Thursday, December 28, 2017

The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows

Animation is a series of images that approximates movement through whatever techniques are employed. However, the right music can really make those visuals come alive. There are several excellent examples in the 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows, which opens tomorrow in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

The projectionist better crank up the bass for the opener, Quentin Baillieux’s “Can You Do It.” Essentially, it is a music video for Charles X’s catchy and groovy title tune, but the urbane urban images are just as distinctive. We follow a Fast and Furious-style drag race through the streets of LA, but with horses instead of cars. We are talking about a seriously cool three minutes here.

Pete Docter’s Student Academy Award-winning Next Door is also a shorty, but it is rather sweet and inventive. Using the real-life musings of a little girl at play, it shows how young and old can come together—in this case through the love of the kazoo.

Jac Clinch’s The Alan Dimension is more about dialogue than music and atmosphere, but it is quite witty and even somewhat science fiction-related, in a roundabout way. The titular Alan is formerly milk toast retiree who is convinced he is the next Nostradamus, but his long-suffering wife considers him more of a Criswell.

This year’s Show of Shows also includes a restoration of Paul Julian & Les Goldman’s adaptation of Maurice Ogden’s poem Hangman, originally published in the Communist publication Masses and Mainstream. Intended as a commentary on McCarthyism, it features a demonic gallows-keeper executing intimidated townsfolk one by one, as their neighbors fearfully submit to his authority. Of course, two years later American Communists did their best to look the other way, while Soviet tanks crashed into Hungary. Yet, there is still some value in its message. Especially now that the Left has officially gotten out of the 1st Amendment business. The Libertarian movement is now the only advocate for your most fundamental rights as a citizen, which is terrifying, considering how organized they are. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller: “first they came for the alt-right and I did not speak out, because they’re distasteful jerks.”

So, where were we? Julian & Goldman’s visuals are indeed quite stark and powerful, but it is Serge Hovey’s eerie score (which swings lightly yet darkly) that really gives the film its kick. It notably features the under-appreciated and under-recorded jazz pianist Calvin Jackson and the West Coast session stalwart, percussionist Emil [Richards] Radocchia. As an added bonus for jazz fans, Herschel Bernardi from Peter Gunn serves as the narrator.

Easily, the biggest standout of the set is Aurore Gal, Clémentine Frère, Yukiko Meignien, Anna Mertz, Robin Migliorelli, & Romain Salvini’s Gokurosama. Set entirely within a Japanese shopping center before opening hours, it follows an elderly bento box maker, who seeks treatment from the mall’s chiropractor when her back goes out, with the help of her good-hearted assistant. Gokurosama reaches a level of gentle visual and physical humor truly worthy of Jacques Tati, while also knowingly but affectionately satirizing Japanese consumerist culture. This is one that calls for repeated viewing to catch all the sly, subtle details.

Alas, it is followed by the worst in show, Kobe Bryant’s ode to himself, Dear Basketball, animated by Glen Keane. He was always true to the game, or so they would have us believe. Of course, they do not trouble our little heads with the sexual assault allegation he settled out of court. Bryant actually released a statement that said: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view the incident the same way I did.” Wow, how 2004 was that? Wouldn’t you like to get Rose McGowan’s take on that one?

Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s The Burden is probably the most acclaimed new film of the batch—and it’s a musical to boot. Its surreal sensibilities are impressive, but it mostly just hits equivalent notes rather than building to a crescendo. On the other hand, Tomer Eshed’s nature film satire, Our Wonderful Nature—The Common Chameleon is pretty straight forward, but quite droll.

Steven Woloshen’s Casino was conceived as a riff on Norman McLaren’s work, using gambling motifs and aptly enough, the music of the Oscar Peterson Trio, just like McLaren’s classic, Begone Dull Care. Peterson’s massively up-tempo take on “Something’s Coming” could make anything come alive, so it is impossible to not enjoy this abstract but refreshingly lively film.

David O’Reilly’s Everything is a fitting closer, matching archival recordings of British philosopher Alan Watts in a Stephen Hawking bag, accompanied by some suitably cosmic visuals. Frankly, O’Reilly makes his pre-Ted Talk speeches sound more profound than they really were, which is good filmmaking.

There are a few other constituent films that are undeniably quite artistically rendered, but do not have a lot of substance as cinematic statements. Nevertheless, it is always nice to see distinctive craftsmanship on screen. Recommended for animation fans (despite the presence of Kobe Bryant’s ego trip), the 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows opens tomorrow (12/29) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.