Sunday, August 2, 2009
Years ago I went to a free concert in Central Park where Jonathan Richman opened for Randy Newman. At the conclusion of the show, a friend of mine remarked, "If this had been a talent contest, Newman would have easily won." I had the same feeling after back-to-back film festivals at BAM on Sunday (Animation Block Party's 6:50 PM show) and Monday (The 47th Ann Arbor Film Festival, Traveling Tour 2009), with animation as the definite loser.
Don't get me wrong... there were some bright moments at the ABP show (and in all fairness I only saw one of their many programs), but just about every entry was bogged down with the trappings of pop culture, animation self-referencing, and light-weight themes and ideas. None offered much (or any) insight into important issues, the state of world, the human condition, or even simple human relationships.
Despite endless possibilities, many animation artists would rather contemplate how to use any story set-up as an excuse to create an epic fight scene. Among the most technically polished pieces in the ABP show was a seemingly endless film that featured a pint-sized character rambling on and on in a post-game locker room. The attractive design work and subtle character animation were not enough to generate interest in the tedious film. Can you imagine a live action equivalent, with great lighting, art direction and cinematography but no story, just a guy rambling on and on? If you're doing a narrative film, it’s not enough to have good animation or high production values. A narrative film requires structure and interesting characters working through something the audience can relate to.
Obviously, animators making a film have a right to make anything they want, and it’s also true that what I don't appreciate could still work for somebody else. I don't mean to knock an individual film or filmmaker or ABP, but I am interested in pondering what these films say about us as a community of animation artists. A personal film has the opportunity to explore areas that a big budget theatrical animation or an animated TV series couldn't touch. But, many personal films are love letters to those very institutions, repeating themes and scenes and jokes we’ve seen before, with the effect of diminishing returns.
It’s ironic that animators are the first to defend the potential of their medium and are also the least likely to exploit it. What does it say about us that we are more concerned with getting a cheap laugh or recreating a fight scene from “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” than we are about really saying something? The ABP has a significant amount of student films, which are graduation requirements for their makers. Are they evidence of a population of serious art students ready to absorb and then build on what came before? Or did they pursue animation for different reasons entirely? We all make films to express something, and my thesis film expressed my desire to write an effective story from beginning to end. What some of these student animators are choosing to express does not give me hope that they have the needed intellectual curiosity to create work that will surprise the older generations like mine and inspire the generations after them.
An example of surprising and inspiring animation, not to mention gut-wrenching, was something I saw, not at the animation festival, but in the Ann Arbor program.. a short called "Passages" (pictured above), which was an animated documentary by documentary filmmaker and animator Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre about the real life horror of a baby delivery gone wrong. This film reminds that animation can be an effective tool for dramatic purposes and storytelling.
Other Ann Arbor highlights included a winning pair of live action films, one a spotlight on urban decay in present-day Detroit ("A City to Yourself"), and the other a disturbingly voyeuristic look into the isolated inhabitants of a German apartment building ("Six Apartments").
It's now a week after these Sunday and Monday screenings and while nothing of substance remains in my head from the ABP, the Ann Arbor films have permanently nested in my brain. They make me want to be a better filmmaker––to make personal work that says something about the world.