Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass): animation revisits an earlier animation based on famous painting

Priit Pärn and Mari Pakkas, “Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass)” (2011)

Nothing like revisiting the scene of the crime when you want an idea for a new animation and Priit Pärn does so in a new version of “Eine Murul” which like his 1987 animation is based on Edouard Manet’s painting “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass)”. This time, the film isn’t about four individuals battling their way through the problems of Soviet Communist society and their own inner demons of self-worth and loathing; they’re simply making their way across the grass in a drunken state towards one another. Their efforts are set to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s repetitive piece “Boléro”, performed in an equally inebriated stupor, and their efforts continue, sometimes laughably and sometimes painfully, until as though by sheer good luck they find themselves in the very positions and postures the original picnickers of the painting are portrayed in. Off-screen audiences applaud enthusiastically and the film closes there and then.

Abandoning pencil-drawn animation, Pärn and Pakkas opt for stop-motion animation of stuffed puppet figures whose floppy invertebrate forms are well-suited for apparent aimless ambling in which they can barely hold their shopping bags let alone move their soft and wonky arms and legs. The backgrounds are minimally portrayed in solid blocks of green or blue colour over which pencil scrawls in different colours suggest blades of grass or reflections in the water.

Not much of a social message can be found here unless Pärn is suggesting that the modern consumer society made possible by corporate capitalism is befuddling people so much that it’s a wonder they get anything and everything done and if something like a pose that resembles Manet’s famous painting occurs, it’s more a miracle than anything intended. After the event, an explanation that makes it less accidental and more intentional must be made.

Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life: animated criticism of Soviet life and loss of childhood innocence and fun

Priit Pärn and Kulno Luhts, “Harjutusi iseseisvaks eluks / Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life” (1980)

In typically insouciant style, animator Priit Pärn serves up another short cartoon that in its faux naif style criticises the Soviet regime ruling Estonia in 1980. The narrative divides into two complementary threads in which a boy and a man, who might almost be aspects of the same person at different ages or be son and father, demonstrate how the demands of modern life turn them into automatons. The boy learns by imitation and acculturation the habits he must adopt to function in adult society and the man in his business suit repeatedly carries out those habits ingrained in him since he ceased being a child. The short flits between the two characters continuously to show how their actions are steadily converging into the one set of behaviours.

The animation looks dead simple at first but the drawings are more technically sophisticated than what initially meets the eye as the businessman comes into focus and starts pushing paper around his desk and answering the telephone. Colours around the businessman are of various drab shades of brown and grey while for the boy they come in a wider range of bright and joyful primary hues. As the short progresses, the colours associated with the boy start to dull and the colours for the businessman become brighter near the end as his robot routine unravels and objects around him begin to rebel. The animator himself pushes the rebellion along by using a stop-motion animation of his pencil-wielding hand to place the telephone on a different spot of the desk, upsetting the businessman’s autopilot mode of thinking and living.

The start and the end of the short are bookended by a similar sequence of actions performed by the boy (at the start) and the man (at the end): they race across a field, turn into a growing tree, meet a lamb that transforms into a sheep, dive into a river and become airborne swallows. The boy gazes with a puzzled (perhaps even slightly disapproving?) expression at the businessman as the older character cavorts through the field under a brilliant blue sky, rediscovering his old zest for life. A neat and somewhat worrying way of saying that the child becomes father to the man and the man, in reclaiming a life, loses  his son to society’s grasp.

As I’ve come to expect from Pärn, surreal images abound and there are plenty of stream-of-consciousness free associations of images and objects blending into one another. The music matches the narrative and actions and foreign viewers need not worry about having to understand Estonian as the film features no dialogue.

Aeg Maha (Time Out): Soviet Estonian animation at its most surreal

Priit Pärn and Hille Kusk, “Aeg Maha / Time Out” (1984)

“Aeg Maha” is animator Priit Pärn at his most defiantly surrealist best. The entire short is one big surrealist dream with practically no plot save for the fact that the character dreaming it is journeying in the dream with no particular aim in mind other than to have a good time. All the action takes place on a stage and concerns a cat in thrall to time as represented on an alarm clock. At 9:30 am the main action begins in a whirlpool and the cat plunges right into it like Alice into the rabbit hole.

The cat’s adventures proceed amid a riot of visual gags in which ripples become an island which becomes a manhole cover; palm trees can be chopped into mini helicopters; elves’ long hoods do multiple duty as river streams, umbrellas, fish skeletons and moulds for wolves’ teeth; a woman’s bra becomes a sail; and even the cat’s own tail gets him out of trouble by chainsawing the palm trees and then whacking a predatory shark. Everything is all free association: there’s no narrative within the dream, no apparent moral, it all seems to be just nonsense.

Is it really though? The alarm clock rings and the cat discovers it was all a dream. The curtain falls and all the characters he met in the dream gather in front for audience applause.

There might just be a message, one the Soviet authorities missed completely: within the prison that was Soviet society at the time, you can be free to do whatever you like within your imagination – with the proviso that your time in the clouds is strictly rationed by the clock.

Kolmnurk (The Triangle): delightfully surreal film about a husband, his wife and her midget lover

Priit Pärn, “Kolmnurk (The Triangle)” (1982)

Yet another delightful animation short from this Estonian animator back in the 1980s and thankfully for a non-Estonian speaker like me, the cartoon features no dialogue apart from the characters calling out one another’s names. Viktor and Julia have been married for some time and the couple seem stuck in a rut: Viktor waits for dinner, reading his newspaper, while Julia makes breakfast, lunch and dinner for him. The relationship clearly is very one-sided: Julia’s emotional and sexual needs are going unmet while Viktor and his tummy are doing very well out of the marriage. Unexpectedly, a little door opens up at the bottom of the stove and out pops Lilliputian-sized Eduard, a suave Latin-lover type, attracted by the smell of Julia’s cooking, who jumps up onto the kitchen bench and eats all the cooked food. Julia patiently cooks more and Eduard gulps it all down. Viktor, enraged at his wife’s acquiescence to Eduard’s amorous attentions to the food, leaves home and Eduard takes his place at the table and newspaper. Viktor later relents and returns to his wife. They reconcile and Eduard skulks back home where his wife Veronika has been waiting; the two take up their appointed places at table with newspaper and stove respectively.

There’s no obvious moral which is perhaps one reason Soviet government censors at the time of the short’s release didn’t take too kindly to the film and limited its cinematic release. The film probably says something about the uneven relationships between men and women in marriage at the time. (I have seen some reviews suggesting that Julia symbolises Estonian land and resources and Eduard represents a rapacious Soviet Union; I hope the creators abhor such racist / white supremacist insinuations.) The animation style is based on pencil drawings and looks superficially simple and straightforward but it’s definitely not a film for children: the animation uses a lot of cut-outs of faces, eyes and sensuous lips to hint at Viktor and Julia’s sexual yearnings and unmet needs, and Julia’s body with its ample breasts also is the focus of Eduard and Viktor’s attentions later in the film. There is much surrealism in the film as well: cooking flavours travel far through the country, Eduard morphs into a necklace for Julia and Viktor floats through the air while running away from home.

The black humour, the deliberately crude, pencil-drawn animation style, whimsical story and surrealistic dream elements make this film a worthy one to watch for animation students.

Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass): study of a dreary, run-down, post-industrial society

Priit Pärn and Hille Kuusk, “Eine Murul (Breakfast on the Grass)” (1987)

Inspired by the Edouard Manet painting “Luncheon on the Grass”, this 25-minute short follows the lives of two women and two men in an Estonian city and the alienation and deindividuation they experience in four installments. An anonymous woman braves surly behaviour and sexual harassment from various strangers as she tries to do her daily shopping and eventually has to grant a sexual favour to a fruit-seller for a measly apple. In the second installment, a man called Georg undergoes identity loss while trying to work the system to his advantage to get a job as a manager. Up next, Berta also suffers identity loss as a result of becoming a mother. Finally, Eduard joins a queue and sucks up to a slimy bureaucrat in order to leap over hurdles to get a certificate.

All the characters above join for a picnic in the park and pose as models for the Manet artwork. This is the only time in their lives (presumably) when they are able to demonstrate their individuality to the outside world. They then return to their humdrum lives. Although the film does not have English sub-titles, mercifully for me whatever Estonian-language dialogue is present seems to be secondary to the film’s plot and themes and acts as background noise that reinforces the soullessness of the society around our four comrades.

The artwork is mostly pencil-drawn save for Georg’s segment in which stop-motion animation is used on realistically rendered characters and backgrounds that turn out to be part of Georg’s day-dreaming. The animation is deliberately childish in style to emphasise the petty nature of society and how it reduces people to infantile and boorish behaviour. In Berta’s segment, the woman loses her face and any features she attempts to apply to her blankness end up primitively drawn and easily wiped off. Meanwhile photographs and paintings of her are beautifully scribbled by pencil and she tries in vain frustration to emulate these pictures before destroying them.

Although the film looks very simple, it’s quite subtle and complex: throughout the piece, sinister grey figures drag an artist through the streets while accompanied by sinister black birds. This perhaps says something about the society’s attitude to art and culture, how it derides and crushes things of beauty and individual expression. At the end of the film, the artist lies in agony on the road, his arm obliterated by a tractor. Various scenes in the film portray the little ways in which people are ground down by their depressing urban environment; as Georg’s domestic scene demonstrates with oozing black goop coming up through the kitchen sink drain and through the paintings on the wall, even home is no cozy cocoon against the grim outside world.

The film has many surreal elements and acknowledges its debt to surreal artists like Salvador Dali (early on, there is a reproduction of one of Dali’s works in the background) but even surrealism gives way to dreary reality and in the end is made to reinforce the dismal look and conduct of Soviet Estonian society in the late 1980s. Worth watching for its style and varied use of animation and those people interested in what a run-down, post-industrial society might look like when all its wealth has been exhausted and everyone is reduced to living like rats ought to watch this piece.