November 6, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Mike Judge, having given us the eternal idiocy of Beavis & Butthead and the equally enduring snark of Daria, has dedicated the last few years, along with Don Hertzfelt, to ensuring that all kinds of animation have a shot at the big time. Or at least the big screen. Mike and Don’s project, The Animation Show, is an anthology of animated shorts made with every technique imaginable, from hand-drawn cells to the latest computer imagery. Like any compendium, it’s at times a mixed bag, but even the failures are not without interest. Here are some of the highlights of the project.

Mt. Head, the story of a man in a modern city who suddenly discovers a tree growing out of his head, combines its urban setting with oral tradition derived narration to great effect. Through slightly shaky POV reminiscent of real handheld camera movements, photographic backgrounds, and fake minor flaws in the film stock, the piece gives the impression of a live action movie. But the expressionist winter scenes couldn’t exist anywhere but a coloring book. The style moves back and forth between realism and fantasy, just like the story. There’s also one shot of the moon that is so lovely, so iconographic, that it looks like it belongs in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Ward Kimball’s Hanna-Barbara drawn, twilight zone narrated tour though life on mars presented a far more unified, but no less interesting technique. Vast imagination and scientific (or at least scientific sounding) facts mix to create a truly strange, compelling world. Animation is perfect for a story like this. The bizarre creatures of mars look almost familiar when presented in this classic cartoon form.

The standout of the entire 95 minute extravaganza however, is the 6 minute The Cathedral, which uses advanced CGI technology to tell an unsettlingly beautiful story that Ray Bradbury or H.P. Lovecraft would have been proud to have written. There’s no dialogue at all, or even any diagetic sound. Over the spare, ominous soundtrack, the camera sweeps past the cracked, hellish surface of a mountain or a moon (one of the film’s great strengths is the way it plays with space and relative size) to reveal a tiny, lone figure. The character has the look of a man on a quest; the grime on his lined, determined face is an inspired human touch in the alien landscape. Looking like a cross between Wagner’s Siegfried and Moorcock’s Elric, the traveler forces open the huge granite doors of what at first looks like a great underground cavern and is gradually revealed to be a ruined cathedral. The sense of threat and wrongness, of unnatural stillness is communicated solely through the quality of the light, and the lines of the cathedral. The pillars look like the trunks of the kind of trees you’d want to avoid at any cost, and have faces in them that wake and show an uncomfortable wisdom. By night, the vaulted ceiling looks like the ribcage of some enormous beast, and the hero walks on, totally dwarfed by the structure. The tension drawn out of this piece, which is totally lacking in context, plot, or character, is a testament to the sheer power of tone and atmosphere. The climax, however, is as much a product of attention to historical detail as anything else. Gothic cathedrals were first constructed to give shape to light for the glory of god, to allow natural illumination to suggest spiritual inspiration. With that in mind, Cathedral shows a church that takes its natural medium and uses it to create and worship, in the most disturbing way possible, itself. The end result, standing in hyper-real daylight, stark beauty at the edge of a cliff, is a kind of horrific grandeur and a testament to exactly what animation can do.

Archived article by Erica Stein