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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Cel Service

From the Vault Dept.: Re-reading this after 26 years, I was astonished to find images from the movies discussed below bubbling up from the depths of my sluggish brain. That has to be a good tribute – or a neglected cerebellum.


Like its long-running cousin, the International Tournee of Animation, the Animation Celebration offers a startling variety of film styles, none of them featuring live action. But it’s a collection of lighter-hearted fare.

Drawing from Bill Plympton's "Wiseman"
Cartoons from nine countries are on display ranging from traditional single-cel technique to claymation to realistic computer-generated animation. The twenty-five films include a terrific student project (“This is Not Frank’s Planet”) and works from established masters like Bruno Bozzetto (“Mr. Tao”) and Ferenc Cako (“Zeno Reads a Newspaper”).

If the animators have any common thread to their comic vision, it’s an obsession with the human body. What starts out looking like an animated remake of an old Ernie Kovacs television routine in John Schnall’s “Reading Room” turns into a splendid use of anamorphic exaggeration.

A large-headed, goofy-looking man in a library reading room is troubled with a cough that annoys his newspaper-reading neighbor. The cough turns increasingly agitated (animated, you might say) as the cougher’s head gyrates and surges and ... well, you’ll have to see it.

Schnall, whose previous works include the similarly nasty “Goodnight Norma ... Goodnight Milton,” prefers to paint on paper instead of cels; the result is a warm look to his drawings that complements the destructiveness of his story. His soundtrack is also nicely done, silent except for the rustlings, the coughs and the stern ticking of an unseen clock.

Bill Plympton, for whom Schnall has served as cameraman, continues his series of “Plymptoons” with more of the blackout sketches in which a short, pencil-drawn sequence gives surprising illustration to a thought or phrase. Again, you’ll see more whimsical exploration of what the human body can’t do – but seems like it ought to.

“The Wiseman,” my favorite of the Celebration’s cartoons, is Plympton at his best: a bald, baby-faced guru murmurs phrases of enlightenment to the strains of a distant sitar, punctuated by interruptions of bluegrass music and wild transformations of the guru’s head.

European cartoonists have a tradition of a more angular, savage style of caricature, effectively displayed in “Poumse,” a Russian film in which a greedy goods-trader persuades an island culture to give up its costumes of bones and animal skins in favor of contemporary garb--with an ironic punchline.

The most gorgeous of the cartoons is another Russian work, Alexei Karaev’s “Welcome.” Oil paint on glass gives the silky textures of the pastoral setting, in which an outrageous society of animals elects to live in the antlers of an obliging moose. Political commentary? You bet. It’s a lovely, understated piece. Running just over ten minutes, it’s also the longest cartoon of the set – which gives you an idea of brisk overall pacing of the movie.

There’s plenty more you’ll enjoy, and the ninety minutes go by in no time. Once you see this, the next time you cough you’ll be sure to hold that much tighter onto your nose.

The Third Animation Celebration

Produced by Terry Thoren

Metroland Magazine, 2 May 1991

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