The Diadem / MiniKillers: two trashy films that highlight how good a good actor can be

?, “The Diadem” (1966)

Wolfgang von Chmielewski, “MiniKillers” (1969)

Two curious short films from Germany and Spain respectively, both feature the English actor Diana Rigg in the starring role of an unnamed spy – the films have no dialogue – carrying out a mission for an unnamed employer or agency. Quite why and how the actor ended up in these shorts, both very low budget films and the later one with a very cheesy look and music soundtrack, is unknown since Rigg apparently does not talk about them and she made them at times when her career was ascendant on television and film respectively. It’s possible that Rigg agreed to appear in the films as the lack of dialogue meant that the focus would be on her acting to carry them all the way. The films will be of interest mainly to diehard Rigg fans who know her work in the TV series “The Avengers”.

In the first film “The Diadem”, Rigg’s action-girl spy rather carelessly loses the key to her safe where she is protecting a valuable diadem. Naturally a crook who’s been following her nicks the key, goes back to her house and tries to steal the box but Rigg wallops him and takes the box off him, only to discover that a piggy bank is inside. She then finds a map with a route to a derelict house and goes there. She discovers the diadem at last but has to evade three more crooks who try to kill her with a venomous snake.

The plot is very flimsy and one scratches one’s head at why Rigg is so careless with the key but at least the film is fairly well made and edited. The night-time setting for Rigg’s investigation of the abandoned house adds some suspense and justifies one scene where Rigg blows out a candle and fights a crook in the dark. Close-ups of characters’ faces and the use of unusual angling in the camera work assist in bulking up what tension can be wrung out of the plot. At least Rigg has the authority and style to bring off a forgettable short and make it believable as a sort-of promotional film for “The Avengers”, even though her character is not named.

“MiniKillers” is a 28-minute film divided into four parts in which Rigg’s action girl, on holiday in the Costa Brava region of Spain, stumbles across a bizarre murder in which a tourist is killed by a cute toy doll. She quickly discovers that the doll shot poison at its victim and sets out to find the man’s killers. She is trailed by the bad guys of whom the most notable are the Boss and his No 1 henchman (played by Jose Nieto and Moises Augusto Rocha). They try to kill her with a doll, ambush her on a beach with mannequins and a net, put a booby-trapped doll in her car (which she tosses back at them) and trap her under a cliff-hanger device (a stone wine-press). Coolly our heroine wriggles out of danger each and every time with the most improbable (and for male viewers, the most memorable) scramble being in the second part where somehow she slips out of her dress and the trawler-net and swims to a boat; she hauls herself into the boat clad in underwear. She discovers in the course of her investigation that the man killed is an Interpol agent on the trail of the crooks for drug-running and that another Interpol agent (Sali), masquerading as a flamenco dancer, is next on the crooks’ hit-list.

The plot barely exists with holes large enough for a pod of humpbacks to swim through. Fight scenes at least are well choreographed though highly improbable: you can’t tell me a skinny English woman can beat off four or five very hunky bodyguard types with a few judo chops and flip-overs. Although a rifle with sights appears in the first part of the film, no shots are ever fired. One would think also that if you stick your victim into a wine-press, you should make sure she never wakes up or at least stand by to see that the lady does not stop the cogs with her ring and stall the wine-press. The quality of the film is bad with washed-out colours but not so bad that we can’t see Rigg’s luminous face express subtle feelings and thoughts. Music is of the trashy Europop sort with bubbly acid-toned church organ melodies that go through the ears and brain like annoying muzak poison.

The film’s saving grace is its lead actor who at least looks as if she’s enjoying herself and glows throughout all four parts of the film. Rigg adds humorous touches such as wagging a stern finger at one minikiller doll when she discovers it’s carrying drugs and the No 1 henchman even throws an exaggerated look of exhaustion when the Boss tells him to go after Rigg for the umpteenth time. With no dialogue and hardly any substance to the plot which turns out to be fairly mundane – Rigg discovers an underground drug-running racket – the film relies heavily on its lead actor to carry it. Suffice to say that Rigg does an excellent job of salvaging her character and acting reputation, if not the film. The bad guys are hammy but the actors seem happy playing support to Rigg.

Here is proof if any is needed that it’s not good films that make good actors shine … it’s actually bad films that prove whether actors are good or not. A good actor can at least make his/her character look credible and salvage a good part of a bad film.

Algol, Tragedy of Power: modern Faustian morality tale of individual and social corruption with a conservative message

Hans Werckmeister, “Algol, Tragedy of Power / Algol, Tragödie der Macht” (1920)

A wonderful science fiction movie from the era of German Expressionist classics like “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, as its title implies, “Algol …” is a parable of how power can corrupt human beings and human society. The film can be seen as a variation on the German classic legend of Faust and his bargain with Mephistopheles. Spanning several decades, the film’s story begins with Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) slaving away as a miner in a coal mine owned by the wealthy Nissen family whose last heir is a young woman, Leonore. Herne is in love with Maria Obal (Hanna Ralph, who was married to Jannings at the time) who shares a garret with him: the film suggests they might be a de facto couple. One day while hacking at a coal seam, Herne meets a new coal miner (John Gottowt) who introduces himself as Algol. Algol moves in with Herne and Maria. One night Algol reveals himself as a native of a star system centred on the star Algol, which for centuries has been the stuff of legend, Greek and Arabian astronomers having regarded it as a demon star. Algol gives Herne a mechanical contraption which can harness the light of Algol the star and provide unlimited energy for the whole of planet Earth.

Over the next twelve months Herne builds a factory based around the Algol machine. In the meantime Maria has left Herne, foreseeing the ruin the energy discovery will bring him, and eloped with another man, Peter Hell, to a foreign country. The factory built, Herne opens it to much fanfare and his Bio Werks company goes straight to work producing electricity. Meanwhile the workers at the coal mine where Herne used to work revolt against their employer, Leonore (Gertrude Welcker), and Herne intercedes on Leonore’s behalf. He and she end up marrying. Cut 25 years into the future and Herne has become Dictator of the World who has used the income and profits his factory has generated into enslaving entire nations to provide food, water and other materials to his country and to enrich himself and his family beyond their wildest dreams.

Maria, by now a widow, has made a comfortable living on her farm in her adopted home. Unfortunately the coal mines in their country have been exhausted and the government there realises it has no choice but to buy electricity from Herne. The workers complain and Maria’s son Peter (Hans Adalbert Schettow) visits Herne at his mansion to plead for the electricity to be made free. Herne refuses and his daughter Magda (Kathe Haack), realising the extent to which wealth and power have corrupted Dad, follows Peter back to his farm where she is welcomed by Maria.

This sets in train Herne’s downfall and ultimate tragedy, and by extension the tragedy of humankind made wholly dependent on Herne’s energy-generating machine. Herne’s refusal to share his secret and allow nations to build their own Algol-style energy generators and become self-sufficient turns into a burden on him. Because of his refusal, the entire world teeters on political instability and economic apocalypse when he ages and death beckons. Herne’s wealth and unhappiness with his family, especially with his lazy and decadent son Reginald (Ernst Hofmann), is contrasted with Maria’s simple agrarian lifestyle and her close and happy relationship with her son: the film makes a morality tale of the contrast between industrial, modern society and its corrupting influences on people’s morality and character on the one hand, and on the other the traditional agricultural life, the nobility of honest work and self-sufficiency and how this moulds a wholesome, nurturing character.

The acting is nothing special and there is considerable over-acting by most characters though in a silent film that is to be expected. Characters tend to represent stereotypes and what character development occurs is quite limited. Female characters tend to be stronger than male characters in some ways, showing some backbone in the way they stand up to Herne and his maniacal quest for more power. The most enigmatic character is Algol the Mephistophelean alien who likens himself to a devil in case audience members don’t quite get the point of his being in the movie: his sneering or leering image is often superimposed over various critical scenes in the film.

The film’s best asset is its use of set designs influenced by the German Expressionist art movement of the period: Herne lives in a lavish palace with walls, floors and panels of avant-garde geometric design that contrast with scenes of the country and farm life in Maria’s country. Scenes in which Reginald appears with his lover Yella Ward (Erna Morena) are suitably debauched with exotic dancers and much revelry of an Orientalist stereotype familiar to audiences of the 1920s. Camera work is often inventive and emphasises the coldness and emotional distance that exists between Herne and his wife and children as they walk about in their huge palatial home.

Reginald plots with several others including Yella to take over dear old Dad’s empire and the film’s climax determines whether he will be successful or Herne can thwart his son’s ambition to be Nero after Dad’s Augustus Caesar. The fate of the world hangs on whichever of the two will succeed. Accordingly the film’s ending is pessimistic and in this I couldn’t help but think that an alternative which was suggested earlier – that the factory’s energy be made free to all peoples and nations – and for which Herne loses two close family members was not only better but also lost to that world’s eternal detriment. Given the historical context in which “Algol …” was made (just three years after the Bolshevik takeover of Russia), such an alternative might have damned the film as pro-socialist and would have limited its popularity within and without Germany. For an inventive science fiction film that makes pertinent commentary on how ownership of energy can corrupt owners and dependants alike through the way its use and abuse shape global political, social and economic institutions, and on the nature of work itself, how it can belittle or dignify human nature and morality, “Algol …” turns out to have a surprisingly conservative and despairing attitude towards working class people and their capacity to think for themselves, govern themselves and own and use resources wisely.

 

The Death Ray: early Soviet silent with plenty of action, skulduggery and even some poetic film-making

Lev Kuleshov, “The Death Ray / Luch Smerti” (1925)

A silent Soviet action thriller that starts with a workers’ revolt in a factory which is crushed by the factory owners and the police, forcing the leader of the revolt Thomas Lam to go into hiding, “The Death Ray” is one of the earliest Russian-language science fiction films made. Not surprisingly given the period it was made in, the movie has pro-Communist tones though it appears to be set in a foreign capitalist country. Unfortunately the English-language subtitles weren’t very good as the person who uploaded the film to Youtube (the film is in the public domain) had to transcribe from Spanish-language subtitles which in turn were transcribed by someone else from the original Russian and the title cards used in the film don’t appear to be completely within the camera’s focus so there were bits of the plot cut out. Still the effort made by NightOfTheLivingNES to give as much information as possible about the plot in English is commendable.

The film looks very pulpy, relying heavily on character stereotypes, a fast pace, what appear to be several plot strands and lots of action in which people perform amazing stunts like jumping off balconies set three storeys or more above the ground and suffering only a strained back afterwards: in real life, the man would have died or at least smashed both his legs from the impact of landing on his feet on hard concrete. A death ray is invented early in the film. There are scenes in which people narrowly escape being run over by trains and a plucky young mop-topped boy called Freddy makes a daring escape from the bad guy fascist spies. Plenty of skulduggery is going on between both sides. In  later part of the film, two aviators engage in a bloody knife fight after which one fellow attempts to cart off a heavy suitcase across a meadow; he gets bogged down in a marsh, his foe catches up with him, takes the case and shoves him right into the marsh where he glug-glugs to death.

Technically the film is a bit all over the shop: many scenes including the title cards look cut off at the edges, especially on the left-hand side (from this viewer’s point of view) and the edits look crude and amateurish compared to modern editing. On the other hand, there are very many stills of actors’ faces in close-up and very distinctively craggy and full of character these are: the elites look extra haughty and arrogant with their monocles, sharp profiles and polished, twirled moustaches and the ordinary workers have faces that might have been hewn out of rock. A number of female characters have distinctive and expressive long faces though some uncharitable viewers are sure to think the ladies should get their teeth capped or fixed. Scenes of flying planes near the end are breathtaking and there are some almost poetic shots of nature or scenes at unusual camera angles that might suggest some avant-garde artistic influence at work.

What made it to Youtube unfortunately got cut off at the end where a whole town appears to be in revolt and the death ray that’s supposed to make its appearance and presumably blast quite a few people out of this world and into their next existence fails to appear.

It looks pretty exciting and action-packed for a film of its time even without the science fiction element.

The Mole and the Matchbox / Der Maulwurf und die Geburt: how Krtecek makes creative multi-tasking look so easy and tidy

Zdenek Miler, “Krtek a zapalky / The Mole and the Matchbox” (1974)

Zdenek Miler, “Der Maulwurf und die Geburt / Krot i Rody” (1990s?)

I can’t find an English-language version of this Krtecek (The Little Mole) episode so I’m not really sure of the English title. The German title translates as “The Mole and the Birth”. In this episode, our little pal plays a minor multiple role as matchmaker, marriage celebrant and midwife to a pair of amorous bunnies who start off as flirts, fall deeply in love and matrimony, get pregnant and give birth to a trio of bonny kittens.

The episode is noteworthy for its minimal and matter-of-fact depiction of bunny sex – Miler discreetly removes a line between the kissing lagomorphs’ bellies – and of later bunny birth as the prospective father soothes his wife and whistles for the doctor. Krtecek comes charging with his case, opens it and tosses out surgical equipment to find a stethoscope to listen to the babies’ heartbeats. While Krtecek massages Mum’s tummy, Dad draws out the first child and two others pop out after much kneading from Krtecek. An insect musician hurries to serenade the happy family with a violin concerto and everyone dances a gentle polka. If only real life could be so easy and tidy!

A more charming piece is an earlier episode from the mid-1970s in which Krtecek and one of his regular co-stars the Mouse discover a matchbox and invent all kinds of fun uses for it: a boat, a swing, a table, a car and a go-kart. Eventually they find what it’s really for: it’s used to store the discarded matches on the forest floor and to light them up. Except they get rather more than they bargain for as the matches burn indefinitely into the night!

As with all other Krtecek episodes I’ve seen, these animations feature beautiful painted forest backgrounds and settings and there is no dialogue apart from children’s laughter and shouts of “Hallo!” Once again Krtecek proves himself a multi-tasking meister, and if he were to meet Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, why, between them they could solve Third World poverty and hunger, ensure everlasting peace in the Middle East, clean up the Daiichi nuclear reactor complex in Fukushima and get rid of global banksters and their pals in the worldwide arms manufacturing industry. If only real life could be so easy and tidy!

The Ring: an early technical triumph for Alfred Hitchcock in the sport movie genre

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Ring” (1927)

An early triumph for the young Alfred Hitchcock, released in the same year as his better known “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”, the boxing film “The Ring” deserves its own accolade as one of his more technically accomplished films from the silent movie era. Already the film features much symbolism in its name alone: there is the obvious reference to the boxing ring but the title also refers to a wedding ring, a bracelet and the love triangle that is the movie’s heart. Themes familiar to Hitchcock fans are not so much in evidence here and the major attractions lie in Hitchcock’s increasingly confident use of editing, montage, the camera as voyeur and development of character through action and emotion.

Jack Sander (Carl Brisson) works his way up as a boxer from fighting amateurs at country fairs to professional level. His main ambition is to succeed at boxing and earn enough money to marry the cashier Mabel (Lillian Hall Davis). However Mabel meets another boxer, Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), and falls in love with him. As Sander wins his bouts, he marries Mabel and continues to fight but gradually discovers his wife is still attracted to Bob. He vows to keep on fighting to a level where he can seriously challenge Corby. Eventually the match is arranged and everyone in town turns up to watch the match. Can Gander beat Corby and win back Mabel? Who will Mabel choose?

To us moderns, the story is hokey in its details but Hitchcock was more interested in the love triangle and the characterisation of Mabel who is the most developed character than in portraying boxing as a career in the 1920s. It’s a given in many of Hitchcock’s films that the main female character should be the most complex of the cast, no matter what the plot, and “The Ring” is no different here. Mabel is torn between the shallow, fun-loving life-style that Corby as an established professional boxer can offer her and the plainer, down-to-earth and genuine life that is Jack’s to give. The inner conflict that Mabel experiences is most vividly expressed in the climactic boxing scene where she is seen racing from Corby’s side to Jack’s side and back again. Hall Davis is quite effective as Mabel and has a lovely beauty in several shots. Unfortunately her career in films was short-lived; the arrival of talkies cut short further success and she committed suicide in 1933. Brisson brings to his role an imposing physical presence and height, and experience as an amateur boxer; he’s not much of an actor but he has a frank and open sincerity that makes him perfect as a wronged man. Ian Hunter as Corby hasn’t much to do apart from playing suave and seductive; he was to have a long film career that lasted nearly 40 years.

The film shows German Expressionist influences in a number of scenes and although the plot can be quite involved, it is skilfully relayed so as to rely on very few titles cards and the flow of the narrative is not disrupted as a result. Throughout his career, Hitchcock never forgot his roots in silent film and a number of his later movies, even famous ones made in the late 1950s and early 1960s like “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “Psycho”, feature extended scenes where nothing is said. The boxing scene where Sander and Corby settle their differences once and for all uses clever edits and a dream-like sequence simulating the effect of slight concussion to draw out and heighten the inner and outer conflicts of the two men: they are fighting not only for their reputations and careers, they are fighting for the love of a woman. There are scenes throughout the film where the camera is used as a voyeuristic device that lets us see how the rivalry between Sander and Corby develops and escalates.

It is quite a slow film in its first half and doesn’t accumulate pace and tension until Mabel’s adultery with Corby becomes overt and Sander’s anger at her betrayal threatens to get the better of him. Minor characters such as Sander’s trainer provide light relief and pause in the tension. Overall “The Ring” is recommended to Hitchcock fans to see how their favourite director was refining his signature style.

The Manxman: love triangle reveals early Hitchcock themes about love, duty and responsibility, and women’s oppression

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Manxman” (1929)

Last of Alfred Hitchcock’s true silent films, “The Manxman” is already straining at the limitations of the silent-film mode with its dark and complicated story of two men, friends since boyhood, who compete for the love of a woman in their small fishing community. Set in a village on the Isle of Man, this unhappy plot takes in quite a few themes that Hitchcock would return to many times over his career as a film director: the rocky path to true love, the individual’s struggle to be true to himself or herself versus social and community obligations, traditions and responsibilities which deny the individual his/her authenticity, the obsession with money and wealth, and the ruin that material aspiration may bring. There is also a message about the impact that class barriers have on people’s lives and desire for happiness and the ruin that comes when people strive for personal freedom and truth and find themselves up against the weight of tradition.

Pete, a poor fisherman, and Philip, a lawyer whose family has supplied the Isle of Man with judges for a long time, have been working together to get a fair deal for their fishing community. They (Carl Brisson and Malcolm Keen respectively) have been pals since childhood and trust each other deeply. Pete falls in love with the publican’s daughter Kate (Anny Ondra) but her father rejects him because of his poverty. Pete asks Phil to look after Kate and sails away to Africa to find his fortune. During his time away, Phil and Kate fall deeply in love. The community receives news that Pete has died and the two lovers believe they are free. Pete returns from Africa as a rich man and claims Kate; they marry and move into their new home. Yet Kate still loves Phil and her anguish eats away at her. Phil meanwhile buries himself in work and prepares to become Deemster (judge). Matters reach an extreme point when Kate attempts suicide and Phil must choose between his new career as Deemster and his love for Kate.

Characterisation is strong if rather stereotyped: Pete is played as a simple man lacking in insight who unthinkingly forces Phil and Kate to be together; Phil is more intelligent if less brave; and Kate, the most complex of the three, is the most true to herself and the strongest, determined not to live a lie and to be with the man she loves in spite of his cowardice. Character development is rather uneven, most of it occurring at the climax when Phil and Kate admit their affair and Pete realises the emotional torture he put his best friend and his love through. Although the film ends uncertainly for the three main characters, the outcome is also satisfactory for the audience as the deceit has ended and Pete is almost literally a new man, having learned that money, wealth and increased social status cannot buy or keep love.

The film was made in a fishing village on the Isle of Man and has much of the flavour of the community there though the plot and characters strongly dominate in nearly all scenes. There are beautiful shots of the landscape and something of the lives of the fisherfolk and their customs is clear. Tradition is quite strong and the people have a simple and robust Christian faith and belief in their Manxian traditions which, unfortunately, prove ineffective against young romantic love and a woman’s desire to live a true life. Hitchcock is sympathetic to Kate’s needs and desires but balances his sympathy with respect and sympathy for the fishing community. Kate’s love rivals are lesser men compared to the woman but eventually derive their strength and maturity from her example.

Although made at quite an early time in Hitchcock’s career, “The Manxman” bears comparison with later Hitchcock films like “Vertigo”, “Psycho” and “The Birds”, all of which share in the film’s concerns about love, duty and responsibility, betrayal and how society oppresses women and denies them their worth as individuals.

 

 

Krtek a Hodiny: amusing children’s animated film hides a moral about industrialisation’s effects on humans

Zdenek Miler, “Krtek a Hodiny” (1995)

Found this 28-minute cartoon on Youtube while looking for Latvian animated shorts which compared to the abundance of Estonian animated films I found last month (July 2012) appear very scarce and what there is, is made for children’s television. This work is also aimed at children but at nearly 30 minutes in length, it seems a mighty stretch for littlies’ attention span. Just as well though that it has a strong story-line in which the three main characters – Mole, Rat and Rabbit, all with wide, startled-looking eyes and perennially cheerful expressions – come across an alarm clock that’s just fallen off the back of a truck travelling through their forest home. After a few surprises, the trio rapidly accustom themselves to the clock and the daily routines it forces on them while other animals in the forest, especially the family of owls, must put up with the discomfort of the constant ticking that upsets their sleep and other circadian rhythms. Over time though, Mole, Rat and Rabbit find themselves enslaved to the clock’s demands of constant exercise and work, and the other animals become increasingly distressed by the clock having taken over their friends’ lives until one animal decides to get rid of the clock once and for all.

The action is completely silent save for the sound of children’s laughter when the animals are happy and the occasional tears when they’re sad. Cheery accordion and other instrumental music accompanies the action. The animation looks ingeniously simple, at least until your glance starts wandering over the forest backgrounds and it’s here that the film’s charm is displayed in full glory: the painted  backgrounds are beautifully and lovingly rendered and coloured in a small-scale, homely and friendly folksy way. The paintings looks as if they are in watercolour and the emphasis on pale washed-out greens and blues contrasts with the animals’ stronger browns, blacks, greys and other block colours.

The story didn’t completely pan out to my satisfaction: Mole, Rat and Rabbit should at least have acknowledged that the clock had them in its slave-master grip and should have been made aware of the upset the other forest denizens were experiencing and the estrangement between themselves and the other animals that was developing as a result. Co-operation is a major theme here and all the animals could have been shown as agreeing that the clock is the source of their problems and tensions so they could all work towards ridding themselves of their unwanted guest. The clock itself appears friendly but its face betrays no expression; it’s a completely ambivalent being. A little moral might be present: if it’s very easy for Mole, Rat and Rabbit to fall into a trap created by the clock, so it may be easy also for humans to let their lives become debased by machine routines and that at the end of the day, it’s not how much activity and work you pack into a set period, it’s how you enjoy what you do and having time to play and be friends with others that count.

The film can be found on Youtube as “Kurmis un modinatajpulkstenis”, its Latvian name. There are other animated shorts about Mole and his friends that have been uploaded in Czech, German and Hungarian.


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.

A Man and a Dog Out For Air: inventive and original experimental animation piece

Robert Breer, “A Man and a Dog Out For Air” (1957)

Why have I never heard of this wonderful animator before? This very short animation piece is wonderfully imaginative and minimalist to the point of experimental abstraction. In this 2-minute wonder, a man takes his dog out for a walk and through their eyes we experience what they encounter on their amble through the neighbourhood. What they see isn’t out of the ordinary – they see birds in the sky for one thing and that’s about it for objects overhead (sorry, no fleets of alien spacecraft come all the way from the other end of the Milky Way galaxy to take over our planet) – but the cartoon held me spellbound thanks to the extreme minimalist approach used.

Well yes, the background is plain white paper and the lines are no more than moving serpentine scribbles that emerge from two straight lines drawn on the page. To the accompaniment of mechanical bird calls and occasional traffic sirens, the scribbles move quickly and gracefully to portray landscape, weather, animal life around the man and his dog, various other objects they see and finally a set of stairs. Before the film ends on the word “End”, we are treated to a couple of views of the eponymous portly gentleman and his pooch.

The film takes on the quality of abstract drawings as the lines shift and what actual drawings emerge are usually in naif or primitive form. The pace is very fast and some viewers might need to see the short a few times to realise that they’re seeing things from the man and dog’s points of view and that they have to use their imaginations to make sense of the squiggles and lines as they fold and unfold constantly over the screen.

Remarkably “A Man and a Dog Out for Air” isn’t even the most experimental of Breer’s shorts, the fellow did more animation that’s even more breath-takingly original and creative. I wanna see it all!

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.