Kennedy was dead in Dallas and his successor Lyndon B Johnson put the order aside. Since then, successive US governments have ignored Executive Order 11,110 and have continued to borrow money from the Federal Reserve and to pay that money back with interest with US taxpayer monies.

In explaining the basics of the US financial system and how it rips off the American public at a level that most people, even school-children can understand, “… Dream” glosses over many details in an effort to keep things simple and on track to its ultimate message which is that Americans must reclaim their money and the power to print it back from the banks that operate the Federal Reserve. The “elite” that controls the Federal Reserve is portrayed as “the Red Shield” (the Rothschilds); according to Wikipedia, the Federal Reserve’s structure and leadership are complex and involve a Board of Governors chosen by the US government and many member banks throughout the country so the organisation ends up being a mix of private and public owners. A notable flaw in the film is one where the US Mint produces dollars (it actually produces coin). If viewers are interested in finding out more about the history of banking in the United States since 1776, and in particular about how the banking and finance industry came to have such a stranglehold on the nation’s economic direction, they should go to the film’s website www.americandreamfilm.com which has details about some of the real-life characters Pile and Hartman see in the film and which also suggests what people can do to protest against the conduct of banks and how to rein in their rapacity.

The style of cartooning is based on that of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “South Park” with less crudely drawn bug-eyed characters moving more freely than Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman. The film’s pace is fast and very focussed which can be a bit inconvenient for some viewers with no prior knowledge of banking and finance trying to digest the information thrown at them. Fractional reserve banking is covered in a big rush without much explanation. The plot builds up to a suitably dramatic climax where Hartman leads an army of everyday folks like Pile against the banks and Hank Paulson tries to inveigle him into changing sides.

Yes it’s quite a biased film but “… Dream” at least attempts to explain to a general audience how the current financial system in the United States is structured and how debt and inflation are incorporated into it. Several myths and misconceptions about how banks operate and how money is created are met head-on and demolished. My main complaint is that the film falls into a good-versus-bad plot stereotype with no suggestion of what alternatives exist to replace the present debt-based fiat money system. The film does not differentiate between commercial banks (the banks that lend for business purposes and provide savings, cheque, credit and fixed-term deposit accounts) and investment banks; a little information about these types of banks and how they were kept separate by the Glass-Steagall Act from 1933 to 1999 would have been helpful so that viewers can see that having banks is still beneficial and that regulating banks’ activities for the benefit of the real economy (that is, an economy focussed on producing and supplying goods and related services) is necessary.

For US audiences, the film is worth watching as many times as is needed to understand the concepts spelled out and families with children will find it helpful in gaining a basic understanding of how debt operates and how banks try to rope in more people into borrowing on credit. The film will be of limited benefit to overseas audiences but its explanation of the role that debt and inflation play in financial systems is still relevant. Funnily, I found out about this film on the same day I read on CommonDreams.org that Citibank in New York tried to get several customers arrested by police for daring to close their bank acounts!

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

Vinni Pukh trilogy: cartoons boast strong characterisation, wit, cheek and a distinctive and charming animation style

Fyodor Khitruk, “Vinni Pukh” (1969) / “Vinni Pukh idyot v gosti” (1972) / “Vinni Pukh i den’ zabot” (1972)

My favourite cartoon featuring Winnie the Pooh as main character is a shortie that comes in several versions on Youtube in which he worships Satan in front of a mirror and comes to be possessed by a daemon while working out (yes, his head turns right around a few times and then some) and then trying to retrieve a pot of dog blood from a cupboard. After that, the next best thing is three Russian-language cartoons about Pooh and his pals directed by animator Fyodor Khitruk in the early 1970s. Featuring quite simple and child-like animation – the backgrounds are often scribbled with coloured pencil and are very minimal and abstract – and with characters that don’t resemble their originals or their Disney equivalents much (Pukh in particular looks like a fat sunburnt panda), these cartoons trot along at a brisk pace and have clever little scenarios in which Pukh, voiced by Yevgeny Leonov, bumbles along officiously, gets into trouble but manages to talk himself out of strife. The plots usually involve some conflict between Pukh and a third party through which Pukh tries to reach his precious pot of honey.

Pukh is a fast-talking and actually quite manipulative little bruin in the three cartoons based on the some of the original stories by A A Milne. In the 1969 cartoon, he and Piglet (voice: Iya Savina) try to get honey down from the top of a tree; in “… idyot v gosti”, they visit Rabbit and eat him almost out of house and home; in “… i den’ zabot”, they try to cheer up Eeyore on his birthday by getting him presents and on the way discover his lost tail. Of the three cartoons, the second one has the most charm as Pukh brings down the snooty Rabbit in the way he finishes off his host’s food and demolishes part of Rabbit’s home. There’s probably a lesson there about how visitors are supposed to behave when visiting friends and how hosts should be friendly and at the same time evict those guests who have overstayed their welcome. Piglet is a major character, equally as fast in conversation as Pukh, and their banter is lively and full of sparkle. The silly songs that Pukh sings reveal his cheeky character which comes out in full up against the frosty know-all Rabbit.

The third cartoon is quite a long one and complex, even dark, in its story and characterisation: Eeyore suffers depression major enough to get viewers all teary and depressed, Piglet endeavours to get a balloon for him but the balloon bursts and Owl is a pompous old bird-brain whom Pukh has to trick into handing over Eeyore’s lost tail. There are moments when you seriously wonder whether Pukh and Piglet can get their act together enough to cheer up Eeyore and recover his tail before he drowns himself in the pond. Plenty of wit and cheek abound on Pukh’s part – the verbal ping-pong between him and Owl that leads to Owl sneezing is inspired – and everything ends well on a carefree and reconciliatory note.

Characterisation and the animation style are the strongest points of the three films: Pukh is sly and bursting with attitude and Piglet as his faithful shadow is eager and up for any adventure and usefulness that comes into Pukh’s head; their friendship is full of spirit and verve. The animation is deliberately simple, colourful with lots of empty sky and backgrounds, and a distinct two-dimensional look with no attempt to make Pukh look fat and bulky in three dimensions. Landscapes and quaint, earthy houses have a feathery or furry look that comes with using coloured pencils to shade or cross-hatch spaces and the characters often look pasted onto the static backgrounds as they walk or run across them. Houses, house interiors and bunches of forest often have a lot of detail and depth that can be missed. The result is not only easy on the eye but is sometimes quite surreal, beautiful and charming in a child-like way.

These shorts are worth watching even if you know the A A Milne stories and have seen the Disney animations as they have an individual style and portray the characters as intelligent, straightforward and lively without any forced sentimentality and emotion. Spirited songs and music and jokes add to the charm of the cartoons.

 

Invention of Love: short film challenges us to rediscover our humanity or allow technology to define us

Andrei Shushkov, “Invention of Love” (2010)

Came across this elegant and melancholy film short by chance while hunting out another film short on Youtube.com and decided this was worth a look. And I’m glad I gave it the time of day (just under 10 minutes to be exact) as its story of a doomed romance is beautifully and economically told in a style that recalls Indonesian shadow puppetry with excellent contrasts of black silhouettes against simple coloured backgrounds of which each colour signifies some aspect of the world the characters live in and highlights the film’s theme. Set in an alternative 19th-century world of steampunk technology, an inventor yearns for love amid his mechanical gadgets and goes in search of it. He finds the girl of his dreams in the country, they marry and he takes her to his home in the city. But she is ill-adapted to life in the city where people’s pets and even vegetation in public parks are all mechanised, and the air is polluted with the wastes of industry, and the wife begins to ail and rapidly fades away.

In some ways this film is a throwback to 1920s silent film: the figures, their settings and backgrounds are all in silhouette so the film has a highly expressionistic style and there’s no dialogue so the plot is straight all-action narrative and expressions of emotion and intention are portrayed completely by the two characters’ movements. Movement is strictly from left to right or right to left and maybe in just a couple of scenes is there movement from front to back or back to front. Significantly, near the end the inventor appears to turn to the viewer (breaking the “fourth wall”) as if to plead for understanding for what he has done. Although the characters and close objects are two-dimensional, Shushkov portrays city landscapes as three-dimensional with a clever use of layers of silhouettes superimposed one over the other and shading the layers with increasingly lighter and more faded tones going into the backgrounds so as to create an illusion of aerial perspective.

The music soundtrack, in part original and in part derived from Frederic Chopin’s work, mostly played on violin, matches the plot well, accentuating characters’ feelings as they travel from joy, happiness and love to homesickness, sadness and despair.

The use of mostly blue and yellow shades to contrast the world of nature with the world of machines, industry and pollution is very effective. The yellow suggests pollution and ultimately poison and death. The white background near the end of the film suggests loss of vitality and surrender to mechanisation. While the tragic end can be predicted – viewers can guess even before the halfway mark that the marriage will end in tears – the film’s ultimate conclusion is unexpected and horrific with the inventor deciding to give his life over completely to the world of machines rather than reconnect with nature and all that gives him his inspiration and creativity. The ending is horrific due to its ambiguity: the inventor turns to the audience but his silhouetted face is blank and viewers must choose either to sympathise with his desperate actions or pity him for his inability to escape, mentally as well as physically, his hi-tech Victorian world.

The film suggests that the world of machines can replicate or copy nature but can never really replace it and while it copies, it will continue to undervalue and destroy the original live creation. Humans have lost sight of what is really valuable and sustains them; they may try to replace it with tricky and clever technologies but the results are pale and sterile substitutes. Like the inventor, we must choose whether we want to remain with our machines and allow ourselves to be defined by them or break away and reconnect with the true source of life, vitality and identity.

“Invention of Love”? The title is very ironic indeed.

 

Quasi at the Quackadero: time travel and psychological self-study in a fun fair

Sally Cruikshank, “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975)

Here’s a great little cartoon about a mismatched couple, Anita and Quasi, living in a science fantasy future and visiting the Quackadero fun fair with Anita’s pet robot Rollo. The style of animation used in this film superficially resembles work by Heinz Edelmann who was the art director for the 1968 film “Yellow Submarine”, based on songs by English 1960s pop band The Beatles; it’s very surreal and glories in lots of vibrant colour and weird associations and juxtapositions. No surprise that in the cultural context it was released in, “Quasi …” was quickly associated with hippie culture, with all the baggage implied. Diversions within the film take viewers on some wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful mind trips: a man’s dream becomes the gateway to a matryoshka set of universes where one yields a hidden world which in turn yields another world and so on; and visitors line up to view sideshow attractions such as watching receding time bring down skyscrapers and restore paddocks and pastures, and looking at themselves and their friends as they were when they were babies and as they might appear in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Strip off the lively colours, take the weird little reptilian duck figures aside, kick out the jaunty and quaintly antique-sounding music soundtrack, and what’s left is an amusing and rather sadistic plot in which Anita contrives to get rid of Quasi with Rollo’s help. Quasi is a likeable character, rather lazy and thinking of his stomach and what next to eat: he’s very much your average teenage boy. Anita appears a snooty big-sister type but that may be due to her peculiar slow drawling voice. Rollo is merely Anita’s ready and willing servant.

The film does risk becoming repetitive as the trio visit the various fun fair attractions, each more deranged the one before and all involving some form of internal time travel which reveals something of Anita and Quasi’s natures and how unlike they are. What saves the film from repeating itself is that later sideshow spectacles become little subplots. A con artist and his troupe of actors pretend to re-enact Quasi’s previous life incarnations and Anita sees a way to boot Quasi (literally) out of her life by sending him back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The emphasis on time travel and apparent self-introspection might suggest a concern with the nature of time, memory and possible pasts and futures and how subjective and manipulable time and memory really are. Apart from this, the style of the cartoon, all hand-drawn and inked with vivid colours, and starring droll characters who treat the amazing wares on offer with insouciant coolness, is the most outstanding feature. The mix of past, present and future is the film’s major motif: rollicking dance-band music of the 1930s and the idea of the fun fair, itself a relic from the late 1800s and early 1900s, combine with interstellar travel and futuristic technology in a structured context that almost resembles a shopping mall, complete with rip-off merchants, that enable people to interact with their dreams and thoughts, and meet Roman galley slaves and prehistoric beasties first-hand at presumably affordable prices (in the mid-1970s anyway).

Jumping (dir. Osamu Tezuka): experimental short snapshot of the human condition through a child’s viewpoint

Osamu Tezuka, “Jumping” (1984)

Boing! BOING! BOI-I-I-ING-G-G!!! Here comes “Jumping” by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astroboy, who made a fair few experimental anime film shorts in a long career that spanned creating manga comics and animated series and full-length feature films. “Jumping” jumps well above its weight in cartoon kingdom for its innovative adoption of a particular first-person point-of-view to present a snapshot of the human condition around the world in just under seven minutes. An unseen child trudging, hopping and skipping down a dusty road in a sleepy country town makes a silent wish and suddenly discovers he can jump longer and higher than he ever did before. Each successive jump is higher and longer than the one before and soon he is leaping above trees and over entire forests. He bounds towards an industrial estate and jumps over tall chimney stacks puffing out thick black smoke. He somersaults over skyscrapers and lets himself go into free-fall down, down to the busy city street just to bounce up again before the traffic warden booking the driver for speeding can get hold of him. He flies through a steel tower, bounces onto wharves and ships and leaps onto distant islands and other countries.

But it’s one thing to wish for something and quite another to have that wish granted … and often you end up biting off more than you can chew as the child discovers. There are suggestions throughout the film that the child nearly comes a-cropper in most situations he bounces into: he lands in a hen-house, he finds a lost toy in a forest (which might suggest another child has gone missing) and he gets attacked by a magpie. In the city, he meets a man preparing to commit suicide, nearly tumbles into a crane’s maw and intrudes on a woman sunbathing in the nude. There are close encounters with a jumbo jet and a helicopter. Farther afield, the child is nearly speared by angry hunters and becomes a casualty of war in a foreign country. A bomb explodes and he tumbles down into Hell to meet two demons.

The plot appears at first to be very simple, featuring just rhythmic bouncing that gets bigger and longer and increases in pace and tension as scenes flash by faster and the child starts losing control over where he lands and where the next bounce takes him. There is no dialogue either, just background sounds and the sounds of leaping, flying and landing on solid ground or grass. At first people are surprised to see the child but later become hostile towards him. What had once been a simple, friendly, peaceful world becomes more aggressive, complicated and dangerous. A lot can be read into the minimal plot: some people may see a moral that you should be careful about what you wish or strive for as the result may be more than what you can handle; others may find that it’s only by seeing things as others do that the world opens up in all its richness and complexity. And why shouldn’t children dream big? – it’s by dreaming big that you learn about the big bad world out there and if you’re lucky, you come away wiser and thankful for the things you already have, boring though they might be.

The hand-drawn animation is exacting in the depiction of weather phenomena, rural and urban landscapes and technical details of objects, buildings and technology. Animated figures look very cartoony but until near the end this is not a drawback as they appear very briefly. If the film has a weakness, it’s that the demons the child meets aren’t at all fearsome but merely more cartoon characters. The encounter doesn’t come over as terrifying or intense in any way and the child is merely relieved when it’s all over, as if he’d just had a dream that went bad.

This is a worthwhile film for students of film and other creative art forms (such as writing fiction) to see how a very simple story with no dialogue and with just one main character whose point of view forms the whole plot can portray a complex theme or express a philosophy about life and humanity.