Krtek the Multi-talented Mole tries different occupations in near-abstract / experimental shorts

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole as a Chemist / The Mole as Painter / The Mole as Photographer / The Mole as Watchmaker” (1972 – 1975)

By the mid-1970s, Krtek the Mole was nearly 20 years old so it seemed right that he should start looking for gainful employment. In this quartet of short pieces made from 1972 to 1975, he tests different roles for size and although he’s quite good at a couple, he doesn’t last beyond one short and at the end of all of them, Krtek is back to digging ditches.

In the 5-minute short “The Mole as Photographer”, our friend Krtek acquires a camera from a mouse and immediately starts taking pictures of a family of frogs – but the camera plays up on him and he is reduced to drawing pictures of the family. Soon all the animals want portraits done and they drive the little fella nuts as he tries to keep up with all their demands.

Krtek digs his way into a warehouse of chemistry sets in “The Mole as a Chemist” and finds a set to play with. Predictably the mix of chemicals he makes threatens to explode so he hides the test-tube in a box, from which geometric shapes in different colours burst out. He assembles the pieces into a car, then a wheel, then a mobile castle with towers, but all of them quickly get out of control and he ends up spraying the box with the test-tude with a neutraliser he finds in the original set. Everything the box spews out turns into bubbles and Krtek is relieved that the mess he created soon disappears.

In “The Mole as Watchmaker”, Krtek finds an unlikely new friend in a mechanical cuckoo he finds in a clock set up in a tree. At first the cuckoo annoys him so he tries to teach the bird a lesson in manners and ends up crashing the clock onto the ground. He puts it back together to revive the comatose cuckoo and in no time at all the clock is in perfect working order and the cuckoo revives.

The longest of the four, “The Mole as Painter”, Krtek and his friends paint themselves and the forest with various paints they find in discarded cans in order to torment a fox that’s been harassing them all. Faced with a psychedelic scene, Reynard panicks and runs off. The rains come and wash all the brilliant colours and patterns away and the animals celebrate Reynard’s permanent banishment.

IN all these little animated situation comedies, there’s often a moral about co-operation and mutual benefit, being kind to others and helping them, or messing about with dangerous and unknown things. The most ordinary situation is bursting with original creative potential: a set of chemicals and equipment generates strange and wonderful shapes and colours and a forgotten set of paints provides an opportunity to render one’s home in crazy cacophonies of colour. “The Mole as Painter” must have had particular resonance for Miler who originally trained as a painter before the Second World War disrupted as career.

As with other Krtek shorts, these cartoons have beautifully painted background scenery and “The Mole as Painter” goes to town on this as the animals paint spots, lines, patterns and spirals all over one another and over the trees, flowers and grass. The style of animation is appropriately minimal if somewhat old-fashioned for the period but it suits Miler’s purposes in teaching young viewers about colour and creativity and a couple of shorts featured here acquire an abstract and experimental look and feel.

The music is significant to the shorts and often features whistling and cheery accordion melodies.

All cartoons are recommended for families with young (and not-so-young!) children. The educational purpose is quite subtle and the mood is usually happy and optimistic without being sentimental or treacly.

 

 

The Mole in a Dream: children’s animation short verges on surreal and sci-fi / apocalyptic

Zdenek Miler, “The Mole in a Dream / Krtek ve Snu” (1985)

Another film episode in the life of Krtek the Mole and this one’s a real doozy verging on the near-surreal and sci-fi / post-apocalyptic. I gotta wonder whether Miler was high on hallucinogens at the time he made this little classic. This time the focus is on an unnamed human adult male who meets Krtek and this gives animator Miler a chance to show he can do more than paint lovely forest and flower backgrounds and write little kiddie stories about Krtek and his animal pals. One fine sunny day Krtek emerges out of hibernation underground and watches peak hour traffic; he’s bemused at the sight of a motorist’s car stopping due to a flat tyre and the motorist getting out and, by remote control on a handheld computerised transistor radio box, commands the car to replace the flat tyre with a spare. Intrigued, Krtek hitches a ride on the car and is taken back to the motorist’s house which is completely computer-controlled and can do its own cooking, cleaning and caring for its occupants. There the man has dinner and a bath, and then settles down in front of the TV to watch a pop music program. Krtek gets himself a free meal in the man’s house while its owner, oblivious to his presence, falls asleep and has a dream.

In the dream, the house malfunctions and the man has to call the tradesman to come and fix the central control unit in the basement. Unbeknownst to him as he lives in the countryside, civilisation has broken down and the man near freezes to death while waiting for the tradie. Krtek and his friends (Hare, Hedgehog) take pity on the man by lighting a fire in his house, warming and reviving him. Excitedly the man chops ups all the furniture in the house to keep himself and his new animal companions warm. A bear – we’ll call him Bear – joins them all and they teach the man how to survive in the forest. They kindly find him a goat that can give him milk. A lion joins them all and as winter makes way for spring, they find an old gramophone player with a record and start playing music and dancing in a circle as if performing a spring celebration rite. A mammoth tries to join the party and near flattens the man and at this point he wakes up.

As with other Krtek cartoons I’ve seen, the animation style is kept minimal while at the same time it portrays objects and backgrounds in considerable technical detail, though not too much so for young viewers and for 1980s-era animation purposes. In those days, animators were still working with pen and paper and, in Miler’s case, paintings. (With CGI now, we may have lost a lot of the whimsical charm of cartoons like the Krtek series.) The animation enables Miler to show how a smart house might operate: the man in the film presses a button and talks into his transistor box and an assembly line delivers him food and drink, and cleans up the dishes – and Krtek by accident who ends up bleached and pressed into a template along with the crockery and cutlery; fortunately Mouse comes by and sprays black shoe polish over him.

There is a little message about how humans can learn to live in harmony with nature and how cocooning yourself in automated comfort can put you at risk of danger and death if technology breaks down. Nature can be harsh but also offers help if one learns to be resourceful (and Krtek is a very resourceful little fella!) and reaches out for assistance from others and co-operates with them. Situational humour arises in most parts of the film though there are a few unexpected scenes where the action is forced: a lion comes by, storks kidnap Krtek, a Tree of Life sprouts through and destroys the man’s house; I know we are watching a dream which has its own logic but still, my conservative mind finds the lion and the mammoth a little jarring. Lots of little Chekhovian guns abound to serve as linchpins for plot development or the preservation of personal dignity: a carpet gets burned early on with a big hole in the middle so the man uses it as a poncho, having lost all his clothes to a wild boar. Once the gramophone appears on the scene, the animals play with it but you know eventually they’re going to fiddle with the stylus and force it play the old shellac record.

Without a doubt this is the kookiest and funniest Krtek film I’ve seen so far and I want to see more! There are full-frontal nudity scenes (oh my!) and lots of gentle slapstick but no violence. The music is varied and ranges from acoustic instrumentation for most of the film to near-trance tribal electro-acoustic music at the end where the animals and the man dance in a circle. I’m amazed that censors in Czechoslovakia overlooked that neo-primitive shamanistic aspect of the film. I heartily recommend this film for all age groups, even the very young under-18s.

Sed uz sliekšna pasacina: a very pretty and surreal animated film from Latvia

Mirdza Zivere, “Sed uz sliekšna pasacina” (1987)

Made for Latvian-language television in the Soviet Union in 1987, this very pretty and surreal animated short has some of the wistful melancholy of the famous Studio Ghibli films. The entire film is a music video clip that might have been made in an alternative universe where psychedelic rock and pop never faded away under the Doc Martens of punk and new wave, and commercial children’s cartoons wholly embraced spaced-out synthesiser sounds and looping rhythms. The style of psychedelic pop on display could have come from Japan: girly whispering passes for singing, and melodies in pure sparkling synth tones, clean production and an ambience that switches from the innocence born of new spring to slight wintry foreboding fuse in a memorable song of variable mood that exploits the full range of synthesiser sounds, atmosphere and melody.

The animation is colourful and the main child character is very cute in a way slightly reminiscent of Japanese cartoon character with shining eyes but less kitschy baby-like in appearance. Ocean waves look a little like what we’d expect to see of ocean waves in Japanese wood-block prints and animation so I’d say our Latvian film-makers had been paying much attention to developments in anime. There are many mind-boggling surrealist scenes in the film: shiny eyes with long lashes blink in the sky and shed globular tears; a beautiful fairy opens an oyster shell to reveal a world of blue shades in which a blue flower might be growing; animals and a potential little friend for the child sprout out of the ground. The fairy with the impossibly long blue-grey hair arrives on a horse accompanied by black birds covered in stars: one bird spreads itself over and into the ground and the stars become beautiful white lotus flowers out of which the child playfully emerges, having hid there secretly. The child is allowed a brief tour of the magic lands the fairy brings in her shells before she leaves him to visit other children.

The artwork is very detailed with plenty of distance perspective: a scene appears to show the camera moving as if flying over landscapes of undulating hills and sparse forests towards us. The ever-changing scenes are highly imaginative and there are so many gorgeous surprises that viewers need to see this film, short though it is, several times over to take it all in.

Perhaps this film really isn’t suitable for children: they may be tempted to try to recreate what they’ve seen by scoffing strange little white pills wherever and whenever they find them!

Fuji: inventive film makes the banal fresh and scrutinises the art of animation

Robert Breer,”Fuji” (1974)

An interesting short of a train trip taken through the Japanese countryside with Mount Fuji dominating the rice-fields and towns along the way, “Fuji” uses a combination of rotoscoping (in which the animation is based on tracing outlines of actual photographed scenes) and drawings of people and geometric objects to create a highly personal and impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness narrative that constantly interrogates its formation and organisation. Each image or series of images is subjected to a mini-cycle of birth, development, breakdown and re-birth of images from the abstract to the realistic and back again as if the art of animation is continuously re-invented anew. Early scenes of the Japanese landscape have a watercolour-painting quality with transparent splashes of blue or red in the background; later scenes stress the flatness of the rice paddies or the potential abstract and geometric qualities of paddy fields and industrial chimney stacks. Drawings are pared right down to the strictly linear and utmost minimal detail yet don’t look at all primitive or faux-naif; proper if ever-changing perspective is usually shown and figures are portrayed accurately if sketchily. The rhythmic train-noise soundtrack sets the pace for several picture montages, thus establishing a tension between sound and visuals.

There’s no definite story to be told here, the short is basically a snapshot of a train journey that Breer himself made while travelling in Japan in 1970: he took photographs of the trip and these are the basis for “Fuji”. The continual shift in perspective and point of view focuses the viewer’s attention on what might be considered fairly banal subject matter: after all, nearly everyone takes a train trip through the countryside at least once in life-time and most people living or who have lived in Japan would have travelled past Mount Fuji on the train. The trip becomes an arena in which surprises may happen and if they don’t, the journey is a stimulating ride anyway.  Passengers boarding the train may look ordinary but the way they are drawn makes them interesting subjects in themselves.

At once realistic, abstract, experimental, fluid and fragmented in appearance as well as in construction, “Fuji” illustrates how the banal can be made fresh and how the art of animation itself can be subjected to viewer scrutiny and study in real time as it were.

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.

Jänes (The Hare): trippy bionic bunny tale reconciles science and nature

Ando Keskküla, “Jänes (The Hare)” (1976)

One of the trippiest animation films I have seen since starting this blog and I have seen a fair few, I can tell you! Let’s genuflect on our hands and knees and thank Thronoi the Bear for uploading a treasure trove of Soviet Estonian animation films to Youtube. Compared to cartoons coming out of the West and Japan during the same period, “Jänes” might not feature such wonderful special effects and the latest technical advances but it overcomes its disadvantages by featuring a heart-warming story about acceptance of outsiders and reconciliation between science and nature in a colourful yet warm and cosy psychedelic style.

 A scientist / inventor, looking remarkably like a paunchy Roger Federer, shuts up his assembly-line cyborg machine for the evening and goes home. His menagerie of animals is curious about the machines in his laboratory and a rabbit ventures inside. It gets lost inside the machine, turns on some knobs and the machine scans its features and accepts them as instructions for a new cyborg. After two false starts, the cyborg bunny is created and leaps out after its original model. Rejected by the other animals though, the cyborg wanders into the city where in the morning it causes peak-hour traffic mayhem and makes headline news on TV. Our Victor Frankenstein sees the lab lagomorph on his TV, calls up his mini-copter and flies into the city in search of his inadvertent creation. Finding it in an alley, exhausted and dented after one too many encounters with deranged drivers, the scientist brings his bionic bunny home and the animals in the menagerie take pity on it and hold a party to cheer it up. The scientist opens a flap in the techno-rabbit’s head, twists a few knobs, and retreats. Instantly a Meccano set of beams, screws and levers pours out of the critter’s head and transforms into a rollercoaster, then an entire fun fair.

The plot is easy enough to follow with a medium-to-fast pace and there’s no Estonian spoken so the film can be enjoyed by everyone within and without Estonia. The animation is sometimes difficult to see and appreciate in the first third of the film which takes place at night. City scenes, based on photographic stills, are sometimes a wonder to see with all their detail though it might be hard for people unfamiliar with Estonia to appreciate the style and ambience of Tallinn as the action moves quickly and the stills are on the scene for a few seconds each. There are lots of yellows, oranges and browns in the characters and some scenes and the look of the film is warm and molten. In the final scenes where Robo-rabbit transforms, bright lights appear and the look can be very abstract as the camera goes up and down the rollercoaster. A peacock provides the disco lights with its tail and bears boogie and dance and go for rides on the rollercoaster, Ferris wheel and flying scooters. 

There’s a wonderful message about how science and nature can co-exist happily together away from humans, and hope might be expressed that the humans can follow the example of the animals and learn to accept outsiders, machine or not, in society.

Asparagus: colourful surreal exploration of female sexuality

Suzan Pitt, “Asparagus” (1979)

A stunning and very colourful film short with a distinct animation style reminiscent of old cartoons from the 1930s, “Asparagus” is an exploration of female sexuality and wish fulfilment. An unidentified woman who is viewed mostly from behind lives alone in a house rich in flowers, small objects, cosy and lived-in furnishings and a doll’s house that in the manner of matryoshka dolls reveals more doll’s-houses within. The woman puts on a mask from one of the inner doll’s houses, goes to the cinema and observes claymation figures watching a barren revolving tube; she sneaks off behind the screen, opens a briefcase and releases a Pandora’s box of marvellous objects, familiar yet also alien and vaguely of a sexual nature, through the tube. The objects breach the fourth wall and stream over the heads of the astonished viewers who are also nearly overcome by the fragrances that waft out from the tube as well. Satisfied, the woman returns home, removing her mask to reveal a blank face.

The animation has a lush, rich, decadent style: very curvaceous and sexually suggestive in its vegetable and flower forms, harking back to the Art Deco artistic style of the 1930s and the Pop Art of the 1950s  perhaps. Colour is an important element though there isn’t much overt symbolism in the use of particular colours; I note only that the revolving vagina / cornucopia tube on the cinema screen is a cold cobblestone-blue colour which doesn’t change when the objects start floating out of it. Many scenes involve red curtains or screens being pulled across windows to reveal or to cover images of gardens and garden plants and a sexual message is implied here. The pace is always steady and calm: although surprise builds upon surprise, somehow we viewers ourselves expect the unexpected to happen, not the expected; the sexual imagery is also no surprise though it becomes more blatant as the film progresses. No obvious narrative is to be discerned here although on repeated viewings the film’s message becomes clearer and it is this message that anchors the film.

Unfortunately the volume was low even when I turned it up to 100% but the dream-like carnival music, composed by Richard Teitelbaum, is steady and even and doesn’t relate to the film in any way at all. It could have been removed and no-one would notice.

The eponymous asparagus fulfills quite a few varied functions including one that bananas might have been expected to fill and viewers may not view the humble monocot vegetable the same way after seeing “Asparagus”. Some viewers may be impatient with the film’s rather bland, steady and unemotional presentation and the apparent lack of plot or structure. It’s worth seeing a few times just to take in the layered animation and its details; there is a lot of detail to appreciate!

 

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.

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).