Crash Course: Jerry Lewis – Brilliant or Annoying?

Over the course of the 50s and 60s Jerry Lewis was one of the most successful comedians in America.  During his early years working with Dean Martin as part of the “Martin and Lewis” duo he rivaled Frank Sinatra as a nightclub draw, he had a popular radio show, he was a host in early television and he was a major draw at movie theaters.  However, he was a rather divisive figures, especially later in his career when people kind of started to get sick of his shtick.  A lot of people just found him annoying and we’ve all heard those jokes that cited his continuing popularity in France as proof of that nation’s questionable taste.  Oddly enough, despite my usual interest in old Hollywood cinema I’ve managed to pretty much avoid ever one of his movies.  I’ve seen him in his dramatic supporting role in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, I’ve seen clips of him on talk shows, and I’m sure I’ve seeing bits and pieces of his famous Muscular dystrophy telethons, but otherwise I’m completely unfamiliar with Lewis’ work, making him one of the most famous and successful people I’ve never even tried to look into.  So, I’ve decided to do a quick crash course that looks at some of his work when he was at the height of his popularity both during the Martin and Lewis years and in the later your when he started directing his own work.

At War with the Army (1950)

Jerry Lewis began his career as a film star by making about twenty movies with Dean Martin while they were still part of the “Martin and Lewis” team.  As a nightclub action “Martin and Lewis” shows were built around the contrast between the two performers’ styles.  Martin would be a debonair future rat pack crooner and would play as a sort of straight man to Jerry Lewis, who would act like an almost inhumanly wacky class clown who would almost reach early Robin Williams levels of being “on” at all times.  The two had appeared together in a supporting capacity in two films prior to this but At War with the Army was the first film where the duo headlined a film.  It is not, however, considered to be a wildly successful debut and if I’m being honest the only reason I really picked it for this little Jerry Lewis marathon (aside from it representing an era I wanted to cover) was that it was really easy to find streaming.  That kind of backfired as the main reason it was so easy to obtain was that it apparently fell into the public domain at some point and as such there are a lot of really crappy transfers floating around and the one I watched looked like it hadn’t been even a little bit restored, so in the interest of full disclosure this was something of a compromised viewing.

This is a pretty basic example of a “service comedy,” a comedy sub-genre built around poking light fun at the more mundane elements of military service and life on military bases.  These were of course rather popular in the post-war years as a generation of men had some experience of military life and must have received these movies in much the way we watch office comedies today.  In it Martin plays a sergeant who is hoping to get shipped off base to something more exciting while Lewis plays a new recruit who is unsuccessfully trying to get a leave of absence to visit his wife, who is having a child.  The two of them were also apparently entertainers before entering the army, so they are also trying to rehearse for a camp talent show because, well, the movie needs to have some reason to have Dean Martin sing.  I didn’t find it overly funny and I must say I’m a little worried that Jerry Lewis is going to be a bit grating on me during this marathon because he spent most of this movie talking in a very annoying voice.  However, I will withhold judgement until I see some of his more highly regarded work.

** out of Five

 

Artists and Models (1955)

What a difference five years makes.  Going from the slapdash At War With the Army to the large budget Artists and Models shows quite a jump in confidence in what people thought a Martin and Lewis comedy could be.  This was something like the twelfth film the comedy duo made in five years… I have no idea how they found the time to make all those movies and also do their usual nightclub tours, but somehow they pulled it off and you can probably see how the two might have gotten a bit sick of one another’s company.  Indeed this is close to being the last film the duo made together and you can sense hints of meta-commentary about the two splitting apart in the movie.  The film is actually set in, of all things, the world of 1950s comic books and has Martin’s character chasing a comic book artist played by Dorothy Malone and Lewis chasing her roommate played by Shirley MacLaine.  In this period comic books were almost exclusively a medium for children, but being the perpetual man-child that he is Lewis’ character is a big fan of comic books and is partly attracted to MacLaine’s character because she occasionally models for her roommate garbed as her signature character The Bat Lady.  MacLaine is a standout here who is much hornier and more energetic than the MacLaine characters we’d see in Billy Wilder’s movies and seems like one of the few characters who could actually have been an understandable match for someone with Jerry Lewis’ comic persona.

The movie was directed by Frank Tashlin, who had previously worked as a writer and director on the Looney Tunes shorts, so he could probably relate somewhat to this world and he injects the movie with some absurdist physical comedy like a massage scene where Lewis’ legs are twisted and contorted unnaturally and the film also has some straight-up pop culture spoofs like a clear riff on Rear Window.  Shot in technicolor and in the VistaVision format, the movie was clearly made with a lot of confidence and you can also see that the film’s madcap energy generally fits Jerry Lewis more than the laidback and cool personal of Dean Martin.  It’s long been theorized that the reason the Martin and Lewis team ultimately broke up because Martin was sick of the louder Lewis getting more credit for the duo’s success and you can kind of see how he would have felt like this sort of thing wasn’t playing to his strengths.  I’m also still not quite sure what to make of Jerry Lewis’ comic persona.  He’s certain more enjoyable here in a well-made movie but his voice still grates a bit and he almost feels like a bit of a precursor to Adam Sandler and his manic comedy persona.

*** out of Five

 

The Ladies Man (1961)

The “Martin and Lewis” comedy team dissolved in 1956, possibly because Dean Martin felt Lewis was getting all the credit but neither of them spoke publically about the “split.”  Both men landed on their feet however and Lewis quickly established himself as a solo performer both on stage and screen and eventually landed an extraordinarily lucrative contract with Paramount that also gave him a great deal of control over his movies and would also allow him to begin directing.  His second directorial effort and one of the films for which he’s most remembered is 1961’s The Ladies Man, a comedy about a weird nerdy guy who swears off women forever after his girlfriend cheats on him only to then take a job as a handyman at a big high class all female boardinghouse.  The film opens with a big “all events are fictional” disclaimer, which is itself a joke because almost everything that happens in this movie is outlandish and crazy.  The basic premise of this, with the protagonist having serious issues with women over a single slight, is kind of misogynistic on the surface but everything in the movie is so cartoony that it’s hard to get too worked up about that.  The film also isn’t overly plot heavy and almost plays like a series of sketches around a specific theme and location and some extremely wacky antics and fourth wall breaks ensue.

As a director Lewis is certainly trying to flex his creative muscles a lot here and borrows some from the cartoonish touch that Frank Tashlin had on Artists and Models.  The film plays out on this gigantic dollhouse like set where you can see into various rooms from the outside and Lewis fills the film with some fairly inventive visual as well as some truly strange digressions.  However, Jerry Lewis the actor impresses me less here than Jerry Lewis the director.  I’ve tried to be patient with Lewis’ screen persona but man can he be loud and grating and that issue is even more pronounced given that he’s not sharing his screen time with the debonair straight man Dean Martin.  His character is also so crazy that it can be a little hard to take him even a little seriously when the film tries to build anything resembling a story around him, especially in the second half where it tries to make him something of an object of sympathy.  One of Lewis’ goals in this era was to inject his comedy with a little bit of pathos, and ones mileage with that will probably vary based on how inclined you are to enjoy his man-child characters in the first place.  I can see why some people would really dig it though as there is definitely something rather auteur-like and adventurous about the whole thing, almost like an American Jaques Tati film, but for me that comedy persona just kind of undercut the whole operation too much to fully get behind it.

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Nutty Professor (1963)

Jerry Lewis’s most famous movie is almost certainly his 1963 effort The Nutty Professor.  That was true before Eddie Murphy’s popular remake and it’s especially true after it.  In fact most modern viewers watching the movie will instantly recognize that this movie was the inspiration for the voice of the Professor Frink character from “The Simpsons.”  I saw the Eddie Murphy movie ages ago and am not a huge fan.  The two movies have fairly different comedic outlooks but they do have the same basic concept: a scientist who is something of a “nerd” develops a potion that makes him into a sort of Mr. Hyde called Buddy Love whose more handsome and popular.  In the remake the professor is obese and the potion makes him skinny but here it’s mostly just about the effect it has on his personality.  It turns him from a shuddering weakling to this chain-smoking debonair singer who is the life of the party who doesn’t wear glasses and is unrecognizable in a sort of Clark Kent to Superman kind of way.  One can kind of view this as sort of statement about Lewis being at war with his own comic persona, albeit one where he curiously places the kookier persona as the default and the “normal” one as the aberration.

It is also not hard to view Buddy Love as something of a subtweet of his old friend Dean Martin and the “rat pack” crew that he was now running with given that he is a chain-smoking singer and womanizer but he’s also made out to be a bully and a fool and is suggesting that being a kind-hearted goofball is preferable to being one of those “cool” people. Of course in a modern context a lot of this could be viewed as a bunch of “nice guy-ism” and the movie isn’t terribly concerned about the inner life of the woman that these two personas is going after (who’s also one of the professor’s students, which is also an issue that goes unaddressed), but as a simple comedic fable it’s interesting and it’s also interesting when you consider it within the context of Lewis’ career. Looking past that I’d say that this is one of the less abrasive Lewis comedies in part because his nutty professor voice amused me more than some of his other comedic voices and also because his outlandish personas are actually tied into the story rather than ancillary to it. That said, while I get what he’s trying to do with the Buddy Love stuff the movie does sort of just give up on being funny in those parts and frankly I’m not sure I was exactly laughing uproariously during much of it.

*** out of Five

 

Boeing Boeing (1965)

When I put my Jerry Lewis retrospective together I was kind of flying blind.  I knew I wanted to look at Artists and Models, The Ladies Man, and The Nutty Professor but I wasn’t really sure what my first and final movies would be and ultimately made my choices based in part on availability.  For my last movie I’m looking at Boeing Boeing, a movie that (based on the other four movies I looked at) isn’t very representative of the man’s comedy and in which he’s probably more of a co-star to Tony Curtis than the lead performer on.  It does hold an important place in the man’s career as it was the last movie under his Paramount contract but it maybe wasn’t the best movie to place in a marathon… but I ended up quite liking the movie in part because rather than in spite of the fact that it isn’t very indicative of Lewis’ style.  The film is set in Paris and concerns a pair of American bachelor foreign correspondents and specifically one played by Tony Curtis, who we come to learn has been juggling three separate fiancés who don’t know each other.  These fiancés are each stewardesses for three different airlines and he often refers to them by their respective employers (British United, Air France, and Lufthansa), so the plan is that because they all have different flight schedules he can count on them never being in town at the same time.  Essentially it’s an update to the sailor who has a girl in every port, but supercharged.

It’s incredibly caddish and sexist behavior and the movie is aware of this and eventually gives the guy some degree of comeuppance, but until then we get to have a certain vicarious thrill to watching this guy flail all over the place as his whole operation kind of falls apart when the women all find themselves back in Paris at the same time and he needs to find ways to keep them separated.  Lewis plays his friend who arrives to discover all this craziness and has to try to help him with his various cover-ups.  The whole thing is basically set over a weekend and largely in the Curtis character’s apartment, which sort of betrays its origins as a stage play and you could definitely picture the manic comedy here being particularly effective in that environment.  It’s also notable that Jerry Lewis is not really acting in his usual persona here and isn’t even putting on some other character like he was as Buddy Love, really he’s just kind of giving a straightforward comedic performance without a weird voice or exaggerated mannerisms which blends in with what Tony Curtis is doing.  So yeah, not a very Jerry Lewis-like performance or movie… and depending on how you feel about the guy that might be for the best.

***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

So, that’s five Jerry Lewis movies to see if I liked the guy and I can’t exactly say that they left me a huge fan… but there were certain stretches here and there where I could certainly see the appeal.  As a director the guy certainly had some inventive idea and I can also see why his comedic persona could be amusing, at least for short stretches, but for me it was often a bit grating to deal with for entire movies.  It also isn’t hard to see why the public would turn on him eventually, no matter who you are comedic personas almost always get old eventually.  I left the little marathon off before he really fell off with the American public and the “they like him in France” jokes really started to take over.  I think that whole “French” thing combined with his sometimes erratic public behavior did ultimately hurt him.  It’s a little surprising that he never really made any kind of come-back and his movies sort of never re-entered the public eye.  The guy lived until 2017, you’d think at some point he would have tried to play the father in an Adam Sandler movie or something, but outside of his telethon he really toiled in obscurity in the last two decades of his life.  I don’t think I’m going to be seeking out his other movies too diligently, but who knows, if one of them comes on TCM or something I might give it a look.

Crash Course: 60s Avant Garde – Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part retrospective, click here to read part one.

Scorpio Rising (1963)

Our next movie brings us into the world of Kenneth Anger, another larger than life character who’s career included both experimental cinema and other cultural endeavors.  Anger (who is still alive today at age 93) is possibly just as famous as a film historian, of sorts, as he is for the short films he made.  He’s the author of a rather infamous book called “Hollywood Babylon” which was filled with salacious (and frequently fabricated) gossip about early movie stars.  That writing project is probably the most mainstream thing he’s been involved with but his true legacy lies in these provocative short films that usually combine queer themes, pop culture iconography, and occult imagery.  Anger was openly gay and also an accolade of the pagan mystic Aleister Crowley and his Thelema teachings, which permeate his films and he was also boldly open about being a gay man in a time when that could have gotten him thrown into prison and willing to include overtly homoerotic imagery in his films.  His breakthrough film Fireworks, which he made in the late forties, is also a legit classic of the form and was prosecuted for obscenity leading to a California Supreme Court ruling that homosexuality was a valid subject for artistic expression.

The film at question here, Scorpio Rising, was made almost twenty years later but was also subject to an obscenity trial which seems ridiculous because compared to Flaming Creatures its really tame and also generally a more professionally made and accessible work.  The film focuses on motorcycle guys modeled after James Dean and Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” who are out causing ruckus that is constantly intercut with religious imagery as well as occult and Nazi symbolism.  There’s no dialogue in the film and it is instead constantly sound tracked by a series of 1950s pop songs and it generally was way ahead of its time in its interest in re-litigating the iconography of that decade a good ten years before American Grafiti, Grease, and “Happy Days.”  It also doesn’t take a genius to see that there’s kind of a thin (if non-existent) line between the image of the tough hyper-masculine biker gang member and the gay object of desire leather man and the subjects of this movie are almost certainly sexualized.  There is quite a mix of symbolism to be found here however.  The film’s exact point about biker iconography isn’t entirely clear, perhaps it’s questioning why we view these biker rebels as being so appealing given that they’re kind of violent thugs or is there something sincere to the way he equates what they’re doing to the Jesus imagery?  It’s open to interpretation, but either way the film is a much more fun watch than a lot of these avant-garde movies and it’s easy to see its influence permeate culture.

 

Dog Star Man (1961-1964)

One of the biggest names in experimental filmmaking outside of the silent era was almost certainly Stan Brakhage, an American filmmaker who made dozens of films almost entirely by himself over the course of a fifty year career, many of them organized into specific “cycles.”  Criterion has released his work on two multidisc boxed sets with something like eleven hours of footage between the two.  His most famous work is almost certainly his “Dog Star Man” cycle that was made over the course of the early sixties.  It’s spread over five ostensibly separate shorts (one prelude and four “parts”) and in total runs about an hour and fifteen minutes.  The most famous part is probably the “prelude,” which runs about twenty six minutes and establishes the film’s rather wild aesthetic which involves a whole lot of really fast cuts, images layered on top of each other, and weird little distortions on the film.  It’s an intensely analog piece of work and you can tell it was put together through some really painstaking work done to celluloid at some kind of editing bay.  Elements of the film’s aesthetic have actually been coopted a lot by straight-up horror movies and can be seen in things like the opening credits of Se7en or the video from The Ring or sections of Natural Born Killers but the subject matter here is different than that and while there are moments that are supposed to be unsettling this is not trying to be a work of disturbing horror.

Instead that prelude almost seems to invoke the big bang and the dawn of time while Part One (which is about a half hour) focuses in on the simple sight of a haggard man played by Brakhage himself trying to climb up a hill.  The remaining three parts only take up about twenty minutes and act as a sort of freakout with oblique images of an infant and a nude woman and some have interpreted the film as being about Brakhage’s estrangement from his wife and child at the time, which seems plausible but it would also be fair to say this movie is very open for interpretation as its aggressively non-narrative to the point where it rarely holds on a shot longer than a couple of seconds.  There’s no dialogue in the film, and for that matter there’s no sound… at all… not even any background music.  This is apparently true of a lot of Brakhage’s films as he didn’t want his films to feel like they were accompaniments to music rather than the reverse, and while I kind of get that I kind of wish he didn’t.  I’m one of those people like the protagonist of Baby Driver who kind of goes a little crazy if I’m not hearing some kind of noise for any period of time so watching this 100% silent movie was almost more of a distraction than any score would have been.  This is very much the kind of movie that will test a lot of people’s patience, and if it was being made by a film student today it probably wouldn’t be very impressive, but as one of the first movies made to look like… that, it does feel like more of an accomplishment even if it does get a touch repetitive at times.

 

Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)

Of all the movies I’ve looked at for this series George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked is probably the one I have the most difficult time seeing the appeal of.  Even when Jack Smith was waving a dick in my face in his film I could at least conceptualize its importance as a piece of transgressive queer cinema, but what’s the point of this?   Well, let’s take a step back and look at the context.  George Kuchar was a New York (and later San Francisco) based underground filmmaker who had something like 200 short films to his name of which this appears to be the most high profile.  Kuchar’s story is kind of interesting as he and his brother began their careers making slightly over-ambitious films with a consumer grade cameras as teenagers that were parodies of Hollywood movies and then eventually found themselves making films for the underground scenes.  Hold Me While I’m Naked was made without Kuchar’s brother and was his first film in 16mm, but its amateur nature is pretty apparent given that the actors are plainly amateurs and the film’s technical aspects are “nice try” levels at best.  The story concerns a young filmmaker who tries shooting an actress in an erotic scene but has her leave and then he goes home and imagines her getting fucked by some other guy while he jerks off in the shower.  The film is not, however, terribly erotic or graphic about any of this and the film has more of a dopey comedic tone, almost like a precursor to the bad Animal House ripoffs we’d get decades later and that might be tinging my opinion of it in a way that might not have been apparent when it was made.  Perhaps making a movie based on a slightly dirty joke like this would have been novel at one point but people seem to take this thing very seriously.  The Village Voice once voted it the 52nd best film of the twentieth century and 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die called it a “melodramatic tour de force of underground invention.”  Maybe I’m missing something.

 

Report (1967)

At about thirteen minutes Bruce Conner’s Report is the shortest of the ten movies I’m looking at for my Avant-Garde marathon and yet oddly the hardest one to find.  It’s not on Youtube, Vimeo, or even Archive.org and you can scroll through page after page of google video results without finding anything useful.  I eventually ended up finding it on, of all places, a weird Chinese video sharing site called “Bilibili” which I’m guessing dumped all kinds of spyware on my computer… thus is my dedication to cinema.  I’m not exactly sure why the film is so scarce and can only assume it’s because Bruce Conner, despite passing away in 2008, is still a reasonably important figure in the modern art whose films and visual art still gets exhibited in museums so presumably the trust is a bit more vigorous in their copyright enforcement, which is ironic because Report is a movie that consists almost entirely of footage that Conner himself did not shoot including a lot of footage that is almost certainly being used in a “fair use” fashion.

The subject here is the Kennedy assassination.  The film opens up with stock footage of Kennedy’s motorcade driving forward on that fateful day right before the shots rang out and then the screen goes white and starts to flicker almost like a strobe-light (not recommended viewing for the photosensitive) while audio of the radio chatter on the ground is heard.  This part reminded me a bit of a short film that Alejandro González Iñárritu would later make about 9/11 for the omnibus film 11’09″01 September 11 and there was a similar thing at the beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.  From there we see one of those pre-film countdown things and then the picture comes back and starts to turn into a sort of collage of imagery intercutting footage like the funeral with a variety of other images from the news and pop culture like images of nuclear explosions, and the “it’s alive” scene from Frankenstein, and a variety of commercials.  It’s edited together with the kind of fast intensity that we saw in Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man and there is a rather visceral feel to how its put together but what exactly is Conner trying to say?  Well on a basic level he seems to be capturing that the assassination was this very somber fact that then sparked an explosion of commentary, conspiracy theories, and just general noise.  Also he’s perhaps making a statement about the media in general with a belief that they had exploited his death, which… look, if he thought that event was “exploited” he must have really been disgusted by what was to come.

 

Wavelength (1967)

In my journey through the avant-garde shorts of the 60s I’ve seen weirder movies than Michael Snow’s Wavelength, and I’ve seen movies that are more baffling, and I’ve seen movies that require more background knowledge but out of all of them this is probably the one where there’s the greatest gap between how much a movie fascinates me and how much I actually enjoyed watching it because this thing is almost intentionally tedious despite having an interesting form.  The film is set in one room and starts out almost looking like it was filmed on a security camera shooting down at a room.  There are subliminal cuts in the film but it is meant to look like it’s a single shot that is slowly zooming in on the wall on the other side of the room over the course of forty-five minutes.  Now there are hints that there’s actually a story going on in this room, some characters walk into frame early on, later we hear what sounds like a gunshot off screen and see a person (a cameo by Hollis Frampton, a celebrated experimental filmmaker in his own right) just barely stumble into frame and die on the floor, and then later we briefly see someone else enter the frame to call the police about the dead body.  I think the idea is to make a statement of sorts about how it’s doing the opposite of what most movies do by having the camera essentially ignore the action around it and instead remain focused on a single point, though I’m not sure how the occasional color filters that show up play into that.

Now, I’m watching this as a youtube video on my TV which has certain effects on my viewing.  For one thing, blowing up the picture like that is not ideal and it made some of the details in the room kind of difficult to see, but the bigger effect is that I wasn’t trapped in a theater and while I probably shouldn’t have I was able to kind of sort of glance at my laptop while watching it instead of remaining entirely focused on the slow static zooming shot on the TV in front of me.  I do suspect that if I wasn’t doing that I might have lost patience with it a little bit faster.  Still the very basic idea did intrigue me and to some extent I was interested that someone had the cojones to actually make something like this and the basic technique of the slow zoom would one day be reused to great effect by Steve McQueen (himself a filmmaker who emerged from the world of art installations) in his 2008 film Hunger.  However, what kind of tipped me not being so willing to be open minded about the whole experience is the film’s score which consists largely of these sharp shapeless tones that were almost painful to listen to.  Don’t watch this movie if you have a dog in the room and maybe don’t watch it if you aren’t doing a marathon of experimental films, because of all of them this is probably the one I’d have the hardest time trying to explain the appeal of to a skeptic.

 

In Conclusion

So what have a I learned from watching all these avant-garde shorts?  Mostly that my interest in them is limited and that they’re probably made less for dedicated cinephilles than they are for aficionados of modern art and counterculture.  That having been said, I did find some interesting things to take away from almost all of them and could also recognize certain techniques from most of them that “real” filmmakers would end up using in their work, so on some level you can view the experimental film world as a sort of farm league where people find interesting ideas through… experimenting.  Out of all the movies I watched I’d say I was most interested in Dog Star Man and Scorpio Rising and could most easily see myself further exploring the works of Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage.  The movies I responded to the least were the movies that were most consciously trying to appear lo-fi and amateurish like the Jack Smith films and the George Kuchar film.

Crash Course: 60s Avant Garde – Part 1

If you’ve ever looked in the film reference section of a Barnes and Noble or equivalent bookstore you’ve probably encountered copies of a book called “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die,” which is a thick (and regularly updated) tome that (as the title implies) lists a thousand and one movies that are essential viewing and gives a little caption about each one.  I’ve owned a copy of the second edition of the book (which lists movies through 2004) for what must be fifteen years now and have been crossing films off the list as I see them and I’m down to about 200 movies that I still have to see.  One thing I’ve noticed while periodically leafing through the book is that there are actually a bunch of films from the 1960s that are actually short (or relatively short) experimental films, often made in what could be called the “avant garde” style, which are not really the kind of films I would normally encounter through my usual channels and viewing habits.  However, I noticed that because of their brevity a lot of these movies are right there for the finding on Youtube and Vimeo.  As such I’ve decided to try and watch my way through as many of these movies as I can in one unified “crash course” project and document what I learn along the way.  A lot of these are going to need a good bit of historical context and interpretation, so I will try to look up as much as I can but I do also plan to look at these critically.  “Avant Garde” filmmaking could well be a recipe for pretentious nonsense or stuff that just plain doesn’t interest me so I do hope to be as honest as possible in my reactions.

 

La Jetée (1960)

The first movie I’ll be looking at for this marathon is a film that is probably more associated with the French New Wave (specifically the Left Bank) than the avant garde per se, but it’s certainly an experimental short and worth looking at in comparison.  The film was made by a guy named Chris Marker (real name Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve), who was a friend and occasional collaborator with major French filmmakers of the era like Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda and while he never really made much of a career making feature length fictional films like they did he did manage to make a couple of narrative experiments that assured him his legacy.  The thirty minute film La Jetée is probably his most famous work, in no small part because Terry Gilliam would one day adapt it into a feature length Hollywood movie called Twelve Monkeys starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt.  I always quite liked that movie but there is something almost perverse about making a big budget science fiction film out of such a weird little experimental project as this.  Unlike most of the other films here, La Jetée is has dialogue and also has a clear and prominent narrative to it, what it doesn’t have is moving pictures.  The film consists entirely of a series of still pictures edited together into a narrative which is explained largely by voice-over.  The story isn’t nearly as lengthy and elaborate as Twelve Monkeys’ is and it doesn’t even have an equivalent to the Brad Pitt character but it does have a similar structure and concept on a basic level even if it’s a bit more metaphysical in its goals.  As I said before, I like Twelve Monkeys a lot and this probably won’t be replacing that as my personal favorite take on this story, but this is definitely a unique and interesting work that poses some interesting questions about what a “movie” even is.

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)

Heaven and Earth Magic is the work of a guy named Harry Everett Smith who was quite the polymath talent. Wikipedia describes him as a “visual artist, experimental filmmaker, record collector, bohemian, mystic, and largely self-taught student of anthropology.”  He was a figure of interest in the 50s beatnik scene and had a longstanding friendship with Allen Ginsberg.  In the music field is probably best known for assembling the six album “Anthology of Folk” set using his own record collection, which had a massive influence on the 1960s folk revival.  And most pertinently he made a series of avant-garde films by employing an animation style called cutout animation, in which paper cutouts are manipulated to replicate motion.  Smith didn’t invent this style, in fact it goes back to the dawn of cinema, but he did do it on a more elaborate and extensive scale than it was done before and while I couldn’t find any quotes to that effect I’m pretty sure that his work was a big influence on Terry Gilliam’s animated bumpers in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

For Heaven and Earth Magic he specifically used images that he cut out of Victorian era catalogs and magazines to create these elaborate scenarios in which these little figures do… stuff.  Smith claims that there is a narrative here in which “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.”  Even on its face a story like that would be… elaborate, but I must say any narrative in this was pretty lost on me, it mostly just felt like a montage of interesting looking visuals that were strung together to showcase this animation style and on some level I was okay with that.  Like a lot of these experimental films this exists in a lot of versions, some of them very long, but the version most people seem to take as canon is only about 66 minutes, which will still test some people’s patience but seemed like about the right length for what it is.

Méditerranée (1963)

Méditerranée is the work of a guy named Jean-Daniel Pollet, who was probably best known for making films that added visuals to what are essentially poetic monologues.  This was his most famous film and it was co-directed by the German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, produced by Barbet Schroeder and was based around a poetic script by Philippe Sollers and uses the whole Mediterranean region as its theme.  The film cuts between vignettes from various different countries along the sea: a bullfight in Spain, images of mummies in Egypt, a Greek temple, a girl on an operating table in what is presumably France.  There was clearly a lot of care put into the film’s editing and at times it almost feels a bit like a precursor to films like Koyaanisqatsi, but it’s less bombastic in its execution and more subtle in its messaging… maybe a little too subtle.  You occasionally get some sense that the movie is trying to tie antiquity to modernity and tell a story about what unites the cultures around this body of water but that’s something you kind of need to read into it more than something that it give the viewer clearly and over the course of it’s forty five minute runtime (which is in some ways actually kind of long for what it is) there’s quite a bit of repetition.  It keeps on coming back to some of these things like the bullfight and the girl on the stretcher, but these “stories” don’t really progress much and you do kind of start to lose patience with the whole thing.  It also doesn’t help that this Phillipe Sollers script is completely abstract verse that as far as I can tell only occasionally seems to have much of anything to do with what’s onscreen.  Maybe it sounds better in French.  The film would go on to be a favorite of Jean-Luc Godard and likely influenced some of his more collage-like films, which are not really the Godard films I tend to like.  I saw glimmers of why this film would be of interest here but I wouldn’t say it is a movie I got a ton out of.

Blonde Cobra (1963)

A lot of these avant-garde movies, weird as they may be, are nothing if not meticulously constructed.  Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra is the opposite in that it revels in its low-fi underground nature and DIY aesthetic in a sort of punk rock kind of way.  The film essentially has the feel of a home movie complete with a dude haphazardly holding up cardboard cards to show the opening credits.  The subject of the film is a guy named Jack Smith, who was an experimental filmmaker in his own right (I’ll be looking at one of his films shortly) but has perhaps a larger legacy in performance art and for his role as a “queer muse” to the underground art scene of the time.  This film is something of a testament to Smith’s general flamboyance.  Much of it consists of shaky footage of Smith messing around in an apartment with the screen occasionally going entirely black as if someone left the lens cap on while he tells “shocking” stories about necrophilia, lesbian nuns, and his childhood sexual awakenings.  The guy has a speech style that is kind of a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Bill Paxton in Aliens and later on in the film he starts walking around in rather unconvincing drag in a way that I’m pretty sure was more transgressive in 1963 than it is today.  It’s… not for everybody.  And without context about who these people are or when this was made it would really seem rather worthless, and I don’t really even know that it did much for me with the background information.  More of a movie for aficionados of counter-culture figures than for film fans, but I can’t completely dismiss it given that it’s a movie that is very much aware of what it’s going for.

Flaming Creatures (1963)

Blonde Cobra was a film featuring Jack Smith, but Flaming Creatures is a film made by Jack Smith… and it’s somehow even cruder and more unformed than the former movies.  The film is about forty five minutes long and largely seems to exist as a medium for Smith to film various drag performers, trans people, and intersex people.  A lot of the film consists of fuzzy images of these people dancing interspersed with close-ups of breasts (belonging to androgynous people) and penises, then there’s a gang rape/orgy, then there’s an earthquake and a vampire that looks like Marylyn Monroe… and then fifteen more minutes of drag performers dancing.  It’s decidedly not for everyone.  Let’s be clear, this is a movie that comes from a time of extreme heteronormativity and when any kind of sexual expression outside of the “norm” was highly taboo and an underground film like this was likely a product of an intense need for representation.  I would also say that I can see why this would be an important film to know about if you’re deep into the history of LBGT cinema or drag performance.  That having been said, I found this to be quite the chore to sit through despite its relatively short runtime.  While making the film Smith deliberately used out of date film stock when making it, which makes the picture quality really hazy and hard to make out and the camera placement is completely haphazard and unclear.  This was probably partly to dilute some of the film’s graphic imagery, which nonetheless got the film in trouble with the law and exhibitors of the film were even subject to obscenity trials in some cases, which gave the film some notoriety as a cause célèbre.  Honestly I feel like that forbidden fruit aspect of the film has helped its reputation a lot because as hard as I try to be open minded about it the movie I’m seeing seems a lot different from the one that critics of the time hyped up as “beautiful art.”

Continued in Part 2

Crash Course: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women

Kenji Mizoguchi is probably the third most famous director of Japanese cinema’s golden age after Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu.  He wasn’t very well known in the West for much of his career but when the aforementioned filmmakers started to gain followings they also caught up on Mizoguchi’s work and as such some of his later work like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff became classics of 1950s arthouse cinema.  When I recently decided to start collecting Mizoguchi’s work on blu-ray and DVD in earnest I eventually picked up Criterion’s Eclipse set entitled “Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” which doesn’t look at any one particular era of the director’s work but instead focuses on movies that fit into one of his most common themes: the lives of women who are failed by society.  I’ve had the set for a while but the time feels right to finally explore these four films.

Osaka Elegy (1936)

Osaka Elegy was Mizoguchi’s critical and commercial breakthrough and he himself viewed it as his first truly successful film even though he’d made dozens of (mostly lost) films before it.  Criterion has labeled the boxed set this was in “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” which invokes the “fallen woman” genre that I tend to think of as a very western genre embodying Victorian values.  Essentially proto-after school specials, they tended to be movies about women who make mistakes that ultimately result in them descending into sin and becoming social pariahs who would ultimately be punished at the end.  Some of these were made out of genuinely puritanical urges, some of them were more like exploitation movies that used the “cautionary tale” as a presence to get “dirty” stories past the censors.  Mizoguchi’s film sort of falls into that broad characterization, but he’s a lot more sympathetic about the circumstances that led his fallen woman into such a situation.   The film actually reminded me a lot of another movie I watched earlier this year: Ritwik Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star.  Both movies are about women in crappy ungrateful families who sort of ruin their lives trying to help them, but here the woman tries helping them by having an affair with her boss and essentially prostituting herself (off screen) and suffers for her choices.  There’s nothing phenomenally special about any of that on paper but despite her ostensible “delinquency” you do get the feeling that Mizoguchi cares about her as much as Ghatak cared about his protagonist and in the last moments he has her give a look directly to the camera which sort of suggests that despite everything that’s happened to her she’s not fully defeated and there is still hope for her.  This is far from the most well-made film of Mizoguchi’s career and the production values are limited (I’ve come to keep my expectations in check while watching pre-war Japanese cinema) but his humanism was clearly there from the beginning.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Sisters of the Gion (1936)

Sisters of the Gion is often viewed as something of a companion piece to Osaka Elegy as both came out the same year, were made by more or less the same crew, and have a similar interest in the treatment of women by society, but they are also somewhat different movies in a number of other ways.  Firstly, the film is about two women instead of one, secondly it manages to be at once more didactic about certain issues and at the same time more nuanced about what it has to say about the specific characters.  As the title implies this is about a pair of sisters who live in the Gion district of Kyoto, which is an entertainment district that was known for its geisha houses.  The two sisters are in dire financial stakes and become geishas to make ends meet.  One of them is something of a “true believer” in the concept of the geisha and the other is highly suspicious of them and speaks of men in general as something of an abusive enemy to women.  That sister’s anti-male rants are a touch on the nose and could almost seem like parodies of the “man-hating feminist” archetype, but were there even such feminists to parody in 1930s Japan?  Over the course of the movie that sister’s attitude leads her to treat her clients rather immorally and this ultimately leads to her downfall, which would seem to be something of a rebuke of her worldview but it doesn’t entirely feel like that.  The other sister isn’t exactly rewarded with fame and fortune for her own “go along to get along” attitude and many of the men they’re dealing with in the film don’t exactly seem worthy of the sympathy she gives them.

In some ways I feel like I’m a bit out of my depth with this one.  A lot of how you read the film rests on how reasonable you think the anti-geisha in her anger about the treatment of geishas by society and I don’t really know enough about the topic to judge that and the movie doesn’t really show a whole lot of that supposed mistreatment on screen.  The relations between the sisters and their clients in the movie seem fairly chaste, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be implied that there’s something more akin to prostitution happening off screen and it isn’t being made explicit in order to appease the censors.  That matters because outside of the final assault scene, which could be read as more of a punishment for how the one sister treated her clients than as a rebuke of the system, there aren’t really that many harsh realities of the trade shown.  However, the film’s final moments, when the one sister lets out a primal scream questioning why the profession of the Geisha even exists certainly seems to be something the film is showing in solidarity.  I think the point is that the movie suggests that it doesn’t exactly agree with how she treats her clients but ultimately blames a corrupt system for putting her in that position in the first place.  So there are some interesting themes to wade through in this, but I’m not sure it’s exactly a great movie.  It runs a very brief 68 minutes, and a lot of that time is spent with these elaborate plot machinations where the sisters juggle clients, it could have really used some extra running time to breathe.

*** out of Five

 

Women of the Night (1948)

With the third film in the Mizoguchi Eclipse set we take a pretty big jump from 1936 to 1948 and obviously kind of a lot happened in the nation of Japan between those years.  The differences between pre-war and post-war Japanese cinema are pretty stark and movies made during the immediate aftermath of the war in the bombed out cities are very much their own thing.  With this film Mizoguchi took a bit of a page from the neorealist movement that was on the rise in order to make a social realist film about people trying to find their footing in a post-war Japan with a focus on the issue of prostitution, which was running rampant given the poverty of the time.  In fact one of the first images in the film is of a sign which reads that any women found in certain areas at night were going to be assumed to be prostitutes and rounded up.  Once again the focus here are on a pair of sisters one of whom does end up falling into the life of a streetwalker, and the movie doesn’t beat around the bush about that like it did in some of those earlier movies.  It sort of gets away with that because it’s very much an “issue” movie and it treats the subject fairly tastefully, but even with that in mind I doubt something like this would be made in America under the Hayes code.  The movie does kind of tread into some of the questionable territory of making a female character who’s essentially an angry feminist trying to take revenge on male-kind, which is not a terribly productive trope and seeing it in two of these movies now gives me a little bit of pause, but Mizoguchi is clearly on these womens’ side in aggregate.  In general this is a lot more watchable and accomplished than the last two movies, but in some ways feels a bit less unique and gets a bit… unsubtle in some of its dialog and storytelling.

*** out of Five

 

Street of Shame (1956)

For the last film in the “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” boxed set takes us to the very end of the director’s career with his final film Street of Shame.  Once again Mizoguchi looks at the plight of prostitutes, but instead of impoverished streetwalkers in bombed out streets this movie looks at “high class” hookers working at a licensed brothel in Tokyo.  I was not aware that such things were legal in 1950s Japan but I know they aren’t legal now because this movie is alleged to have actually swayed public opinion on the topic and led to the formal illegalization of prostitution in the country (which was being debated for years beforehand).  That is perhaps a bit of an ironic legacy because the movie offers a slightly more conflicted look at the problem than the kind of polemic that you’d expect to inspire such a response.  The film certainly highlights the exploitation that goes on at these places and also the highly unhealthy relations many of these sex workers have with their various Johns, but it also acknowledges that these places essentially act as last places of refuge for women who are in some in tough spots and how shutting them down could push some of them into the streets.  To explore this the film looks at five characters who are workers at a brothel whose stories are meant to represent something of a cross-section of different situations that different prostitutes might find themselves in.  The film is open and frank about what’s going on at this house of ill-repute but rarely goes into any kind of graphic or exploitative detail and there’s never even a whiff of sensationalism to the whole thing.  It also kind of goes without saying that Mizoguchi’s visual style is fully evolved here and also that we’re finally being given a film whose print has been correctly preserved.  A lot of the rest of the movies in this boxed set are movies I would probably discourage people from seeing unless they’ve already experienced some of the director’s more refined films first but this feels like one I can recommend a lot more freely.

**** out of Five

Crash Course: Imported by GKids – Part 2

Continuing my look through the history of major releases distributed by GKids.  This retrospective began in Part 1.

Song of the Sea (2014)

This 2014 import by GKids was the second film from the Irish animation company Cartoon Saloon.  Cartoon Saloon was a company founded in the early 2000s by three schoolmates named Paul Young, Tomm Moore, and Nora Twomey.  At this stage Moore had already conceived of The Secret of Kells but the studio had to start out by doing work for commercials and Irish television before eventually scraping together the money for that first feature.  Though that movie didn’t make a ton of money at the box office it did get that surprise Oscar nomination, which was a huge deal for the studio, it’s one of the great examples of how the Academy Awards can be a force for good.  That was enough to get them the funding for a second film, which like The Secret of Kells would be directed by Tomm Moore.  Moore is a guy who would seem to be deeply interested in Irish history and mythology.  We saw a bit of that in The Secret of Kells, which is very much about the clash of Irish mythology and early Christianity while his follow-up The Song of the Sea is going to look even deeper into that Irish mythology… maybe a little too deep.

The film is set in modern day Ireland and focuses on a brother and sister who live in a rural lighthouse with their widower father and as the film goes on they come to realize that the sister is in fact a selkie, which is a mythological creature that is kind of like a seal that sheds its skin to become human: a sort of seal mermaid if you will.  I’d first encountered selkies in a John Sayles movie called The Secret of Roan Inish that my parents took me to when I was a kid, but that was a hazy memory and this movie does not do a whole lot to really re-introduce the concept to audiences that aren’t already familiar.  In fact there’s lot of Irish folklore stuffed into the movie that it kind of feels like you’re already supposed to know about, which might have been a bit easier for me to go along with had this been invoking Greek or Norse mythologies, but Celtic mythology is a bit more foreign to me.  In general I think the film could have stood to have used fewer ideas and focused on each one a little more.  The Secret of Kells basically only had two supernatural elements: the fairy and the evil force, and that gave the film a lot more time to introduce each element and establish the characters and their home lives.  If The Secret of Kells was trying to be Cartoon Saloon’s Princess Mononoke this was trying to be their Spirited Away and I think that movie’s trippy dream logic tour setup is a little harder to replicate.  But I am probably focusing a little too much on the negative here as there’s still a lot to like in The Song of the Sea, particularly the hand drawn animation and it’s general ambition, but I liked the studio’s first film better.

*** out of Five

 

Boy & the World (2015)

Watching arty GKids imports has exposed me to some pretty trippy animation art styles but nothing quite as extreme as the Brazilian film Boy & the World.  This film was directed by a guy named Alê Abreu and features a highly abstract visual style which at times looks like a small child’s doodles come to life but then starts to become more elaborate as the film goes.  There’s no spoken dialogue in the film at all outside of a couple of lines that are played backwards to give a sort of “adults in Charlie Brown” effect and the plot appears to be a sort of “Where the Wild Things Are” set-up where a boy has a bit of a tantrum and then sort of escapes into a world of imagination, though I’m not exactly sure that the things he fantasizes about are exactly the kind of things a kid would come up with because they’re also barbed messages about capitalism and environmental wreckage.  Yeah, there’s some heavy stuff in here beneath the surface and I think it’s meant to be sort of a metaphor for a child going from a carefree life to better understanding the world in all its complexity.  That all sounds great but I’m not entirely sure I entirely like this as a movie, in fact I almost question if film was the right medium for this.  The art style, the recurring music, the abstract narrative almost reminded me more of something you’d expect in a video game, specifically some kind of indie side-scrolling video game with an art style like “Limbo” or “Hollow Knight,” and after eighty minutes of the film it was testing my patience a little.  Still, it’s clearly a movie with some vision and worth a look.

*** out of Five

 

My Life as a Zucchini (2016)

My Life as a Zucchini (AKA My Life as a Courgette) is the only film in this little Gkids marathon I’m doing to use stop-motion animation and is also one of the more mature themed of the films.  The film is a Franco-Swiss production directed by a fellow named Claude Barras who had been making short films in 2D animation and stop motion since the late 90s but for whom this was the first (and so far only) feature film, though it only barely qualifies as feature length given that it runs just under an hour and ten minutes long.   I’m not terribly familiar with his work, but I did notice that Céline Sciamma was one of the film’s four credited directors and may have had something to do with the film’s sensitive tone.  The movie is set in a group home for kids coming from troubled backgrounds, so sort of a Short Term 12 scenario, and is told from the perspective of a nine year old boy whose father is out of the picture and whose mother died in an accident that he feels somewhat responsible for (he slammed a door on her when she came after him in a drunken rage and then fell down the stairs as a result).  This boy goes by the name “Zucchini,” which was a pet name from his past, and its significance is otherwise a little unclear to me.  As a live action film I think this might have felt a bit slight and unspectacular, but the animation does make it a little more interesting.  Unlike other recent stop-motion animation this feels a bit more like straight-up Claymation and has characters with large caricatured heads with each one of them having a certain “type” and “look.”  That made things interesting, but I did not care for the film’s borderline fairy tale ending, even if they try to complicate it a little.

*** out of Five

 

The Breadwinner (2017)

The first two movies from the Cartoon Saloon were directed by a guy named Tomm Moore and both films were steeped in Irish history and mythology but for their third film they took another approach.  The Breadwinner was directed by one of the company’s other co-founders, Nora Twomey, who had major behind the scenes jobs on the previous films and displayed something of a unique vision here despite still basically working within the “house style.”  The film follows an eleven year old girl in Afghanistan sometime in recent memory (it’s a bit vague on if its set before, during, or after the post 9/11 war), and follows her as she’s forced to pretend to be a boy to be the family’s “breadwinner” after her father is arrested by the Taliban over some bullshit.  So, it’s kind of the Mulan/Yentl feminist story of girls being able to do just as well as their male counterparts when people put away their preconceptions.  I believe there was a movie called Osama that put the same framework on a middle eastern context in the early 2000s but I haven’t seen that and can’t easily compare the two.  The film is also intertwined with a “story within a story” the protagonist is telling to her sibling about a war in antiquity against an “Elephant King.”

It makes some sense why animation would be a logical format for this story given that it isn’t exactly easy to film live action feminist cinema in Afghanistan at the moment and also because it serves to make some of the tougher sections of the story a bit more palatable.  It also serves as a perfect medium for the story-within-a-story sections, which are stylized differently from the “real world” sections and are visually interesting throughout even though I think they maybe take up more screen time than they needed to.  Now, in this day and age we do need to address the elephant in the room which is that this is a movie set in Afghanistan directed by a white person, written by white people, and based on a novel also written by a white person, none of whom are to my knowledge Muslims, and with an intended audience that will also mostly consists of Westerners.  I don’t bring that up to dismiss them or say they can’t make a movie like this, but it does tend to raise a certain level of suspicion.  I must say that overtures about Middle Eastern patriarchy made by white western feminists can become a bit queasy, firstly because it doesn’t exactly take courage to say that the Taliban is kind of messed up, and secondly because there can be a bit of a “white savior” flavor to such overtures that can be problematic.  I would say this film mostly seemed to sit on the right side of all of that, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily the smartest cultural critique of such societies and there can be a certain bluntness to the behavior of the villains that is a touch questionable.  Aside from that though, I would say that this is the kind of thing I want people using animation for and consider it another really well made film from The Cartoon Saloon and would very much like to see what they and Nora Twomey do next.

***1/2 out of Five

 

And that is the last of these Gkids imports that I’ll be looking at for a while.  The distributor also earned a Best Animated Feature nomination for their release of Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai, and I might get to that eventually but I wanted to focus on the non-anime stuff here.  I would say that I am glad that I watched these movies but at the same time I was a little disappointed with them as a whole as only a few of them really stood out as true gems.  Chico and Rita was probably the best of the bunch.  Outside of that the most rewarding discoveries were the Cartoon Saloon movies, which is clearly on its way to being a major specialty animation studio.  Their next projects actually aren’t going to be distributed by Gkids.  Tomm Moore’s next movie is called Wolfwalkers (which sounds awesome based on the title) and will apparently be put out by AppleTV+ and Nora Twomey is making something called My Father’s Dragon, which will be distributed by Netflix, so clearly they have some friends in high places.  As for Gkids, they certainly have some movies slated to come out this year (assuming, you know what is no longer a problem) but it’s hard to tell what’s going to emerge and become an awards contender any given year.

Crash Course: Imported by GKids – Part 1

To my great surprise, one of the Oscar categories that I most look forward to every year is the Best Animated Film category.  Not necessarily the winner, which is generally predictable and boring, but the nominees.  I’m not sure why but there’s clearly a bloc of voters in the animation branch that really does its homework and seeks out movies that differ from what the studio FYCs would want them to vote for.  At least in theory.  In truth, I usually won’t have actually seen the less mainstream (or a lot of the more mainstream for that matter) choices that the branch makes and I’ll often go years without catching up on them and that’s part of what I want to rectify by looking at some of the movies distributed by the main company that releases these films to theaters and on home video: GKids.

GKids is short for “Guerrilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate and was created by a guy named Eric Beckman, who used to program a children’s film festival in New York.  The company does not itself make films but has developed quite a niche for itself by being the main road to U.S. distribution for independently minded and usually foreign animated films that other studios like Disney aren’t interested in.  Over the last ten years they’ve taken over distribution of Studio Ghibli’s library from the mousehouse as they’ve moved on to more profitable things and they’ve also managed to find a number of international animated products that have garnered critical acclaim and Oscar nominations.  For this crash course I’ll be looking at eight of the eleven movies that have earned the distributor Best Animated Feature nominations.  I’ve already seen the two Studio Ghibli films that earned them nominations (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There) and I’ll also be setting aside the movie Mirai for a future project.

The Secret of Kells (2009)

For a whole lot of people the GKids story began on February 2, 2010, which was the day that the nominees for the 82nd Academy Awards.  During that announcement there was a rather eyebrow raising moment when the Best animated feature nominees were revealed.  Most of them were expected nominees like The Princess and the Frog, Coroline, and the eventual winner Up, but then there was one rather unexpected nominee: The Secret of Kells.  One of the big takeaways from the moment was “what the hell is The Secret of Kells.”  People who weren’t really observant of the world of indie animation simply had not heard of this movie and that was especially unexpected given that before this the category was almost entirely the domain of major studio product and the occasional Studio Ghibli or Aardman film when the stars aligned.  Pretty much the only precedent for a surprise nod like this was The Triplets of Belleville, but even that had a higher profile before its nomination.  The surprise was largely pleasant however as the people who had seen the film largely sung its praises and considered it to be a smart nomination.  The film was the product of an upstart production company called Cartoon Saloon, and I’ll probably talk about them in greater detail in another entry but they had been working towards this movie for the better part of a decade and this nomination and Gkids’ promotion really put them on the map and helped them continue working going forward.

As it turns out The Secret of Kells is a traditionally animated film set at a monastery in medieval Ireland where a twelve year old named Brendan has been living with his uncle.  Over the course of the film he meets a scribe, ventures out into the forest to get him writing supplies where he’ll meet a forest fairy, fight the spirit of evil, and escape a Viking invasion.  It’s kind of a lot to fit into a movie that only runs for an hour and fifteen minutes but it makes up for this with style and charm.  The film’s animation style is a little low budget in nature and kind of reminds me of the kind of format that would be employed by a Cartoon Network series like “Samurai Jack” or something but done with more care and detail.  The storytelling shows a clear Miyazaki influence in that it is still trying to be an adventure story from the perspective of a child but set in a semi-fantasy world that draws from cultural mythology and has a lot of nature spirits and the like.  I might have liked it to hue even further away from the family film aspirations (which was frankly an audience it was never going to get) and do away with some of the rather modern and anachronistic inflection that seems to be there in the dialogue and voice acting (it almost feels like a dub job despite actually being the original voice track), but maybe there’s a charm to be found in the fact that it is still theoretically a film for children.  All told I think the Academy was right to nominate this and put this studio on the map because this is definitely the kind of thing I wish more people were doing with animation.

***1/2 out of Five

A Cat in Paris (2011)

2011 was the year of the second and third Oscar nominations for Gkids distributed films with one of them being a French animated film called A Cat in Paris.  This film was made by a production company called Folimage, which isn’t terribly prolific in terms of making feature films but they do produce them occasionally and have had their most high profile successes when working with a pair of directors named Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol of which A Cat in Paris is one.  The film’s title is a bit tricky because the titular cat plays less of a role in it than I expected (though there’s also a cat burglar in the film so there may be a play on words going on).  The film is about a young girl whose mother is a cop and whose father was killed by a gangster/art thief who is still at large and this girl also has an adventurous pet cat and there’s a less violent burglar in town and all of these threads will ultimately converge over the course of a wacky night on the town.  On a plot level this is not a particularly deep of meaningful movie and its reputation probably rests more on its animation style.  The film has traditional (it looks traditional anyway) 2D animation which is heavily stylized to look that reminded me of the illustrations in picturebooks from the 90s.  The characters have sort of caricatured heads and weird looking feet and there are some unconventional choices with color as well as a couple of scenes that do clever things, like one that’s set in the dark and uses outlines to show what’s happening.  The film only runs about 65 minutes long so it’s really only barely a feature, which probably would have made it seemed like a bit of an odd thing to see in a theater but I’m not sure that extra runtime would have really helped it much.  This is certainly something different from the Hollywood norm and that makes it kind of novel, but I wouldn’t say that it’s any kind of new classic or anything.

*** out of Five

Chico and Rita (2011)

The very first year the Academy introduced the Best Animated Feature category there was a lot of disappointment when they opted not to nominate the rotoscoped Richard Linklater film Waking Life.  This might have been because animators are divided about whether rotoscoping counts as animation, it might have just been because it was a very small movie, but it was widely seen as a rejection of an animated movie that was made specifically for an adult audience. Indeed, even when the Animation branch nominates movies that are pretty “arty” they do generally want them to be at least nominally kid friendly and have also rejected movies like Waltz With Bashir, A Scanner Darkly, and Paprika.  To date only three movies with what would be considered “R-rated” content have been nominated for that award.  There was Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (the only officially R-rated film to garner one of the category’s nominations), there was last year’s I Lost My Body (which was never officially rated by the MPAA but has a TV-MA moniker on Netflix), and then there was the film I’m looking at today, Chico and Rita, which was also never looked at by the MPAA but does have some sex and nudity that would have garnered that mark if it had been submitted.  It was the first such movie to get the nomination but it is easy to see why the voters wouldn’t have been so quick to overlook it as it has a lot going for it.

The film is primarily the work of a Spanish director named Fernando Trueba, who was primarily a live action filmmaker who achieved a certain degree of international success in the 90s with his film Belle Époque.  This animated project largely has its roots in a documentary Trueba made in the early 2000s about Latin Jazz called Calle 54.  During the making of that film he met a Cuban jazz pianist named Bebo Valdés, who inspired him to make a movie about a (fictional) pianist who had similar experiences in pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Cuba.  In the film this hard on his luck jazz-man sparks a romance with a singer named Rita, but they never quite make it work out firstly because their careers go off in different directions and secondly because the revolution pops off and makes international travel complicated.  It’s not completely dissimilar from the story in the recent Paweł Pawlikowski film Cold War.  There’s nothing about it that inherently needed to be animated but recreating pre-revolutionary Havana for a live action probably would have been cost-prohibitive and I’m guessing the Castro regime would not have been overly accommodating about such a film being filmed there.  Additionally the format allows the film to include some “cameos” by some real life jazz legends and employs some cool stylistic elements throughout and generally just looks really slick.  It isn’t a movie that was necessarily made to revolutionize the animation form or experiment wildly but it’s a medium that work for the story and a story that has a very classic appeal to it which I quite enjoyed.

***1/2 out of Five

Ernest & Celestine (2013)

Gkids took a year off from the Oscars after their dual nomination year in 2012 but came back with a new nominee in the form of Ernest & Celestine, another traditionally animated French production like A Cat in Paris but made by completely different team of people who had previously made a film called A Town Called Panic, which came out right before Gkids started bringing movies like that to Oscar glory.  It’s based on a series of Belgian children’s books by a guy named Gabrielle Vincent and seems to be set in a world where talking mice and talking bears live in the same world but have separate societies and are kind of scared of one another.  Bears and mice seem like a rather curious pairs of animals to place in opposition to one another.  Historically I would think cats would be the creatures that would be the natural enemy to mice in cartoons and other logical enemies would include snakes and hawks.  Going the other way, if bears are supposed to be scared of mice I’ve never heard that one, that seems more like an elephant thing.  I don’t know, maybe in the francophone world there’s a different hierarchy of bullshit zoology for kids.  Obviously this is supposed to be an allegory for intolerance, but it’s not a particularly interesting or insightful one and I can’t say I ever connected too much with the titular protagonists.  This is very much a film made for children despite its ostensible artiness, really its main appeal is its art style, which feels like it was done with some kind of watercolors and often uses some very impressionist backgrounds.  It’s interesting to look at, but with the story not being terribly engaging I would say that this is one of the less essential movies that Gkids brought over.

**1/2 out of Five

Continued in Part 2