Thursday, April 10, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Experimental Edition

Title: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Director: Todd Haynes
Time: 43 minutes
Availability: Available only in bootleg format.
Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There) launched his career with this unusual short, a biopic on the tragic anorexia death of musician Karen Carpenter told using Barbie doll reenactments. His illegal appropriation of tracks by The Carpenters and his unflattering depiction of her family led to Richard Carpenter successfully suing Haynes and having all the original copies except one destroyed. Despite this controversy and several questionable liberties with the facts, “Superstar” is a remarkably sensitive and even heartfelt study, clearly taking Karen’s side and somehow managing to keep the cascade of irony in check.

No amount of official censure could ever truly kill Haynes’s debut cult opus, and the documentary has led a healthy life in the black-market alleys behind America’s art houses. The picture deserves its reputation, setting the tone for later projects that tap kitsch, irony and parody as a form of loving tribute rather than jeering snub. The project still triggers debates on topics as diverse as eating disorders (Haynes is said to have carved the Barbie doll plastic away layer by layer throughout the film), celebrity status, feminism, music rights and middle-class hypocrisy. Though not technically a stop-motion film, it’s still must-see puppetry.

Title: A Walk Through H (1978)
Director: Peter Greenaway
Time: 40 minutes
Availability: The Early Films of Peter Greenaway: Volume 2
“A Walk Through H” is a narrated journey across 92 maps, arranged in a gallery for an ailing Peter Greenaway by his enigmatic fictitious alter-ego Tulse Luper. The maps serve as a visual motif upon which to meditate on the act of journeying, both literally and metaphorically. The landscapes are primarily surrealist fantasies and the narration is an elaborate game, but the tone is pitched towards playful profundity. “There will be plenty of time to decide what H is,” claims Tulse Luper, “along the way,” though the underlying implication is that it could stand for either heaven or hell, making the whole exercise an allegory for the commute between life and death.

While not as influential as Greenaway’s “Vertical Features Remake,” I find this short somewhat more satisfying and watchable. It has many of the traits most commonly associated with Greenaway’s work: sly narration, a systematic pattern, the number 92, the mysterious influence of Tulse Luper, self-reflexivity and subtle absurdist humor. It opens and closes with live-action sequences and uses stills of fake maps (which often look nothing like maps at all) for the bulk of its “story,” but I consider it an experimental kin of animation.

Title: Zorn’s Lemma (1970)
Director: Hollis Frampton
Time: 59 minutes
Availability: Available to watch legally online at UBUWEB here.
“Zorn’s Lemma” is divided unequally into three parts. It opens on solid black leader while a narrator reads alphabet rhymes from the Bay State Primer for puritanical children. The central core of the film runs through the alphabet showing each letter. It then loops through the letters over and over again, each time using different representations of the letters and replacing one of them with a found-text that starts with that letter (each from a different sign and never repeating a word). Once all the letters have become words, the cycle repeats, this time transforming the words into short video clips. The final passage is a long, nearly continuous take of two people walking through the snow towards the horizon while women alternate reading one word at a time from The Theory of Light.

Frampton’s “Zorn’s Lemma” made waves in the experimental New York underground circuit and influenced the coming generation of structuralists and formalists. His strict alphabetic organization was daring in its day, and the high contrast it makes with the first and last section of the film has led to plenty of academic speculation. The middle passage, however, is what truly defines the work and lends it a hypnotic, even tense, rhythm. I include it as animation, although others would say it clearly is not, because of the way he breaks down the imagery into a series of 24 (j and v are combined) single-second still/clips, artificially animating the alphabet in a way that consciously evokes projection speed. This is probably my favorite avant-garde short.

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