Hors de l’eau: an allegory of a dysfunctional society doomed to ruin

Simon Duong Van Huyen, Joel Durand, Thibault Leclercq, Valentin Lucas, Andrei Sitari, “Hors de l’eau” (2018)

A very well-made short film combining animation with some live action scenes, “Hors de l’eau” (“Out of the water”) runs as an allegory of human society: a group of Japanese snow macaques, led by an aggressive and unyielding alpha male, migrates up a mountain to a hot spring but is prevented by an elite clique of macaques monopolising the spring from using it. Over time, as winter in the mountain region worsens, the group of macaques, treated literally as a Great Unwashed, suffers and, unable to co-operate with the other macaque group, freezes to death. I’m sorry but the narrative of the film appears to be quite closely based on research of macaque behaviour individually and in groups, and this is borne out by the depiction of the various activities the macaques (including baby macaques at play) engage in, and by their communications.

The film has a severe look and can be harrowing for some viewers, especially in some of its final scenes. The tragedy is apparent in the last couple of scenes in which the severe winter weather abates and hints of spring appear. The style of the animation looks accurate enough, that it blends in easily with live action sequences, yet the animals have highly expressive faces and bright eyes. The entire film is presented from the point of view of one macaque whose face is never seen; viewers only see her hands and arms as they caress a baby or rub together to keep warm. Forcing viewers to inhabit the female macaque as it were, makes the film all the more confronting and tragic as the narrative of a dysfunctional troop led by an alpha male who makes a decision that seals the fate of the entire group plays out.

The film could have been a little bit longer and more detailed to show how one decision leads to many disastrous consequences, and how also a rigid social hierarchy in which a privileged elite monopolises all available resources and denies them to a larger group of animals ends up being the death of them all, as the decreasing size of the group exposes survivors to greater dangers from predators and unexpected emergencies that arise from a changing environment. A warning about the impact of changing climates and what consequences they may bring might be discerned here. Ultimately the lack of dialogue or a voice-over narration, and the simple nature of the plot mean that the film cannot sustain a longer story-line.

Best Friend: a short comment on loneliness, addiction and substituting virtual reality for the real thing

Nicholas Olivieri, Shen Yi, Juliana De Lucca, Varun Nair, David Feliu, “Best Friend” (2019)

In the not-so-distant future, a lonely unnamed man find solace in a drug called Best Friend, implanted into the temple near his left brow, which gives him a stack of virtual friends and girlfriend. So dependent is he on these friends, who can be available 24/7 and offer him plenty of superficial comfort and support but no real love and connection, much less advice and criticism of his addiction, that his face and physical condition display all the hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked side effects of his psychological and physical dependence. Even his tears are coloured with the yellow chemicals leaking from the implant. On top of that, he is prepared to do anything to sustain his addiction, to the extent that when he needs to get a new batch of the liquid capsules to top up the supply in the implant and finds a queue at the nearest Best Friend store, his “girlfriend” lures him away to an illegal booth in a deserted alley supplying Best Friend at black market prices – but a stranger, equally addicted and just as determined to get his hands on the capsules, follows him, punches him cold, and seizes a shard of glass from the ground in the alley …

A comment on modern society’s need for surrogate reality instead of the real thing, loneliness and alienation, and the addictions such anomie can give rise to, this film works best as a basis for a television series or movie script but no more. The characters represent stereotypes and viewers are not invited to feel much sympathy for them. Only when the stranger appears does the film start to move in a significant direction. The shock comes when the main character is finally named by his friends … only (spoiler alert) they are different friends because he has had to get a new implant … and he appears unaffected by the loss of his previous friends.

The film makes no connection between capitalist ideology and the phenomena it describes which are products of that ideology and its assumptions put in practice: the view of capitalism that humans are essentially materialist and self-interested individuals in competition and conflict with one another, producing a dog-eat-dog world where co-operation and real social connections are treated with suspicion, yet humans still find themselves yearning for something more than the latest gadgets and entertainments. In such a world, fragmentation, isolation and alienation are not only inevitable but encouraged – because if they lead to individuals pursuing remedies that can be commodified, leading to addictions that can also be exploited for profit, they will be.

Memo: a man’s struggle against Alzheimer’s disease and being helpless and dependent on others

Ines Scheiber, Jules Durand, Julien Becquer, Elena Dupressoir, Viviane Guimaraes,Memo” (2017)

A very touching film on Alzheimer’s disease and its impact on sufferers’ daily lives, “Memo” derives its punch from a man’s struggle to preserve his independence and maintain control over his life as his mind is threatened by the creeping onset of the disease. Louis wakes up to find the kitchen and bathroom fixtures almost covered in post-it notes placed by his daughter Nina to remind him of the things he needs to do and that she is coming to have breakfast with him. He discovers the coffee canister is empty and, as if on cue, Nina phones him. They talk briefly and Louis tells Nina the canister is empty. Straight away Nina tells Louis she’ll get the coffee; Louis stubbornly decides he’ll get the coffee himself just to show Nina he can take care of this errand. He goes down to the supermarket and goes through the aisles to search for coffee … and finds himself lost as his visual and spatial memory cloud over in blankness, and he can’t remember where the coffee is kept. He manages to find something and rushes out of the store. To his horror, his mind completely clouds over under the stress of forgetting and being lost, and everything goes blank.

The animation is very clear and does an effective job of suggesting the action of Alzheimer’s disease on a person’s mind by rubbing out (in effect, deconstructing) the animated objects surrounding Louis and devolving everything back into a blank white background. (As if the film had originally been conceived on white paper, which it might well have been.) The film’s point of view closely mirrors Louis’ point of view so the clouding effect is likely to make a strong impression on viewers’ minds. While Louis through his actions is a character easy to sympathise with, the plot is very threadbare and Nina is as sketchy as can be so the film cannot sustain very much more than five minutes of story. Viewers must bear in mind though that this animation was created by young undergraduate students at the Gobelins animation school. More experienced animators might have introduced a sub-plot in which Louis comes to resent being dependent on Nina, and Nina perhaps feeling irritated at Louis’ peevishness and also a bit resentful at having to look after her father while other siblings shirk their obligations.

The straightforward, realistic visual style of the animation contrasts strongly with the fading of the objects and backgrounds of the film. We feel Louis’ terror and confusion as his world is overcome by the chaos of nothingness. The film makes its point quickly as the characters beat back the disease with familiar routine and more post-it notes – but for how much longer until Nina is forced to find round-the-clock care for her father, we don’t know.

Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers: sugar and spice that are not too nice in a rich and lavish film

Bill Tytla, “Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers” (1950)

Part of a series of cartoons about a cute kindergarten-aged girl called … well, what else? … Little Audrey, this little short film packs in puns and jokes a-plenty amid some sumptuous artwork and (of course) visual gags. Our heroine takes instructions on baking gingerbread cookies from a radio cooking program: the interplay between the instructor (who can’t possibly see what the child is doing) and Little Audrey as she throws a hundred million ingredients into a mixing bowl and beats the mixture faster than Superman can punch up Darkseid with Krypton speed has its amusing moments. Once Little Audrey has her dough sitting in the oven, the cooking program ends and she drifts off to sleep with the timer set to go off in half an hour …

… and when it does, Little Audrey is astonished to see a live gingerbread man jump out and announce he’s off to a place called Cakeland to see his date. Little Audrey follows him all the way where he introduces her to his fiancee Miss Angel Cake and announces their marriage. Little Audrey assists Miss Angel Cake with her wedding preparations and follows the two into the chapel where the priest will marry Gingerbread Man and Miss Angel Cake. Next thing you know, the villainous Devil’s Food Cake fellow, complete with forehead horns, twirly moustache and goatee beard, turns up and kidnaps Miss Angel Cake. Gingerbread Man and Little Audrey (the latter calling on the cop cakes) must try to rescue Miss Angel Cake before she is whisked off to Devil’s Food Cake Island through Strawberry Short Cut. Well, that’s the kind of cheesecake punning we must put up with in this cartoon.

The short treads a good balance between an excess of cream and cake on the screen and actual saccharine sweetness: there’s very little on the screen that makes viewers feel nauseous, the jokes can be clever and the film rockets along at a cracking pace so there’s no time to linger on anything. Cakeland and its dancing citizens, along with the fantastic cake, cream and pastry architecture, have a dream-like quality and the colours used in the film are lush and vibrant. An interesting twist comes at the end of the cartoon when Little Audrey realises she has been dreaming and takes the dough mixture out of the oven; the reaction she has when she sees what’s in the pan is priceless. Did she really dream or was her little adventure for real?

While the animation of the characters isn’t very good and the plot is basic (the cartoon is aimed at a very young audience), the overall look of the cartoon is rich, even lavish. Pastries dance the can-can and perform Hollywood-style musical numbers to celebrate the wedding. Young viewers will learn something about being helpful to others without expecting any rewards, and being grateful for help offered selflessly.

The Mad Hatter: an insubstantial story in a detailed cartoon universe

Sid Marcus, “The Mad Hatter” (1940)

Mocking the faddish nature of women’s fashions, this animated short can be surprisingly critical of the nature of everyday work in capitalist society, the slave routine it forces on people, and how some people can end up quite deranged as a result. A secretary called Maisie jumps out of bed when her alarm clock rings and races through her morning routine of shower, brushing her teeth, getting dressed and made-up for work, and gobbling her breakfast literally on the fly. She runs after the bus so hard, she actually manages to catch up with it; the catch though is that as soon as she reaches it, she and the bus have both arrived at the bus stop where she would normally get off! Hitting her desk in reception at the precise time of 8:30 am when work starts, she immediately does start to work: she hauls out a box of candy to chomp on and a soapy novel to read while waiting for customers!

Nine hours later, having been finally released from work, Maisie goes to a hat shop to try on various hats: she likes one particular piece and the shop assistant places an order for it. The order goes to the hat factory where various milliner employees, straitjacketed and caged, loll about waiting for their orders! One fellow, eyes rolling about and tongue drooling, is given Maisie’s order and he turns out a veritable mountain of fruit that would have done the then popular Brazilian singer-actress Carmen Miranda proud. The order is delivered to the shop and Maisie promptly buys the hat.

There are many gags poking fun at Maisie and women’s fashion choices generally, and at a particular fashion-related industry that exploits human whim by hiring mentally deranged people to come up with original ideas for making hats. Such gags hark back to times when milliners and their employees really did suffer mental derangement from having to breathe mercury fumes from the solution used to turn animal fur into felt, used as the raw material for hats.

The plot is otherwise insubstantial and the main value of this short is to demonstrate the astonishing details in the animated backgrounds and the gags packed into seven minutes. While characters themselves are not drawn very well, the objects and furnishings in Maisie’s house look surprisingly three-dimensional and accurate. Joke after joke rolls out continuously; even the neighbour’s cat is drawn into a joke that sends up human vanity and intelligence. Animators who only know how to use digital animation databases in creating characters and backgrounds should watch short animated films like “The Mad Hatter” to see how a cartoon can compensate for shallow characters and an equally shallow story by creating a detailed and layered world where the action takes place.

The Last Knit: dealing with a personal inner hell of addiction and compulsion

Laura Neuvonen, “The Last Knit” (2005)

Technically this digital animated short is well done but the very simple plot of a woman addicted to knitting a long, long scarf that ends up pulling her over a cliff doesn’t really justify the effort put into the cartoon. The short’s theme on addiction and on how individuals risk their lives and health to satisfy that hunger or need that can never be satisfied become obvious early on. The problem though is that once the theme and the sole character are established, the plot seems at a loss as to what to do with the woman so it keeps digging around in its own groove, the woman knitting and knitting and knitting until the wool runs out so she has to use her hair … all while the scarf grows longer and longer, runs over the cliff’s edge and threatens to pull her into a literal as well as existential void. Come to think of it, all this repetition might be part of the theme of addiction as well … the film is just as addicted to keeping the woman on a one-track journey to her own hell.

Just when you think all is lost for the character, she manages to break her addiction to knitting, only to fall for another … Unfortunately the film does not supply any more information about how the woman came to be addicted to knitting in the first place and whether that addiction replaced still another compulsion. Viewers aren’t likely to feel much connection with or sympathy for the character. The cliff-side setting is attractive and important for the plot but again we learn nothing about why the woman must be there in the first place. The whole scene looks set up for a suicide and perhaps as the short comes to a close and the woman shows signs of developing another uncontrollable obsession, the prospect of suicide as a release from a personal inner hell becomes a possibility.

At the time of its release, the film was popular in film festivals around the world but its theme and the implications of that theme, along with the shortcomings of the plot and the character design, seem to have made sure that the film would be forgotten.

All’s Fair at the Fair: a utopian view of materialism, seductive advertising, over-consumption and futuristic trends

Dave Fleischer, “All’s Fair at the Fair” (1938)

Best known for their Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, US animators Max and Dave Fleischer occasionally made animated shorts with biting wit and satire. “All’s Fair at the Fair” is a rare piece made in colour (and fairly soft colours at that) about an elderly couple, Elmer and Mirandy, from the sticks who drive into the city in their horse-drawn cart to visit a “World Fair”. Regular city folks either whiz past Elmer and Mirandy in their souped-up cars or arrive by train at the fair packed in sardine-tin carriages. Elmer and Mirandy leave their horse and carriage to the tender mercies of a car-parking valet (who uses a crane with a giant magnet to dump the horse and carriage into a junkyard) and explore the various beguiling offerings. They watch a machine pump out houses almost in the manner of a 3D-printing machine. They drink orange juice made from an orange grown in double-quick time by another machine, prefiguring GM food and food production. The couple are attended and groomed by various robots on separate assembly lines for men and women: they are groomed, shaven, powdered and literally reshaped (in Mirandy’s case, in a suspicious-looking Iron Maiden contraption) so that when they meet again, looking half their ages, they barely recognise each other. (I must have missed some tiny part of the cartoon where robots injected the couple with blood and plasma drawn from babies and young children, and used liposuction to suck out the fat and flab from the couple’s bodies.) They are taught the latest dances by robot dancing-teacher guides. At every step of the way, the couple pay a dime to use the services offered. Cars come out of vending machines and woollen clothes straight from the sheep can be made up faster than the incredulous couple can sneeze.

The look of the film is soft with pastel colours and buildings in curvy Metropolis-inspired Art Deco style. Details are emphasised as well as the general appearance, as you’d expect in a simple and uncomplicated plot where the main characters are physically transformed and rejuvenated. The futuristic contraptions and their products and services turn out to be surprisingly prescient. Capitalism reigns throughout the film in the form of mechanical hands begging for money and in vending machines that can spew out the most impossible goodies. Fortunately Elmer and Mirandy seem to have brought plenty of cash to splurge on being pampered and buying things they don’t really need.

I’m sure in a period in which the world was just coming out of a global depression, and farmers were still very poor, this cartoon about the seductive blandishments of materialism aimed at goggle-eyed innocents, unaware that they are being exploited, and the over-consumption that results, must have left quite a few 1930s audiences red-faced in recognition that they also fell for similar brainwashing from mass advertising.

The Land Beyond the Sunset: a very moving and thoughtful film on achieving happiness and peace

Harold M Shaw, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” (1912)

Made in 1912 – the same year in which the Titanic set sail for its fateful meeting with the Iceberg – this short, seemingly simple live-action film is still a very moving and thoughtful drama. Young Joe is a poor newsboy who lives in a city slum neighbourhood with his alcoholic and abusive grandmother. One day he gets the opportunity to join a picnic for underprivileged children organised by middle-class women working for a charity, the Fresh Air Fund. The picnic organisers take Joe and other poor children to the countryside near the sea where they play and make friends, and eat nutritious picnic food. One of the organisers then proceeds to tell the children a fairy-tale about a boy being harassed by a witch. Some fairies rescue the boy and put him in a boat. The boy and the fairies then sail away to a fantasy place known only as the Land Beyond the Sunset. Thrilled and inspired by the story, Joe contrives to stay behind when the adults take the children back to the city and their slum communities; he goes wandering along the beach and spies an empty boat resting on the shore. An idea comes into his head at this point and he makes a choice that will undoubtedly affect the rest of his life forever …

For its age, the film still looks astonishingly clear, with none of the blur and the markings one might expect on old films. Title cards are few but viewers can follow the narrative easily: the story is straightforward but also relies on viewers’ imaginations to piece together the different scenes into the intended narrative. The end scenes are breathtaking and instill awed feelings at the natural world; however much humans may dominate and control Nature, the scale of Nature itself, especially of the seas and oceans, is still far beyond human understanding and domination. The boy can be seen to be partaking of the bounty of Nature by seizing an opportunity and opening himself up to all possibilities; yet the scenes can be interpreted differently and more negatively, by suggesting that the boy is deluded and does not realise he is going into an early death. After all, in some countries’ mythologies, the land beyond where the sun sets is often the land of the dead.

The very open-ended vagueness of the film’s climax and ending may astound and horrify viewers, but it also plays a large part in the film’s thoughtful and melancholy character. A boy from a dreary, unfulfilling and oppressive background is given a choice between two very different worlds and the decision he makes is momentous. How brave or foolhardy would we be, if we too came from a background of poverty and abuse, and we also were faced with the same choice? The heart-breaking story is told without sentiment, and this ensures the film’s continuing attraction for viewers more than 100 years later.

The film was originally made to promote the Fresh Air Fund, a charity founded to help underprivileged city children and improve their health by taking them on short breaks to the country so they could breathe fresh air and enjoy sunshine. The charity may have long gone but the film survives and has taken a life of its own.

The Beautiful Leukanida: early animated fable of love, jealousy, war and annihilation in an insect universe

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Beautiful Leukanida / Prekrasnaya Lyukanida” (1912)

In a long career spanning some 55 years in stop-motion puppet animation, Russian-Polish animator Wladyslaw Starewicz produced a fair few stand-out films. “The Beautiful Leukanida” is a very early example of Starewicz’s style and vision: trained in entomology, Starewicz was already familiar with preparing dried insects for study so using a ready-made if unusual cast to appear in his dramas and act out little fables of human foibles must have seemed the next logical step. The story here is one straight out of a Romantic fairy-tale universe, as re-enacted by beetles: two beetles duel over a noble lady beetle, the winner claiming her as his own and taking her back to his castle, the stag beetle loser swearing revenge and doing all he can to get her regardless of her feelings and opinions. The duel escalates into outright warfare between two kingdoms climaxing in an explosion that ultimately resolves nothing and kills everyone. Starewicz seems to have had quite a dark sense of humour.

The animation is very well done, the insects moving as bipeds but otherwise acting and moving in ways we might expect insects to move and to hold heavy swords in their claws (rather clumsily, as it turns out). The backgrounds and sets are minimal in style but quaint enough for stories of insect derring-do. Viewers may find one scene in which the noble lady beetle and her lover being fanned by attendants bearing huge feathery fans especially endearing. The messenger bearing a letter from the rival is given a kick and forced to return to his master in abject ignominy.

No matter how eccentric and Ruritanian the beetles’ universe is, with two rivals duelling for a lady’s favour, and their armies fighting desperately, ultimately the rival kingdoms are subject to the whims of the Cosmic Joker – in their case, Starewicz himself – who sees fit to destroy both kingdoms, all for nothing more than jealousy over a lady. Human wars have often been fought over even more trivial and / or less worthy causes. Ultimately there will be no winners. Had Starewicz known of the destruction that was later to come in a few years, no doubt he would have been horrified at his own prescience.

“The Beautiful Leukanida” appears to be one of the earliest stop-motion animation films by Starewicz still in existence, and is worth watching mainly to see the high technical standard the animator had already achieved early in his career. The plot intentionally resembles a fairy-tale in its setting and in the way it develops, yet in its climax and resolution it becomes a modern, even prophetic warning of the dangers of human, all-too-human rivalries and jealousies.

The Mascot: a puppet dog’s mission of self-sacrifice results in an amazing masterpiece of stop-motion animation

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Mascot / F├ętiche Mascotte ” (1933)

An amazing and brilliant short work of stop-motion animation, “The Mascot” is one of several masterpieces made by Russian-Polish animator over a long period from 1909 to 1965, the year of his death. Starewicz began his career in Kaunas, then a part of Russian Poland, before moving to Moscow in 1911 and working there until 1918. After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 2017, Starewicz fled to Yalta in Crimea, and moved to Paris in 1920 where he spent the rest of his life making stop-motion animated films, short and feature-length, his career spanning the silent-film period and films with sound.

This brief 25-minute film was intended to be the first film in a series featuring a dog puppet called Duffy. Riffing on themes of self-sacrifice and the search for goodness in an uncertain and chaotic world, the film follows Duffy on an odyssey that takes him quite literally through hell. Duffy comes to life when a woman toy-maker, caring for an invalid daughter, weeps and a teardrop falls onto his body. He contrives to hop into bed with the child and manages to hear that she wants an orange, before the toy-maker mother packs him into a box along with several other toys and they are all put into the back of a car to be taken to a toy-shop. The other toys, which include a ballerina, a clown and a thuggish tramp already living in a sort of menage a trois at the toy-maker’s apartment, see their chance to escape and bolt through a hole the thug tramp makes in the box leading to a gap in the car’s boot. Only Duffy decides to remain in the car. The toys tumble out into the street with various results: the ballerina ends up in the gutter and the clown no sooner hits the dirt than he is decapitated by another car. Ouch!

Later sold to a car owner who hangs him from his rear-view mirror, Duffy falls out of the car through an unexpected accident. He seizes the opportunity to obtain an orange for the little invalid girl and then tries to retrace his journey back to the toy-maker but not before falling in with a devil character who holds a grand and grotesque party with many guests, several of whom are the toys who had escaped from the car. The thug character treats his ballerina amour roughly and violently, and even stabs his devil host. Duffy loses the orange a few times before he is able to escape with it from the party. The other toys chase him down the road but Duffy is saved in the nick of time by the toy-maker’s army of toy soldiers. He is able to fulfill his mission but his reward and joy turn out to be all too brief in an unexpected plot twist that must have appealed to Starewicz’s dark sense of humour but is likely to upset children and those who have already warmed to Duffy’s bravery and persistence.

The animation is excellent: the various characters move smoothly and well, and their faces are very expressive, even if they can’t talk much. The toys move in the way viewers might expect them to move, that is to say, stiffly at times, though Duffy is able to run bipedally on his hind-legs and kick his orange like a football when the need arises! Clever editing and fast-paced backgrounds make the chase scene thrilling and tense, with the toys racing from left to right on the screen before the soldiers push them right to left. The nightmarish party, straight out of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Devil and Margarita”, scenes of death and gory violence, and Duffy’s continued suffering even in the midst of triumph and joy rule this film out as a children’s film.

The narrative does linger too long in the second half of the film which is dominated by the devil’s party. One might have thought that negotiating his way through Paris car and foot traffic would be sufficient hard work for Duffy but no, Starewicz decided to add a most incongruous mediaeval fantasy plot twist. Perhaps at this point Starewicz was a bit too carried away by what he could do with his puppet characters; the gags in this part of the film can be distasteful for some viewers, and Duffy’s skin and orange are saved by a deus ex machina device. The subplot involving the ballerina, the clown and the thug is resolved, but tragically. On the plus side, the film is not at all sentimental in its portrayal of Duffy’s journey and mission.

The film deserves to be better known for its technological advances and the potential it demonstrates in the genre of stop-motion animation at the time of its making.