“Every spectator is a plotter, if he tries to explain a word (to know!)”of mine has a prosthetic leg, and he has a 2½ year old daughter. It’s my gift to her, I wanted her to have a film where she can see someone just like her dad, being part of this world just like all the other characters.”Tristan Tzara, speech delivered in Zurich 23 July, 1918.
Let’s update the “he” to “s/he” but other than that, welcome to LIAF dear plotter.
“You can perform contrary actions at the same time, in one single, fresh breath: I am against action; as for continual contradiction, and affirmation too, I am neither for them nor against them, and I won’t explain myself because I hate common sense”
Tzara again, same gig. It must have been quite the night out. I may be completely wrong but I think I might have no idea what that means: except…..
Christopher Allen was right all along. And doubling his cred, he knows the difference between Rupert Murdoch and a pile of melting wax. But he does us all (or me at least) a service by reminding us (or me at least) that the centenary of Dada is ‘rapidly approaching’ – which is a bit Dadaist in its own way because it’s wrong.
From the perspective of animation (or mine at least), Dada is the big mixing bowl that a pantry load of isms are stirred together in to create something like the raw dough for a lot of great animation over the years and to this very day. Surrealism, constructivism and minimalism went into the blend by the cup but pick your ism and there’s probably a pinch or a sprinkle of it evident in any number of animated films.
The oft and well documented performative outpourings of the early Dadaists are of a genus and a rhythm that many animators routinely bring to the screen. Likewise, the predisposition to ignore, disrupt or trample creative norms. Culture jammers and those who look to use art to disrupt the mirage of life-as-usual abound numerously in both camps.
It takes a certain attitude to make a really good animated film; a particular way of looking at the world before the first line is drawn, the first character is created or the colours selected. One tends to need a particular feel for the sometimes wily, sometimes guileless ways of humans, how they move and behave and react before the population of an interesting or evocative or provocative animated film even gets to the drawing board.
I know those instincts can be trained, guided and fine-tuned: I’m not as sure they can be created from scratch. I think they have to be in there – inexplicably gifted and grafted to the soul of the artist from the get-go. And it is this stuff that is the ancestral Dadaist in many animators, the little strand of DNA that is critical in making the bigger animation gene. I’m fairly certain of that – and it sort of ties in with my theory that Tzara was softening the ground for an understanding of the animation gene all those years ago.
Of course, Tzara also blurted out: “Dada has 391 different attitudes and colours depending on the sex of the chairman” and I haven’t got the foggiest idea what that is supposed to mean.
But what underpinned and energised the emergence of the Dadaist movement was a despair at the depth that humanity had let itself sink to as the horrors of World War I became viscerally evident and a blueprint for a creative approach to contemplate our humanness in wholly different ways. It is one of the most important roles artists undertake and – in their own way – that desire to suggest looking at the human experience from a variety of different angles is the common thread that runs through the films in this programme.
There is a wonderfully warm and universal sense of ‘humanness’ that emanates out from the very first frame of this programme’s opening film Luce And The Rock by Britt Raes. Her last film, Catherine (2016), was one of the most screened and awarded animated shorts of the time. It gave Raes the opportunity to travel to places she never thought she would ever visit and it reminded her of the diversity of the singular human family. That is a diversity she wanted to ensure was subtly captured in her next film; not a core or overt message but simply as a representation of the way the world is.
That diversity plays out here in all sorts of ways, covering a variety of cultural, ethnic and gender backgrounds. One character even has a prosthetic leg, something that Raes told Skwigly was a gift to the daughter of a previous housemate of hers.
“A previous housemate of mine has a prosthetic leg, and he has a 2½ year old daughter. It’s my gift to her, I wanted her to have a film where she can see someone just like her dad, being part of this world just like all the other characters.”
Luce And The Rock is a film that makes simply outstanding use of all the unique properties of animation. Light can become a physical element of the environment, building a space as if it were paint or magic fabric. The sense of weight granted to different objects in the film varies from moment to moment depending on – and contributing to – the needs of the narrative arc as it glides forward. Sizes, shapes and the very ‘anima’ – the life force within an object or character – all seamlessly transform as required. Nothing is real, everything is real. It doesn’t do any harm that it is also an absolutely beautiful film to just take in and the message threads that weave continuously through it can be translated by minds of almost any age.
The programme effects a distinctive gear change as we pivot to On the Bottom of the Laundry Bag by Adele Razkövi. In the late 1980’s I met a guy in Eastern Oregon who spent his time mismatching the heads and bodies of dead animals and burying the results with a view to confusing future archaeologists. The exact provenance of some of his corpus menagerie was not always comfortably clear and I don’t remember his name but it served as an illuminative reminder that hitchhiking in the USA could take you places you never planned to go. Fast forward and the rise of the internet must surely make archaeologists or at least anthropologists redundant one day one assumes? Everything you need to know about a human or collective humans would surely have been mega recorded and be readily available. Perhaps, although the internet – much like our climate – must be reaching a tipping point where the poisons we feed into it boil over and wipe out whole chunks of the knowledge environment we all rely on to behave, interact and survive as functioning humans. Regardless, scholars of the simple human condition can relax – there remain plenty of untapped pathways of exploration, PhD proposals and research grants.
The humble laundry bag must be an absolute treasure trove for anybody looking to dissect the colossal minutiae of our everyday lives. Every piece of clothing belongs to somebody unique, every piece of clothing got dirty for a different reason and every piece of clothing has its own little story to tell if only it could before it goes into the machine for a reset. Razkövi’s film might not literally be about that but it is a message that bursts forth like an exploding front loader. Putting aside these ‘independent’ interpretations, On the Bottom Of The Laundry Bag‘ is an accomplished piece of multimedia animated art deploying hand painted animation ranging from virtually abstract all the way across to the bizarrely enigmatic; stop-motion animation ranging from fluidly contorted claymation characters to more rigid dolls and roughly hewn line drawings that work in support of a despairing narration.
After the apocalypse if the archaeologists don’t want to rummage through our old laundry bags they will find just as much potential for simple human enlightenment if they go through our sheds, basements and drawers. That’s if the animators haven’t beaten them to it. If they want a few tips for just how diverse this exercise could be they might want to preload on The Garbage Man by Portuguese animator Laura Gonçalves.
This affecting and incredibly detailed film took out – among others – the grand prizes at Zagreb and Monstra earlier this year. On one level it is about a specific man, Gonçalves’ uncle. But on another, it is a pictorial rendering of the life of an ‘everyman’. The uncle in the film is both a gift from Gonçalves to her wider family and an attempt to give voice to the lives of so many people who lived lives that appear so similar to his.
“There is great power in the “real” voice that tells personal experiences”, Gonçalves told Zippy Frames in an interview. “And I am interested in exploring these realities through the expression of animation, the use of the moving line, and painting to represent more abstract moments, feelings, experiences, traumas and dream situations. In this way, animation has so much potential for expressing situations that everyone in the world can relate to.”
Ninety-Five Senses‘ by Jerusha and Jared Hess travels in almost the opposite direction as it looks to capture the glow of the singular and the personal. Although not ostensibly based on a real person, there will be many real people that can easily inhabit this character’s skin, who have committed his same sins and have or will pay the same price. It seems to start out as a simple and straightforward set of observations by an otherwise unremarkable man, which is it right up to the point that it’s not and we begin a refresher course reminding us that none of us are simple and straightforward.
It is a film with an interesting production structure that hides in plain view – perhaps camouflaged by the narration and the omnipresence of the lead character. And yet, it is a film of five ‘chapters’, each depicted in a different style and by a different team working in a variety of locations around the world. In a strangely happy sort of way, the switching of styles somehow sub-visibly synchronises with the twists and turns of the tale that unfolds in the words of the man who committed the deeds.
And what better way to finish a programme like this (or, in fact any programme) than with a new film by the splendid Elizabeth Hobbs. The Debutante continues a catalogue of films that capture the essence of a growing roster of historical figures, some with histories writ larger than others.
The Debutante rocks Hobbs’ instantly recognisable fully energised, bustling, even urgent hand painted style. You can see the brush strokes, you can feel the speed with which each and every one of these images was painted and you get a sense of the paint being barely dry enough to photograph under the camera; a sense of almost being able to reach through the screen and get your hands covered in the stuff.
Hobbs just somehow has an instinct for these sorts of stories, these sorts of characters and these sorts of voices speaking to us from across the divide of numerous decades and multiple generations. The Debutante is based on a “brilliant, funny and wild story” written by Leonora Carrington, a British Mexican surrealist artist who rejected the view of women held by so many (men) in the surrealist movement and who liked to tell people that she had not been born but was made.
“I was drawn to this story because I understand Carrington’s urgent rebellion and admire how succinctly she expresses it”, records Hobbs in her director’s statement.
This is a film that channels power without aggression, beauty without the need for a façade and a narrative born of pictorial priority.
by Malcolm Turner
Being Human screens at The Garden Cinema and online Mon 28 Nov find out more