Thursday, March 02, 2006

ANIMATION: Jonathan Marlow's Cabinet of Curiosities

Like some kind of magnanimous idiot, Jonathan Marlow coughed up four grand to digitally convert some films he had in his basement onto disc so he could share them with his audience at this evening's Greencine-sponsored "Cabinet of Curiosities" program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. We'll never be able to pay Jonathan back for such a generous evening of splendid fun with animated pieces that—unlike the Academy Award nominated program—truly thrilled me!! I consider Marlow something of a mentor when it comes to film commentary and wish he would give a class in interview technique, but, for now I was appreciative of his wisecrack adlibs and his professional treatment of the material, providing not only the films themselves but a handout so we could walk away knowing what we saw. I felt very much like Yuri Norstein's hedgehog in the fog, my little eyes wide-eyed and blinking at the shifting fantasies in front of me.

He warmed us up with George Méliès' 1905 The Scheming Gambler's Paradise. "While Méliès is generally known for his in-camera trickery," Marlow informs us, "he was also a master of deception. One thing quickly becomes another with only simple changes in set design. As one-joke films go, one could do worse. Much worse."

Marlow warned us that the second piece of 1933 Russian animation—The Mascot by Ladislas Starewicz—was long (26 minutes) as far as shorts go and that most programers wouldn't dream of situating it second for fear of putting off the audience. Contrarian commentarian that he is, that's exactly why Jonathan placed it there. "If you can get through this," he said, "the rest is easy." Not that The Mascot was in any way difficult to endure. It was endearing. A mother makes toys to make ends meet while nursing her sick daughter who longs for an orange. It saddens the mother that she doesn't have enough money to buy an orange and so she cries as she stitches together a stuffed dog. Her tears gather on the mascot's chest, pool into heart shape, and then soak into the toy, giving it life. Through a series of fantastic adventures among a truly interesting ensemble of characters, including the devil himself, the mascot secures and defends an orange to return to his mistress. This piece had the heart that One Man Band lacked; but, "[t]hankfully," as Jonathan quipped, it also had a "handful of moments . . . certain to offend and disturb." Don't want to say "awwww" too long, eh?

Peter Greenway's six-minute Intervals was one of his earliest efforts, "back when he showed such promise" (Jonathan has a gift for parenthetical irony). Filmed in Venice it proved intriguing with its static frontal shots of storefronts and walls, edited and replicated to achieve rhythm and tension. It reminded me of Italo Calvino's assertion that storefronts provide "the most open, communicative discourse a city uses to express itself: we all read a city, a street, a stretch of pavement, by following the row of shops." (Calvino, Hermit in Paris, 2003:172.) Jonathan announced this piece along with other shorts will be forthcoming on dvd from Zeitgeist Films come April.

Some years back when Jan Svankmajer was paid tribute at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I fell deeply in love with Svankmajer's bizarre vision and inventive animations. Jonathan shared The Flat, a 1968 13-minute piece that "perfectly evokes one's unpleasant relationship with their surroundings. Why are we here? To be tormented and confused." The protagonist has to put up with quite a lot—doors that open up into walls, slotted spoons for soup, rocks coming out of faucets and beds decomposing into sawdust. Jonathan informed us that Zdeněk Liška (The Shop on Main Street) scored this short.

Břetislav Pojar and Jirí Trnka's A Drop Too Much (1954) was a public service announcement about drinking and driving. Tell Laura I love her.

One of the true highlights of the program was a 2-minute 1968 "scopitone" of Brigette Bardot singing "Contact", giving Grace Jones a run for her money, I'll tell you what! Between this and catching Marilyn Monroe in a Union Oil ad the other night I feel like I'm getting my sexpot fix for the week!!

Alain Resnais' 1957 Le chant du styrene is, as Jonathan attests, "one of the loveliest educational films ever made." Industrial chic. Plastic-making factories never looked so compellingly austere and beautiful.

And finally, my favorite, was Yuri Norstein's 1975 Hedgehog in the Fog. I've never heard of this animator before and must find more. Delightful. Sweet. Magical. Based on a Russian fairytale. Give me a hedgehog over a cat any day of the week.

Jonathan promises to curate a second program later this year. I for one want to applaud his individual investment and devotion to pleasing and educating the rest of us. Kudos, Jonathan!

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