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L.A. Animation Festival 

Cartoons that make you go hmmm

Thursday, Dec 2 2010

"Novelty" is often used as a pejorative: Think Weird Al singles and stuff like the toilet plungers Adam Sandler sells in Punch-Drunk Love. But when you spend the majority of your waking hours either watching moving images or writing/talking/thinking about them, you unavoidably become jaded, and novelty value becomes, well, invaluable. You stick it out through another barely coherent CGI firefight, another romantic-comedy chase through an airport, another ode to surmounting disability and destroying Nazis, in order to get to that rare viewing experience that makes you think, "I've never seen anything quite like this before." Or even better: "I don't even have a frame of reference to describe what it is that I'm seeing."

It's that kind of novelty that runs throughout the second Los Angeles Animation Festival International, which Cinefamily will host Dec. 3-7, even if you likely have seen some of the selections before — the Pixar short Day & Night, which director Teddy Newton will present on Saturday morning; or the Beavis & Butt-Head, Celebrity Deathmatch and Daria clips sure to be shown during Friday night's "How MTV Rocked the Animation World" program.

That's one end of the spectrum represented at LAAF: products of mainstream media, novel within their original context. Sitting on the other end would be projects for which no easily defined context exists.

click to enlarge Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)
  • Surviving Life (Theory and Practice)

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Something like Brent Green's Gravity Was Everywhere Then, which will screen accompanied by Green's live narration and a soundtrack performance by members of Fugazi and Giant Sand. In telling the true story of Leonard Wood, who attempted to build a house that would cure his beloved wife of cancer, Green, a defiantly lo-fi animation artist, built a replica of Wood's house in his own backyard in rural Pennsylvania, where he shot what is essentially a stop-motion film, using live actors instead of models or puppets.

The hazy, stuttering images are truly disorienting: I was fully unsure how to parse what I was looking at until I found the blog of Donna K, Green's on-and-offscreen collaborator, who documented the long Gravity shoot in snapshots and anecdotes at gravitywaseverywherebackthen.blogspot.com. The blog is a behind-the-scenes primer based on sensory experiences, like filming "in the freezing night with our friendly, extremely dangerous, pre-owned kerosene heater" in order to avoid the inconsistencies of daylight. I recommend the blog and film/performance as a package, but hold off on reading until after the screening for the full shock of the new.

Also ranking high on the "What the fuck am I looking at?" scale is another live-action/animation hybrid, Surviving Life (Theory and Practice), the latest feature from Czech animation genius Jan Švankmajer, in its U.S. premiere. The film begins with a disclaimer: Švankmajer tells us he wanted to make a fully live-action feature but couldn't find the cash, and instead resorted to mixing actors with "paper cutout animation, like in the old kids' TV programs." And then, coyly, he insists: "This is not a formal experiment, just a poor, imperfect substitute."

Actually, the odd juxtaposition between filmed motion and its 2-D approximation is the perfect match for Surviving Life's story, about a middle-aged man who begins psychoanalysis in hopes of attaining some control over his increasingly vivid dream life, and the red–power-suited vixen with scarred wrists with whom he trysts in it. It's a light sex farce given a crucial sense of whimsy by the crudeness of its tableau.

But the WTF? pièce de résistance of the fest is Saturday night's tribute to Will Vinton, who trademarked the phrase "Claymation" in 1978, won an Oscar for his short film Closed Mondays, and probably is best known for designing the California Raisins. Cinefamily will screen a new 35mm print of Vinton's sole fully Claymated feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain, which dramatizes several Twain writings and biblical stories in vignettes structured by Twain's attempt to "meet Haley's Comet" by, um, flying a riverboat through a time-and-space portal with Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher in tow.

The film became something of an Internet sensation when a segment based on Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, in which Mark and the kids meet a shape-shifting Satan, was uploaded to YouTube, where for three years commenters have been debating its merits as kiddie entertainment, stoner catnip and/or atheist propaganda. It may be all that, but it's also probably the pinnacle of pre–computer-aided clay animation, uniting the two types of novelty in one insanely ambitious, sui generis artifact.

LOS ANGELES ANIMATION FESTIVAL INTERNATIONAL | Dec. 3-7 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org

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