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.

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.

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).

Fantastic Planet: absorbing animated science fiction film with messages and ideas that are still important

René Laloux, “Fantastic Planet” / “La Planète Sauvage” (1973)

A very absorbing animated science fiction film that superficially looks as if it might have been created for children with a plot that starts out with a human-like baby being adopted by a blue-skinned alien child ten times bigger than the baby in a world that looks like a mix of psychedelic rock album art of the 1970’s and Monty-Python collage-style animation and dark jokes with double entendres. Though as the film progresses, it becomes very clear indeed that several scenes in the film, some of the suggestive animation itself and the plot’s preoccupations are aimed at an older audience, one that, at the time of the film’s release, might have been described as politically and socially liberal and eco-conscious, even counter-cultural or underground. A joint Czech-French production, “Fantastic Planet” lives up to its name in its visual style and creativity if not its story-line or characterisation. Made in 1973, it doesn’t look too dated though the animation is hardly sophisticated by current standards and many scenes are just drawn and coloured-in sketches with the odd moving character going across them.

The plot traces the rise of the human-like Oms from a primitive foraging way of life dominated by ignorance, superstition and near-despotic rule by a few to a progressive society in which the Oms are literate, have mastered science and technological principles sufficiently enough to build and operate spaceships, and can challenge the giant blue-skinned aliens called Draags who regard them as simple and unintelligent. The way in which this turnaround in the Oms’ fortunes occurs is due to one Om called Terr who was adopted as a pet by a young Draag called Tiva. Tiva treats Terr as a plaything and lets him sit with her at lessons which she absorbs through meditation with the help of head-phones but viewers’ overall impression will be that Terr is a household slave / domestic pet completely at the capricious mercy of his mistress. Terr tries to escape often but his collar responds to Tiva’s magnetic bracelet. One day Terr runs away with Tiva’s head-phones and is helped by a wild Om who breaks his collar. The wild Om takes him to her people who eventually adopt him as their own. Terr uses Tiva’s head-phones, which turn out to be a vast repository of Draag knowledge, to educate his new family and in spite of opposition from some of the senior tribal members, the Oms give up those traditions that hampered their progress and kept them inferior to the Draags and embark on a tortuous path that frees them from slavery and repression. They create a new home and force the Draags to respect them so that the two species can co-exist in peace.

The journey towards enlightenment isn’t easy and many Oms are slaughtered along the way when the Draags try to cull their numbers and resort to more desperate and deadly methods, finally deciding to exterminate the little beings. There may be a political allegory here: the Oms might serve as a metaphor for Third World peoples striving for independence and the freedom to determine their own future while the Draags represent those First World elites who prefer the majority of humans to live in corporatised slavery and poverty. Or when we consider the film’s historical and cultural context, the Oms could represent the oppressed Czechs and Slovaks and the Draags their Soviet Russian masters.  There’s also a lesson here about how we humans treat our own pets: Terr is indulged a lot by Tiva but she also forces him to fight other domesticated Oms in battles that are parallels to cock-fighting bouts. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the complex relationship that exists between the Draags and the Oms: the Draags regard the tame Oms as cute as long as they are obedient, the wild Oms are seen as vermin for breeding too fast and multiplying too quickly.

The Draags possess a sophisticated technology and culture that revolve around constant meditation; the film reveals this meditation to be necessary for their continued survival and propagation of their species, and it also powers their technology. A scene in which Tiva’s father participates in a group meditation session and the participant’s bodies change colour becomes very surreal; viewers will feel their minds simply cleaned out several times by this scene that breaks all the laws of physics and conservative morality. Don’t worry, there are more scenes in the film that will clean that scene out of people’s minds! Landscapes filled with exotic plants and animals prove to be very menacing to the Oms: a flying anteater licks up Oms with its penis-shaped tongue and Terr and a friend are nearly stomped on by a five-eyed / four-legged insectoid dragging a cumbersome ovipositor. Another critter with a nose that sprouts feelers spends its time in a cage grabbing and shaking little piggy flies with the antlered proboscis. Most mind-fucking of all is a contoured landscape of tubular worms that arch their backs during periods of rain. Perhaps there are too many unnecessary sexual jokes in the fauna and flora of the Draags’ world: the whole place is teeming with eroticism. It’s as if the animators deliberately set out to bait the conservative political establishment of their day, which in Czechoslovakia would have been the Communists and in France would have included most of the major political parties along the entire political spectrum and the Roman Catholic Church as well, by creating a universe in which everything is a sexual metaphor of some kind. In those days people believed sexual repression went hand-in-hand together with political repression and political freedom would lead to sexual freedom or vice versa. Little did folks at the time realise that sexual freedom mightn’t necessarily lead to political and social freedom, and could encourage the further oppression of women by objectifying and sexualising their bodies and clothes.

Due to the overarching themes, the plot’s complexity and the film’s short running time, character development is weak: viewers get no sense of Terr changing and maturing in personality as he adapts from his sheltered life with Tiva to life with the wild Oms, learning responsibility, independence and leadership along the way. The unnamed wild female Om who rescues him remains a minor character and the romance that develops between her and Terr is unconvincing. Neither the Draags nor the Oms come across as more than one-dimensional archetypes for class struggle and revolt against colonisation: the Draags appear over-refined and have a love-hate relationship with procreation. The Oms struggle against ignorance and superstition in their society and the process itself says something about the role of religion and the enforcement of ignorance in keeping a slave class oppressed.

Unfortunately even after the collapse of Communism across Europe, the ideas and messages of “Fantastic Planet” are still needed in our societies; many former Communist states in eastern Europe are falling under fascist government and economic inequalities are creating new social divisions and discrimination. The film is worth several viewings if only to acclimatise to the distinctive animation style and get over the sexualised look of the exotic wildlife and landscapes. The music is a mix of seventies prog(ressive) guitar rock pop with a lot of wet-sounding wah-wah pedal effects and some jazz.

 

 

 

Heart of Glass: metaphor for downfall of German and Western civilisation

Werner Herzog, “Heart of Glass” (1976)

An 18th-century tale of a town dependent on its glass factory becomes a metaphor for the downfall of German and Western civilisation in this early film by Werner Herzog. The unnamed town, located in Bavaria, produces glass products with a ruby-red colouring but the knowledge of colouring the glass has died with the death of the foreman, Muhlberk, at the glass factory. As a result the townsfolk lapse into depression and madness and the local landowner / factory owner, Huttenbesitzer (Stefan Gaettler), hereafter referred to as H, resolves to discover the secret of colouring the glass red for himself. He pores over old manuscripts, he threatens to exhume Muhlberk and have the local cowherd-cum-seer Hias (Joseph Bierbichler) talk to the corpse, he even has his servants barge into Muhlberk’s house to bring him an old sofa so he can rip through the cushions and search the stuffing. Later on he orders other people to take some of the ruby glass products and throw them into the lake to discover the secret (but the men flee with the items and sell them in another country). As all his schemes fail, H resorts to even more drastic measures to find the secret including murder and arson, ruining himself and plunging the town into chaos.

The pity of H’s actions and their results is that Hias has foreseen everything and tried to warn everyone of the doom that will follow; in spite of his lowly status as cowherd, he’s so good at forecasting that he can even foretell individual people’s deaths. (Why he doesn’t charge for his services remains unexplained: surely he could have forecast the wealth rolling his way if he did.) Early on in the film we meet two town drunks Anscherl and Wudy who sit in the tavern discussing what they’ve heard from Hias about how Anscherl will die. After then digesting this information in shared silence, Wudy smashes his glass on Anscherl’s head; the glass shatters but Anscherl merely brushes the shards away and blinks as if waking up. He then pours beer over Wudy’s face and Wudy barely registers the attack. At this point you realise the actors are beyond seriously drunk, in fact they’re not even drunk but either on some heavy drugs or hypnotised. A later scene in which the townsfolk walk more or less in single file shows they are all in the same mental state as Wudy and Anscherl. Herzog did indeed have all the actors except Bichbierler hypnotised which explains their odd actions throughout the film: they sit or stand staring into space with no interactions until it’s their turn to say or do something and even then, in the case of two women characters who have to scream in separate scenes, they sometimes miss their cues. (Bit like watching some very old episodes of Doctor Who where actors really did stand around on the set waiting for their turn in full view of the cameras.) This gimmick, for want of a better term, is a metaphor for the way society acts and reacts generally: we generally sleepwalk our way through life, waking up and blinking occasionally if something hits us, then going back to open-eyed sleep.

H and his obsessive quest are a metaphor too for Germany’s leaders who took their nation into two disastrous wars in mad quests for more territory and resources among other things. Like most of the actors, Gaettler has been hypnotised and camera close-ups often show him with eyes half-shut, to demonstrate the often unthinking, reactive nature of German politics. Huttenbesitzer’s father, who hasn’t stirred from his chair in twelve years, laughs at people and only gets up and walks around to look for his shoes when the town has been destroyed by fire, represents those people absorbed in petty problems and the trivia of life, failing to notice the disasters coming upon them. The maid Ludmilla can be seen to represent perhaps the workers and supporters of society, like the armed forces: she is told by Hias to leave the Huttenbesitzer mansion but continues to serve her masters faithfully and ends up a sacrifice.

While the town is collapsing around him, Hias continues to have visions about what will come: he sees a time when peasants will be the equals of townfolk and women the equals of men. His predictions trace the history of Germany through the two world wars and the American occupation. The townsfolk accuse him of having the Evil Eye and throw him into prison with Huttenbesitzer. Hias is able to escape and returns to his cave lair only to grapple with an invisible bear. The film’s budget was either very threadbare or Hias is going insane. After killing the bear, Hias “sees” an island of people at the far end of the earth in the distant future, who wonder what is at the end of the ocean horizon; four of the islanders then set off in a boat to sail to that very end to find the answer.

Everything in “Heart of Glass” serves a purpose, even the beautiful shots of nature that bookend the film: the early shots of mountain and river landscapes with overhanging clouds and the waterfall cascades, overlaid with a melodic electric guitar soundtrack by the German band Popol Vuh, exist to mesmerise the audience and put it in the right mood to see the tragic events unfurl; the later panoramic shots of the islands emphasise their remoteness in both time and space from civilisation. These scenes also emphasise the allegorical nature of the plot. Popul Vuh’s soundtrack which includes acoustic and chanting matches the style of filming and acting in its strangeness and is used sparingly and appropriately; most of the film runs without any background music and this lack together with the sparse zombie acting helps to create a sense of distance between the characters and the audience. If we feel any sympathy at all for anyone, it would be for Hias who, though the only clear-headed person here, is unable to save his people and ends up a lonely outsider losing his grip on reality; and perhaps also for Ludmilla who won’t or can’t escape when offered the opportunity. At the same time, “Heart of Glass” isn’t without moments of humour – intended humour or unintended, it doesn’t matter – as in the aforementioned scene with Wudy and Anscherl in the tavern and Anscherl’s death scene where the drunks are laid out exactly as Hias predicted. Many such scenes and others seem to be totally irrelevant to the film though they are all linked in some way.

Obviously this isn’t a film for everyone but if you’re in the right, ah, frame of mind or consciousness to see it, you shouldn’t pass it up. And if you’re not but you wish to be, you’d be better off hearing some nice instrumental Popul Vuh music rather than ask someone to whack you on the side of the head with a beer glass.