Sunday, March 30, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Postmodernism Edition

These shorts all concern the self-reflexive relationship between creator and creation.

Title: Duck Amuck (1953)
Director: Chuck Jones
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: On Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 1 DVD and The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Movie or on YouTube here.
Daffy Duck tries to tell a rousing swashbuckler in which he battles musketeers, but the animator has forgotten to draw in the backdrop, the props and the swordsmen. Daffy complains, only to have his every plea intentionally misinterpreted by the artist, who changes the setting, character design and audio effects at will to the consternation of our protagonist. After a back-and-forth game that drives Daffy crazy, we learn that Bugs Bunny is the culprit at the canvas.

“Duck Amuck” is my personal favorite Looney Tune/Merry Melody, with its ahead-of-its-time postmodern themes about the connection between artist, character and the act of creating. Various critics have interpreted this short as a cartoon declaration that God is cruel or that fictional characters take on a life and personality of their own. You don’t have to furrow your brow in philosophical thought, though, to enjoy this short; I always smile at the spotted flower-creature version of Daffy for its whimsical gaucheness.

Title: Rejected (2000)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Time: 10 minutes
Availability: On the “Bitter Films Volume 1” DVD or on YouTube here
Situated as a sort of documentary retrospective on Don Hertzfeldt’s attempts to make animated shorts for commercial products, “Rejected” is a fictional parade of absurdist failures. In each of his supposed ventures into corporate salesmanship he refuses to retreat from his aggressively non-sequitur humor, often upsetting themes and total lack of marketing fervor. The result is deadpan hilarity for the audience and a downward spiral of bitterness for the artist. It ultimately culminates in an apocalypse within his animated universe, visualized through a series of crumples and tears in the paper itself.

Don Hertzfeldt had been making successful and critically acclaimed animations for five years before he hit cult pay-dirt with “Rejected.” His intentionally crude art style (featuring stickmen and almost no background detail) was matched with old-school camera techniques and new-school innovations that draw attention to the texture of paper, the act of sketching and the difficultly of finding paid work without sacrificing your artistic license. The anti-ad ethos and absurdist comedy struck a chord with young audiences, allowing the short to make the rounds of film festivals and college dorms like an outbreak. Many of the lines (“My spoon is too big.”) have made their way into popular culture and influenced a host of internet imitators that lack Hertzfeldt’s studied magic.

Title: Tim Tom (2003)
Director: Christel Pougeoise and Romain Segaud
Time: 5 minutes
Availability: On YouTube here.
Tim and Tom are a pair of 3D would-be pals who struggle to meet against the wishes of their godlike creator. The two guys have notepad heads and they flip the pages over to reveal their changing expressions, generally becoming more perturbed as the arms of an off-screen meddler manipulates their environment to prevent them from meeting. One moment the ground between them is being stretched out indefinitely and the next thing they know they are being dropped through the 35 mm frame onto the soundtrack. Unlike “Duck Amuck,” “Tim Tom” is less a meditation on genre, style and presentation than an interrogation of film as medium and technology, updating the relationship between creator and creation to the 21st century.

“Tim Tom” features a tasteful art style using B&W CG and a minimalist setting. The 3D character have expressive 2D faces, “penciled” in with simulated graphite streaks. The result is not quite cute and not quite serious, while the impulsive investigation of phenomena like the flicker effect and the shape of sound waves on the audio track raise the material to new ground not found in many artist/art showdowns. “Tim Tom” has the spirit of golden era cartoons: efficient story-telling, regular laughs, charisma and spontaneity.

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