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

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

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

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

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

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

Nael / The Nail (dir. Heino Pars): inventive stop-motion animation short about human nature and revenge

Heino Pars, “Nael / The Nail” (1972)

Droll little animation short “Nael” consists of four stories that illustrate aspects of life in Soviet Estonia in the 1970s using stop-motion animation. First up is a story of two nails who fall in love and have a baby only for the bigger nail of the two to turn deadbeat runaway dad. The second story is of a young nail investigating a hammer who suffers the inevitable smack-down. Third up is a gangland fight that ends only when one nail is arrested by the police (represented as a magnet). The fourth story takes place in a circus in which the lion-tamer orders his kitty to perform various demeaning tricks such as jumping through a ring of fire. The lion reserves its best trick at the very end though which of course means a kat-astrophe for the lion tamer.

The animation is inventive with a minimalist style. All the action is silent so Pars must work at telling his stories and he succeeds . Particularly original is the way Pars gets his nails to conceive babies in the heat of lust, punch one another’s lights out and turn bow-ties into rings ablaze with fire. Viewers quickly acclimatise to the blank backgrounds in which the only stage props are windows are indicated only by matchsticks. Nothing moral or dark is illustrated here apart from perhaps the second story which might be a “curiosity killed the cat” morality story or a snide poke at the Soviet system. Viewers will warm to the fourth story which, although predictable, has a very cheeky sense of humour.

Cyberpunk trio of shorts proves substance still triumphs over style

Marcio E Gonçalves, “Rendering Lisa” (2010)

Mehmet Can Koçak, “Perspective” (2011)

Jesus Orellana, “Rosa” (2011)

A homage to cyberpunk sci-fi writers William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, “Rendering Lisa” is a short home-made film about the pitfalls of entering virtual reality. Some time before the events of “Rendering Lisa”, a young man steals money from an eco-terrorist group and explodes a bomb in a park, killing himself and his girlfriend Lisa. The young man’s surviving brother Michael (Kenny Leu) is strong-armed by eco-terrorist group member Harry (Shahaub Roudbari) into hacking into a computer program that contains the details of the bank account where the brother put the money. Problem is, once Michael’s in the program, he must speak to an avatar to access the account details and the avatar turns out to be Lisa (Jennifer Vo Le) who only wants to talk about the brother and a past romance the real Lisa had with Michael. After several attempts, Michael finally convinces Lisa to hand over details of the account and the relationship they had looks to be reviving until something unexpected happens …

It’s a pithy little short in which Michael realises the thin line between reality and virtuality is wafer-thin indeed, and at the end of the film he’s tempted to revive that lost romance with “Lisa” in spite of all that’s happened. Roudbari and Leu over-act their parts but as they’re not professional actors (though Leu looks like Cantopop romeo material), their histrionic efforts can be forgiven. The action is crisp and fast and editing is very well done. The stuttering electronic music is annoying and Gonçalves could have done without it entirely. The opening and closing credits are wonderfully done by Gonçalves and perhaps if he had more money, he could have added more special effects to make his virtual world look more realistic and colourful than the real world, so much so that Kenny could have been tempted to stay there with Lisa and never return to Harry.

“Perspective” is a clever Turkish cyberpunk short by Koçak who stars as the nameless hobo in a futuristic dystopian city. He pays money to a pimp who hands him some software and then enters a derelict building and goes up to an empty room where he finds a computer keyboard. He plugs the software into the keyboard, jacks into it by plugging a wire into a portal in his head (in the manner of the hero of William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer”) and using his retinas as a computer screen, pursues a red-haired girl in the software. He is interrupted by an intruder who turns out to be a mirror image of himself. Or is the stranger really an image? Horrified, Koçak ‘s character challenges the avatar to a duel with predictably disastrous results.

This is a highly intriguing film with a well developed concept and everything in the short working together: the film’s ambience is grimy and oppressive in a way reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and the sharp-edged music, used sparingly, suits the dark tone of the short. The use of hand-held camera conveys claustrophobia and comes into its own when the hobo meets his double and there’s a delicious twist when he reaches out to touch what he expects should be a mirror. The animation is cleverly inserted into the short and viewers get a real sense of first-person perspective with the clever use of the viewing screen as the hobo’s eyes which double as the computer screen.

Not quite so clever though versatile nevertheless is Orellana’s “Rosa”, set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which a female android fights for survival against two other androids in an endless post-industrial labyrinth. Although the animation is beautiful and Gothic in appearance and ambience, the plot features too much superhero fighting, jumping and other unbelievable hi-jinx, and no actual story is told. We never find out why the male android and a second female android, in appearance the clone of the protagonist, are so hostile towards her or why the original female bleeds blood that turns into roses when the other female android doesn’t have the same effect on her surroundings when bloodied. Pity really because Orellana did everything himself and the details of the building’s backgrounds and the near-religious associations and nostalgia they evoke are stunning and Romantic: “Rosa” is a real work of love as well as labour on Orellana’s part.

I hazard that Orellana originally wanted to make something different from what’s actually realised but his bosses at Hollywood insisted on the short being “accessible” to the lowest common couch-potato public denominator so that meant having to include a lot of tiresome martial arts faffing and flailing about. The short might have worked better if the androids had fought, then faced a common enemy so they reconcile their differences to defeat the foe, and maybe as they’re deciding whether to live and work together or resume their petty grievances, the film cuts out.

Best of the trio is “Perspective” for its clever story with a twist done on a limited budget.

Linn (City): a well-meaning if dated moral tale about industrialisation

Reino Raamat, “Linn / City” (1988)

Earnest and well-meaning, Raamat”s “Linn” is a moral tale of what happens when a town is overcome by industrialisation and the warped, mechanised culture and soulless values that follow in its wake and the town citizens are worn down by the sheer enormous scale of the changes and their seductive embrace. In the context of its time, the animation short might be seen as a nationalistic protest against the Sovietisation of Estonia and  how it reduces everyone to the lowest common denominator, robbing people of their ethnic, religious and other identities as well as their individuality. The short begins in a nameless town, already stacked with cardboard-like anonymous high-rise buildings in which people are living like rats anyway, cultivating their dreams and indulging their love in their children (obvious symbols of the future), which is invaded by huge black blocks that crowd the existing buildings together. Outraged, the citizens of the town form a movement, symbolised by a huge figure, to push back the block. For a short time they succeed but the black block sends out rays of gold money and infiltrate the buildings with lubricious ladies of the night and the men of the town are quickly entranced and enthralled by these gifts. While some stalwarts put up a strong resistance, in the end their efforts come to nought as the women are forced to cradle mini-blocks and the whole town is swallowed up in the miasma of mass industrial society and culture.

The black-and-white animation shows the issue in all its brutal starkness and scenes of mass assembly manufacture verge on Konstruktivist abstraction. There’s a fair amount of female nudity and tastefully portrayed sexual intercourse so the short clearly isn’t intended for children. Characters are representative of various social strata and adhere to traditional gender stereotypes. Women are portrayed either as Madonnas or whores and men as either noble and heroic or weak and easily corrupted. Music varies according to the needs of the narrative with electronic music representing the onslaught of mass industry and its filthy insinuations into people’s lives.

Though the animation is very good, the theme and thus the narrative and characterisation are dated, even for the period portrayed. Workers and capitalists can’t simply be portrayed as good against evil any more: in modern societies now, be they capitalist, corporate fascist, socialist or other, ideologies valuing economic rationality and progress, technocracy, human control of nature, debt-based finance and belief in economic competition and nationalism still hold sway and can be just as destructive of human happiness and life as  Communism was in Estonia from 1945 to 1991.

Nõiutud saar (The Enchanted Island): a sweet and charming film with a moral about unity in diversity

Riho Unt and Hardi Volmer, “Nõiutud Saar (The Enchanted Island)” (1985)

Another gem from Tallinnfilm studios and this time it’s a cute stop-motion animation short with no dialogue, just harmonica and string-based tune fragments to substitute for speech and emotion and to emphasise action. The style is simple and sweet with appealing characters; even the monster that pops up with rows of sharp teeth bared in the middle of the body where the head should bounce up is endearingly cute. Initially the film appears to be aimed at children but there is a slight sexual though harmless innuendo in the middle of the short.

A small group of fishing folk lives on a tiny island in the middle of a vast flat sea. Each day they row out to catch fish. One member of the group – usually always the youngest or most inexperienced – has trouble putting his boat out to sea and nearly always drowns while fishing. One day though the fishers are overcome by a monster whale; the little guy turns out to have the most guts and gets rid of the whale. However it seems the monster whale has cast a spell over the rest of the group, all the fishers having gone spastic in their attempts to appease their god, so the little feller converts himself into a bird-machine and flies to another realm to fight the evil spirit. He has to do this three times before the spell is finally broken and the fishers return to their normal functioning selves.

The little characters are Swiss-knife cybernetic organisms that change their forms and this is where the animation is most inventive; the little guys’ hands change from fins to harpoons to wings whenever required. They have expressive eyes but otherwise don’t show emotion. The evil that confronts our hero comes in various forms: firstly as a leviathan whale, then as a beguiling lady flamenco dancer (whom our hero defeats by turning into an old-fashioned gramophone player) and then as an even more colossal whale with a hidden secret weapon. The music is charming and whimsical: harmonica represents our hero’s character including his initial awkward klutziness and later bravery while other characters are accompanied by other instruments, mainly strings.

It’s a funny, sweet and charming little film with a little moral for children that it doesn’t matter if they’re not the same as other children in certain skills: everyone is unique and might have a special talent that helps everybody survive together. The fishing folk accept our hero in spite of his incompetence as a fisher as he has other abilities that help them all. The one flaw people might find is that the fishing folk tend to ignore our hero throughout the film and don’t appear to change their attitudes towards him; some change in the way they interact with him might have lifted the film to universal greatness. Disney-style sentimentality is not called for here, just a slight acknowledgement of what he’s done for them is all that’s needed.

Põrgu (Hell): good versus evil in homage to a 20th century Estonian surrealist artist

Rein Raamat, “Põrgu (Hell)” (1983)

While watching “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees”, I noticed that Thronoi the Bear who had uploaded this film in its entirety to Youtube had also uploaded some Estonian animated films so I decided to check out some of those. “Põrgu” is a remarkable short piece by noted animation director Rein Raamat and is based on three drawings, or three sets of drawings, by the early 20th-century surrealist artist Eduard Wiiralt: these are called “Hell”, “Cabaret” and “The Preacher. The original drawings, made during the 1930s while Wiiralt was struggling for recognition in Paris where he was living at the time, appear at the end of the film and have a very nightmarish and deliriously erotic quality; it is this quality that Raamat captures in this animated chimera tribute to Wiiralt.

A lively cabaret filled with dancing couples and drinkers, nearly all of whom look debauched and corrupted by sensuous materialism, becomes a battleground between the forces of good, represented by a fiery-eyed preacher, his hair standing on end and all messed up as such passionate, near-fanatical desert prophet fellows usually have their hair styled; and the forces of evil in the guise of a Pan-like devil playing merry tunes on a cornet. The various dancers switch from sedate tango to lively can-can music and back again as the preacher first claims back the dancers and drinkers from the satanic embrace and the devil rallies his fires and can-can girls to lure back the hapless couples and drinkers. The dastardly one calls on giant robot figures with gun barrels in their eyes and mouths, ready to shoot. A battle royale ensues, the dancers contort and change into monsters and for a while it seems that Evil has triumphed over Good. But Good soon revives and sends out new shoots and branches of life that overcome Evil. Too late though Good comes to save any of the dancers who are too far gone in their enslavement to the pleasures of lust and other sins when under the devil’s spell and even the preacher himself is unable to withstand the intense attractions and powers of Hell.

The drawings are astonishingly detailed and highly individualistic; each dancer, each bar customer has his or her own particular jaded and corruptible look. One woman character, unmoving, appears extremely monstrous in her wrinkled face and neck. Women’s bodies ooze with eroticism even under their diaphanous gowns though their bodies may not be of the babelicious hour-glass kind. People’s heads, necks and shoulders seem to have an odd phallic silhouette to them. The animation sticks closely to the style and fluid neuroticism of the two-dimensional drawings so there’s no colour to the film and the only sound is that of the music which bounces between violin-dominated tango and woodwind-led dance music.

It seems odd and rather old-fashioned for an animated short to posit tango and can-can music together as rivals for the souls of humanity but the difference between the two turns out to be one of degree. I guess the fact that the dancers and drinkers are already in the cabaret shows that to some extent they’re already compromised beings in succumbing to hedonism for its own sake. There are Biblical figures including doves and a naked nude female statue in the pose of a sacrificial virgin who in the humour of a Svankmajer or Borowczyk film sprouts several breasts brimming with milk, all trying to save humans from ruin by their appetites.

The film is worth watching as an introduction to the work of a significant Estonian surrealist artist of the early 20th century and the spirit of that work.

The Trip (dir. Kihachiro Kawamoto): lesson on Buddhist attitude to suffering falls short on what it should teach

Kihachiro Kawamoto “Tabi (The Trip)” (1973)

Very striking little animation piece, reminiscent of an extended Monty Python cartoon piece, “The Trip” looks quite simple and has a simple plot but its intention is to educate viewers about aspects of Buddhist religious philosophy and its attitude towards suffering. A young woman goes on a plane trip to a strange country of surreal landscapes where she views a suicide, meets a poor cannibal, encounters war and sees a man who may have been her boyfriend in a past life. After these and other distinctly non-touristy and very uncomfortable experiences, she returns home, definitely sadder for the experience and presumably much wiser about the ways of the world.

The life cycle from birth to maturity to ageing and death, accompanied by disease, is illustrated in the film as are also other forms of suffering supposedly taught by Buddha: the sufferings of the mind and body, hanging onto the things you desire but not getting what you want, losing a loved one and having to meet people who annoy you or whom you find toxic in some way. I found Kawamoto’s treatment of the sufferings rather superficial, perhaps because of the deliberate decision not to have any sound in the film apart from a piano soundtrack, and the film shows nothing about acceptance of change and the non-permanence of all things, even the universe, and how this acceptance can free us from unhappiness and suffering. At the end of the film, the young woman appears not to be enlightened about the nature of suffering and how it tests her character and makes her a better, stronger person.

Bookended by static photographic scenes of people hopping on and off trains, the film is a string of static and colourful collages through or across which character cut-outs move somewhat crudely. The film moves at a steady pace and there’s some discontinuity as the main character’s clothes suddenly change about twice or three times during a trip that appears to be a one-day trip only. Comparisons can be made with Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations: there are puzzling landscapes in which objects become unusual just by their juxtaposition but Kawamoto doesn’t attempt to over-saturate the viewer’s senses with colour, movement (not much at all) or eccentricity for its own sake.

Technically this is a very well-done film but in its plot and message, the film says very little other than that the world doesn’t exist for our comfort and we had better get used to it!

Anemic Cinema: experimental film of spirals wears its welcome out quickly

Marcel Duchamp, “Anémic Cinéma” (1926)

Here’s an intriguing 7-minute animated film that consists of a sequence of spiralling patterns, either of actual spirals or concentric circles around a central sphere intercut with three-dimensional phonograph disks with various cryptic messages of a tongue-twisting, alliterative or punning nature circling on them. The accompanying music consists entirely of a looping melody played over and over on a solo stringed or keyboard instrument. The steadily whirling patterns appear to bounce up and down and sometimes give the impression that viewers can see right into them; they may also appear to speed up or slow down, brighten up or reduce the light. The effect of both images and music soundtrack can either be hypnotic or frankly boring and monotonous depending on whether the viewer suffers a sudden attack of attention-deficit disorder where s/he never experienced it before while watching the film. The film does start wearing out its attention halfway through. Needless to say there’s no plot or other linear narrative device to speak of and the film could either have been made in one hit or have been a cut-and-paste job. Duchamp refuses even to speed up or slow down the sequencing of images to cater for his target audience (most likely himself and a few friends).

The film is credited to Rrose Selavy which is a pseudonym Duchamp frequently used for his creations. It does suffer from being filmed in black-and-white, colour not being available in the late 1920s as the use of colour could have extended the film’s life and maintained audience attention to the end. As it is, the film is an interesting exercise in Dadaist film-making and encourages viewers to see the art of film-making as something beyond story-telling.


Entr’acte: brave and experimental film-making with no linear narrative

René Clair, “Entracte” (1924)

This film’s title derives from its originally being an interlude between two acts of a ballet. Director Clair deliberately sought to make a film shorn of all conventional story-telling narrative and concentrated instead on making a highly impressionistic work. He juxtaposes various images and scenes such as cityscape scenes, boxing scenes, a view of two men playing chess on top of a building and others to suggest nervous energy and the almost neurotic pace of everyday modern urban life. Cinematic techniques available at the time included layering images over one another, filming from different angles (including filming a ballerina dancing on glass from beneath her), slow motion filming and splitting an image are all used. There is no narrative or story to follow though the second half of the film focusses on a funeral procession where the coffin runs away from the mourners through a city street and the mourners have to race after it. By making a film of unusual visual style and technique and abandoning all notions of linear narrative where one thing has to lead to another, Clair is suggesting we do away with old paradigms and mind-sets of seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing everyday life and common objects.

Erik Satie’s music is an important part of the film: Satie wrote the music to match the action and sequencing of images and in this way created a true soundtrack. The cast of actors appearing in the film include Satie himself, the photographer Man Ray and artist Marcel Duchamp. The influence of the anarchist Dada art movement which ridicules lack of meaning in the modern world is strong.

Some viewers may find the film uneven and hard to understand: the film’s first half may look disorganised but the second half which revolves around a runaway funeral hearse and the people following it may make more narrative sense (although there’s no need to look for a narrative since none supposedly exists). Scenes on a rollercoaster that include it being upside-down in some images and the camera constantly moving might make a few viewers quite dizzy. Overall this is very brave and experimental film-making from a film pioneer.


Les Vampires (Part 10: Les Noces Sanglantes): conclusion to an intelligent action-thriller serial

Louis Feuillade, “Les Vampires (Part 10: Les Noces Sanglantes)” (1916)

Some time after the events of Part 9, star reporter Phillipe Guérande and Jane Bertonnier have married and set up their own home and hire Augustine Charlet, the widow of the Guérandes’ concierge who was poisoned during the engagement party, as their chambermaid. Augustine is still troubled by the circumstances of her husband’s death and is determined to find the murderers. The Vampires, wanting the Guérandes out of the way once and for all, take advantage of Augustine’s naivety and slip a note to her advising her to see Madame Alba, a seer. Augustine does so (with lovestruck Mazamette on her trail) and is hypnotised by the seer. The Vampires use Augustine as a pawn in an attempt on the Guérandes’ lives but Mazamette foils the murder plot and the Vampires settle for kidnapping Jane and imprisoning her in their mansion while Guérande, Mazamette and Augustine go to the police. Augustine ends up abducted by the Vampires while the police, Guérande and Mazamette visit Madame Alba’s. Irma Vep and the Grand Vampire, Venomous, escape the police but clever Mazamette discovers a way of tracing the gang to its other digs. Guérande investigates the mansion on his own and discovers the prison where his wife and maid are being held; he can’t rescue them but is able to supply a gun to Jane in case she needs it.

Irma Vep and Venomous celebrate their wedding and hold a wild reception that includes dancing and acrobatics in the entertainment but the police gatecrash the party and kill or capture most of the guests. Venomous dies in police custody. Irma Vep threatens Augustine and Jane but Jane kills Irma Vep with Guérande’s gun.

The plot cleverly leads from one scenario to another at a fast clip that never pauses and which calls for much use of stunt actors (mostly circus acrobats) to abseil from buildings and climb walls and balconies. The details of how the stunt actors get up and down may look amateurish and Feuillade obviously never heard of concepts like occupational health and safety and what that might involve; Jane’s kidnapping scene alone would have throttled her dead before she’s even in the getaway car but one never lets “minor” techncial and medical details like that and the police’s cavalier treatment of a chemical bomb that might blow them up or gas them dead stand in the way of a rollicking story! The acting in this episode and Part 9 is much better than in the earliest episodes: there’s still a lot of emoting that looks excessive to us moderns but one must remember that expressionism in film and other areas of art was a dominant trend and as film also did not have sound until the late 1920s, actors needed to use facial expressions, hand gestures and other body language to convey emotions.

Although the filming is in black and white with use of coloured filters to show the time of day and the passage of time itself, viewers and students of culture and history can see and judge for themselves the urban architecture of Paris, in particular the less visually attractive parts where the action takes place, the fashions people wore and the domestic interiors and furnishings they used. The film is a valuable cultural artifact in itself for these reasons. Also valuable is the respect that Feuillade shows for his audience and his expectation that viewers can follow the action or even two threads of the plot occurring simultaneously; at the same time, he’s not above humour and poking fun at Mazamette who at one point in the episode addresses the audience directly and in another sees himself the subject of a cartoon caricature.

Features of the plot that might strike some viewers as unusual include the sight of Jane defending herself on two occasions and women being much more independent and pro-active than they are even in current Hollywood film productions. The Vampires themselves are portrayed as ordinary people and not as a bunch of evil criminals. Leadership in the gang is open to upper class and bourgeois people at least. There is the insinuation that evil and corruption exist everywhere in society and any one of us could be a member of the gang. The Vampires have a good time together, eating and drinking greedily, dancing the latest jigs enthusiastically and laughing at Mazamette’s portrait; compared to the sober Guérandes and their servants, and the police officers, the Vampires know how to enjoy life – again, this may be a comment on the nature of French society in 1916: the good guys are proper and restrained but perhaps alienated from feeling and emotion; the bad guys break the law and snub authority but they have worthy qualities that the good have lost or don’t understand. Interestingly when Guérande gets a good look at Irma Vep lying dead on the ground, he seems upset and wants to do something for her but Mazamette leads him away.

Overall the serial is an enjoyable romp through some quite convoluted plots all linked together through their characters and the over-riding narrative of chasing down and combating evil and corruption, and how that chase can have dangerous consequences for the good hunters. The actors acquit themselves well and for a number of them, this serial was the high point in their careers.

The serial was a hit in France and Musidora (real name: Jeanne Roques) who played Irma Vep wowed audiences so much with her mysterious and slightly sinister beauty and head-to-toe black costume that Feuillade employed her again in his next film “Judex” (1916). Musidora later became a director and producer herself and concentrated on writing and film production in the 1950s as her acting career waned. Édouard Mathé who played Phillipe Guérande also appeared in “Judex” and had quite a prolific film career from 1914 to 1924. Marcel Lévesque who played Mazamette enjoyed a very long career as an actor from 1913 to 1957.