4/14/03:

A slow day for me--only one screening. This one was a group of shorts. The festival includes a number of programs of shorts this year, and I had considered going to a few of them, but after the grueling elimination process, I ended up with only this one on my list. And this program stayed on my list pretty much for one reason--Ray Harryhausen. I've loved his work in stop-motion animation ever since I saw it as a kid, and I definitely didn't want to pass up the chance to see some of his shorts. Sarah wasn't really familiar with Ray Harryhausen's work, but a bunch of cartoons sounded like fun to her, so she came with me.

Before the screening, I filled out a Philadelphia Film Festival survey. They wanted to know what kinds of movies I'd like to see more of next year, how many movies I'm seeing this year, did I go out to eat a lot, how many people did I come with, etc., etc. I also signed up for information on joining the Philadelphia Film Society. I don't know if I definitely will join yet, but I want to check it out; it could be cool.

Films I saw today: Puppetmania, including Profiles in Science, Little Red Riding Hood, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Modern Cyclops, Desert Story, The Stone of Folly, The Box Man, Dog, Dust to Dust, The Brainwashers, Stiltwalkers

Puppetmania

The shorts in this program were all made using a technique called stop-motion animation. Basically this consists of taking a picture of an object, moving it slightly, taking another picture of it, and so on. When all the pictures are shown in order, the object seems to move on its own. Basically it's like animation, but you're using models (usually made out of clay) instead of drawings. I guess these models were considered puppets by the programmers of the festival, which would explain the title of this screening (as far as I could tell, there were no conventional hand puppets or marionettes used in any of the following films). A couple of the films shown in tonight's screening were made (either in whole or in part) by Ray Harryhausen, who created famous animation sequences in adventure films like Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C., The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Clash of the Titans. He was one of the true masters and pioneers in the field, so seeing his work here was pretty exciting. (In case you're interested, a current and relatively well-known master of the technique is Nick Park, who was the mastermind behind the "Wallace & Gromit" short films, and the recent feature film Chicken Run.) The other filmmakers in tonights program were unknown to me, and for many of them it was their debut. (One or two of them actually attended the screening.)

I was surprised to be handed an extra large ballot for the screening; there were spaces to vote for every single film in the program. Unfortunately, since neither Sarah nor I had any kind of writing or cutting implement, we were forced to fold the page and tear it to indicate our votes. We ended up with some pretty ratty looking ballots by the end of the screening...

Profiles in Science

This was the perfect film to show first, since in many ways it's a kind of introduction to stop-motion animation. It's set up like an episode of an old film strip that you might have seen in school, with choppy sound and stuffy voice-over narration to complete the experience. It claims to document the work of one Dr. Albert Chung who, after retiring, decided he wanted to make some time-lapse films of flowers growing and the like; the kind of time-lapse films we've all seen before. In his vain attempts to recreate these classics of time-lapse photography, he discovers a previously unknown scientific phenomenon: movement in inanimate objects, which he dubs Chungian motion. Later he discovers that animate objects (viz., his lazy son) also sometimes exhibit Chungian motion. But really all of this is just a rather clever and silly excuse to show us some fun stop-motion animation. Socks dance around and away from a laundry hamper (which explains why socks always disappear, the narrator points out), and pizza boxes and beer cans move of their own volition. Chung's son, who to the naked eye seems to never leave the couch, actually performs all kinds of strange movements when viewed through the lens of Chung's time-lapse camera, sliding across the floor and up the couch in a splayed position.

There's not a lot to this film, but despite it's fluffiness, it's very enjoyable, funny, and clever.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

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Little Red Riding Hood

This film is part of the reason why Puppetmania stayed on my list. It's the first of the two Ray Harryhausen films in the program. Look at the title and you'll know what it's about--yes, this is yet another retelling of the old story of "Little Red Riding Hood." Despite the old subject matter, I was excited to see this film because it was made by Ray Harryhausen, and I respect his work. Unfortunately, the film was a big disappointment to me. Of course Harryhausen's animation is impressive, as always, but I guess I just wasn't prepared for how childish the film would be. Maybe I'm too used to cartoons that were made for adults, but the story is told in such an obvious, straight-forward way that it seems to me even small children would find it boring and heavy-handed. The narration leads us through the old story as if we've never heard it before, and as if it's as dense as Kafka, spelling everything out so deliberately that we can't help but get the message. Also, in this version of the old story the Big Bad Wolf has had all of his teeth pulled--figuratively, of course. The Brothers Grimm version is notoriously violent and nasty, and certainly wouldn't have been appropriate for children, but this film isn't even as violent as the Warner Bros. cartoon version. The wolf just scares grandma away instead of eating her, and then half-heartedly chases after Little Red Riding Hood for a little while before being unceremoniously put-down off-screen by the woodsman.

Cartoons made in the same period (the '40s and '50s) with the same story as their basis were far more interesting and clever and funny than this short. I think it's possible to make a film for children without it being childish, but Harryhausen's "Little Red Riding Hood" fails at this task. Only the beautiful, life-like animation makes the film watchable at all.

My Poll Rating: Fair

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The Tortoise and the Hare

This film was the other main reason that I wanted to come see this program. It was begun by Harryhausen in the '50s, but only just completed last year by a couple of aspiring animators. They took up the work he'd done and amazingly were able to add their own work to it seamlessly, staying totally true to the original style.

Unfortunately, the original style was the same as that used in "Little Red Riding Hood," and the problems are the same. Yes, the animation is impressive, but the story and the telling of it are very poor, and the film overall is extremely disappointing. This is very old material, and no attempt has been made to make it new or interesting. The story is told with great childishness and with far too much obvious and deliberate narration. The film somehow manages to be overlong at only 12 minutes. This is not so surprising when you consider that the simple and straightforward story on which it is based can be told in about one sentence. Once again, Warner Bros. did a much better job with the same material in a number of clever and funny Bugs Bunny cartoons. This film is empty of any cleverness or humor. I found it to be marginally worse than "Little Red Riding Hood" since it was even longer and even less interesting.

My Poll Rating: Fair

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The Modern Cyclops

This film was a real relief after the teeth-grindingly poor "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Tortoise and the Hare." It begins with what appears to be a bit of interpretive dance performed by cyclopses--giant monsters with only one eye. At first I was worried that I was supposed to be taking this seriously, but I quickly realized my mistake. The film is actually a very clever, very funny satire, with a refreshing postmodern view of things. (I'm wondering now if maybe it's my obsession with postmodernism that made me unable to enjoy the plain, earnest straightforwardness of Harryhausen's fairy tales...) It turns out the interpretive dance we're seeing is taking place on a remote island where the last of the cyclops live, and it's being viewed by an audience of (human) tourists on a cruise. The author of the play (or dance or whatever) seems to be, as the title states, a modern cyclops--instead of a hideous, man-eating monster, he's a lonely artist, playwright and poet, very thoughtful and rather sad. One of the women tourists is attracted to this odd artistic being, but her husband has some of the old prejudice towards cyclopses ("When do we get to stab him?" he asks. "The brochure says we get to kill one"). And it turns out that this modern cyclops is not totally devoid of those old instincts after all...

As I said, a very fun film, with plenty of laughs. I really enjoyed this one. It might have been better placed later on in the program, however, since from here on in, the films got steadily darker and denser, with hardly any relief or respite.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

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Desert Story

This one is vaguely similar to the first short (Profiles in Science) in that it is another comical, mock documentary. However, Desert Story isn't quite as light as that previous film, in more ways than one--it has more of a story, and it is much darker and denser. In fact, this is the biopic of a legendary Mexican serial killer. She was born with only one thumb, which made her mad enough to start killing people. When she was captured and thrown in prison, she cut the other thumb off to escape, and now she roams the desert roads of Mexico, having transformed into a kind of "urban" legend. The film tells its rather bloody (though darkly humorous) story through a series of interviews with experts and witnesses, as well as a few flashbacks and first-person narration sequences from the perspective of the killer herself. The clay animation is funny, beautiful, and wonderfully expressive. A highlight is a Mexican wrestler's encounter with the thumbless killer.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

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The Stone of Folly

This Canadian film takes as its inspiration a painting by Hieronymous Bosch entitled "The Extraction of the Stone of Madness." In fact it begins with a shot of said painting, and the camera zooms in on the canvas until we seem to enter into it. The painting is a kind of satirical attack on quack doctors and their foolish patients (or at least, that's what Damon Knight's interpretation leads me to believe); the film has similar things to say. The Stone of Folly takes place in an insane asylum that seems itself to be insane. The place has a frightening, cave-like atmosphere and is full of odd, disturbing, jury rigged gadgetry (all models in the film were made using found-objects). Even the doctors are festooned with odd equipment and tools. Although we catch glimpses of various nurses, doctors and patients (who are not always easy to distinguish from each other), the story follows a specific doctor and his treatment of one particular patient. (I should mention here that this film, like another film I'm going to see later in the festival, is told without any dialogue; instead, the characters mumble unintelligibly in a nonsensical language.) The doctor's first step is to put his patient into a kind of X-Ray machine (which looks dangerous and quite painful). It looks like the patient has something in his head, so the doctor straps him onto an operating table, knocks him out with anaesthesia (the anesthesiologist rolls around in a strange wheeled contraption, and his "knock-out drug" consists of a large hammer), and drills his way inside. He takes out the stone he finds there, and after he's patched things up, the patient seems at least less erratic in his behavior (though he also looks nearly comatose). The stone that seems to have caused all the trouble is dropped down some kind of funnel into a system of tubes. It is pulverized and then fed to the babies in the nursery on the floor below.

The Stone of Folly is alternately funny and disturbing. Its point seems to be that society treats insanity without realizing that it also creates that same insanity--society itself is insane. Instead of healing the society itself and preventing insanity, we merely perpetuate an endless cycle of foolishness, madness, and idiocy. It's a rather clever little film, and well animated.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

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The Box Man

Like the previous short, The Box Man is a wordless film that makes a powerful comment on contemporary society. Even for a short, it's a very brief film, but nonetheless breath-taking. A man is on the way home (from work, perhaps?) and sees a cardboard box in the street. He is surprised and disturbed to realize there is someone living in it--two eyes are peaking out at him from a slit in the box. He hurries home, but the window of his apartment faces the box, and the eyes are still looking out. He is frightened, but fascinated. He reacts to his confusing mixture of feelings with violence, but that doesn't make them go away. And by the end of the film, he has become the thing that fascinated and horrified him.

The lesson seems rather trite (are we all really in boxes of our own?) but it is well taught. The film is powerful and intelligent.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

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Dog

I wasn't sure how to feel about this film. It's undeniably moving, with excellent, life-like animation, a powerful, well-told story, and fine voice-acting. But it's also horribly disturbing and painful, and the point it seems to be making about human nature is a cruel and awful one. The story opens in a small, dirty apartment. A boy and his dog are trying to get to sleep, but both seem sad and hurt. The father tries to offer comfort, but he clearly doesn't know what to tell the boy or how to deal with him. It soon becomes obvious that the boy's mother has died recently. "There was no pain," the father says. It's clear that the father feels trapped in the house, unable to leave his son or his dog alone now that he is the only caregiver. The whole film is saturated with sadness and pain. The house is cramped, full of garbage and things left undone. When the boy's dog becomes ill late one night, the father realizes all he can do is end its suffering. In a gut- and heart-wrenching sequence, he tries to kill the dog twice, and finally succeeds. He is unaware that the boy has seen all of it. The next morning, the father says once again, "There was no pain." "Like mother?" the boy wants to know. The painful lie hangs revealed in the air, and the comparison and conclusion seem clear.

As I said, I really don't know how to feel about this one. It's certainly well made, and definitely powerful. But I just can't bring myself to really like a film that made me wince as much as this one did. Perhaps that's my problem--the film is a little too heavy, a little too dramatic, a little too wince-worthy. It overdoes things. It's dripping with agony and the pain of being human, so much so that it's really a bit sickening.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

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Dust to Dust

As I suggested above, there is a definite trend to the films in this program--from light and fluffy, to dark and dense; from concrete films containing recognizable characters and stories, to abstract films that have neither. Dust to Dust is the first big turn into the abstract. This film was originally meant to be screened as part of another program of shorts, but it was switched onto the Puppetmania program after the festival had begun. I'm not sure why, but perhaps it might be due to confusion over what kind of a film this is. Dust to Dust uses a mixture of media--both live action footage and stop motion animation--to tell its strange little story, if story you can call it. It opens with footage of two weird little dust bunny creatures--balls of dust and dirt with little ears and dark little eyes--running back and forth, apparently across the floor of a bedroom. Suddenly a human hand reaches out and captures one, placing it in a jar on a window sill next to a flower. The dust bunny looks for a way out, then notices little aphid-like bugs on the flower next door. These bugs are like chameleons, blending in as thorns or leaves on the flower. They crawl into a small hole in the jar and tear off little chunks of the dust bunny, carrying them back out onto the flower. Finally they have moved the entire creature outside, though it has now been turned into many tiny little dust bunnies, which promptly blow away on the wind.

Is Dust to Dust meant to be documenting some fictional life cycle? Are the tiny dust bunny seeds being blown to other parts of the world where they will each grow up into large, adult dust bunnies, to start the cycle over? I don't know. In fact, I'm not sure it's even supposed to mean anything. But it is certainly a very pretty little film, with beautifully detailed animation, and a fascinating and fantastic vision of the world.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

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The Brainwashers

This is another Canadian film, and interestingly enough it has a number of things in common with the previous Canadian short in the program (Stone of Folly). The films open in a similar way--as The Brainwashers starts, we are again in what appears to be an operating room in a primitive, surreal hospital, which may or may not be an insane asylum. Also like Stone, this is another wordless film. What we hear instead when people speak are sounds like muffled communications over radios--the soundtrack is full of threatening mechanical screeches and warbles. Also on the soundtrack later in the film, as a direct contrast to the squeaking and whining that we hear throughout, is some really beautiful and haunting music. In fact, this music is the heart of the film, and is meant to symbolize the beauty a mind can produce and keep safe, even under the worst trauma and torture. And this is where this film stops being similar to Stone of Folly. Stone was a cynical depiction of human society as a stupid, circular trap. This film celebrates humanity, its creativity, and its capacity for survival. In fact, it is about that most melodramatic and trite of things, the triumph of the human spirit. But despite the age of the film's message, and despite the obvious symbolism that is sometimes used to get that message across, The Brainwashers still manages to be a good film. The models and sets are well designed and animated, and, in conjunction with the sound, create a wonderfully eery atmosphere. The filmmakers apply their creativity to an old story and manage to work some life back into it.

As the film begins, doctors are in the process of injecting something into a man's brain. As the liquid enters, so does the camera. We find ourselves in what is clearly a symbolic representation of the man's mind, where the rest of the film--with the exception of the denouement--will take place. The fluid that has been injected here transforms into two strange little creatures. They look like janitors or cleaners of some sort, but their features are gaunt, ugly and barely human, and one of them, small and shriveled, sits on the other's shoulder almost as if he is his familiar. The metaphor is clear--these are the brainwashers of the title. And really it looks as if this brain could use a bit of a wash. Everything here looks old and worn down, full of dust and cobwebs, creaky and falling apart. In fact, the landscape of the brain is a really amazing creation, full of so much atmosphere and personality that it is practically another character. It is a surreal kind of mall/city/countryside with trundling old elevators that lead from cobblestone streets to libraries, and escalators that ascend into the hills. It is a disturbing place, populated by a small number of decrepit almost-human forms who look just as worn and beaten as their environment. Like I said, it seems to need a washing. Unfortunately, the cleaners's way of "washing" this brain is to destroy any sign of life in it. The first thing they do upon entering is to kill a small bug. When they meet a strange old lady, they beat her and tie her up. But their violence is not random; they are looking for something. When they come upon a library, which is tended by a librarian who is literally a book worm, they burn it down. The worm escapes with a single book, and they follow him up and out to a windmill. The windmill is now sagging and broken, surrounded by an abandoned wasteland, but an old photograph hanging on the wall inside suggests happier days--the windmill, colorful, surrounded by green. So the mind we're inside was once alive and healthy, but has now been almost totally destroyed. The cleaners mean to finish the job, and have tracked the last of what is living and healthy inside this mind to its source in this windmill. As they head upstairs, the windmill becomes a kind of night club or concert hall. The one book the worm has saved is the sheet music for tonight's piano performance; he hands it over to the piano player before the cleaners can catch him. As the cleaners plot their next move, the pianist, who looks quite a bit like the man whose brain we're inside, begins playing. The piano comes alive under his hands, transforming gradually into some kind of huge, organic, multi-instrument structure. The music it emits is jagged, strange, and beautiful. But the cleaners brutally end the performance--they tear out the pianist's heart and eat it; they jam his brain into his empty chest. But his heart is poison to them. They shrivel up and melt away, and somehow the pianist is still alive. The crowd cheers.

Here we cut out, and we see the man now from the outside, playing music in a club. He has survived. The most essential part of him escaped the torture, and so he was able to live on. Happily, the film does not over-do this ending--the man's triumph is a quiet one, and tinged with the darkness and horror of what he's gone through. What the film lacks in originality of subject matter and subtlety of metaphor, it makes up for in the creativity of its sound and visuals. The Brainwashers is a fine little film.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

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Stiltwalkers

As I said, there was a general sort of progression to the films in the Puppetmania program--from comical and light, to serious and dense. Stiltwalkers, the last film of the evening, certainly seemed to me to be the most dense and difficult to understand, though certainly not the darkest (I think that title would have to go to Dog). It seems to be about the hopes and dreams of youth, and it also seems to be about art, drawing, and animation itself--animation of drawings versus stop motion animation of models. Or maybe it's not really about any of that. Regardless, it's a rather pretty and atmospheric little film, with some excellent animation (especially impressive is the way the stop-motion animation and conventional drawing animation are composited together).

The story, as far as I was able to piece it together, seems to go like this: an old man lives alone in the middle of a sea, in a strange little house on stilts (the man looks like a kind of stick figure or marionette, gaunt and only generally human-shaped). As he sits in his house, he thinks back to the surreal events of his youth. (Or perhaps he's dreaming, or just imagining things? At first I wasn't even aware a transition had taken place, and only realized later when we returned to the setting of the first scene that it was part of a frame story.) In this other time, he's out on a boat at sea, surrounded by many poles sticking up out of the water. He is drawing things, but seems generally unsatisfied with his work. Then suddenly his drawings seem to come alive in the water, and begin changing everything they touch into living drawings. The poles around his boat become the stilts for strange, legless men to walk on. They stand around him, eery and silent. Who are they? Are they the guardians of the living drawing of a whale or island that presently rises out of the sea? The stiltwalkers become agitated as the man approaches the island/whale, but he steps out onto it anyway. His touch transforms it into a solid, and pulls it into the "real" world. Everything seems to fall apart; the stiltwalkers desert the man; the whale swims away and seems to pull the man under the sea. What has he done? Has he trespassed into some other world, a fragile world that a human touch can destroy?

Now we return to the frame story, and the man is old again. Was it all just the wild imaginings of a lonely man at sea? The man gets up and walks out of his house to find that the stiltwalkers have returned. He goes to them and accepts their touch, becoming a drawing himself. And with a touch, he transforms his house into the drawn whale, and leaves with the stiltwalkers.

So...what did all that mean? Well, perhaps it's some kind of dramatization of the meeting of traditional animation and stop-motion animation. Or perhaps it has no real literal meaning. Perhaps it's just a kind of playful meditation on the art and technique of animation. Anyway, whatever it is and whatever it's about, ultimately I found it hard to connect with Stiltwalkers. I like when a film challenges me a bit, and forces me to interact with it actively to understand what it's trying to say. But I found myself working too hard for this film, and not getting much of anywhere. I just couldn't quite get a grasp on what was going on or who these people were. There's a number of reasons why this is so. First of all, the puppets (and drawings) used had very blank and inexpressive faces, and while this worked for the stiltwalkers--it made them mysterious and a little frightening--it didn't really work for the man. I think I'm supposed to be sympathizing with the main character, but it's hard to do that when I can't tell what he's supposed to be thinking or feeling--it's difficult to love or understand a stick man. Also, Stiltwalkers has no dialogue, and while the other wordless films in the Puppetmania program managed to get across their stories and messages rather well using only simple sounds and images, Stiltwalkers failed at this task (at least in my case).

Regardless, Stiltwalkers, though it is rather opaque and distanced, is also a visually and technically interesting film, and its title characters, as well as the world they live in, are eery and beautiful.

My Poll Rating: Good

Epilogue

There was a question and answer session after the screenings with a few of the filmmakers, but Sarah and I decided not to stay for it. We were both tired and wanted to go home. The seats in the International House aren't the most comfortable, and I've been sitting a lot this week; my butt is really starting to ache! It even went to sleep during the show. Maybe it's just as well the festival's almost over. I'm not sure my body can take much more of this...

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Jim Genzano





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