The DVD Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase spotlights the imagination and craft of Joan C. Gratz, a Portland, Oregon-based animator whose aforementioned film snagged the 1992 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The disc is a modest but worthwhile collection that explores the surreal frontiers of animation.
The centerpiece of the collection, Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase, is a knockout. Gratz employs her unique approach of "clay-painting" to take viewers on a journey through the works of 35 iconic artists.
Don't mistake clay-painting for Rankin/Bass-type Claymation. First developed by Gratz in the late Sixties, the process involves using small bits of clay as if they were oil or acrylic paint. Gratz blends the colors to form flowing lines and forms -- creating, in essence, a moving painting.
"Within the realm of animation I am most interested in the metamorphosis of images, not in smooth mindless computer-generated metamorphosis, but those which can communicate another aspect to a film," Gratz says in liner notes accompanying the DVD.
"I am interested in creating a 'visual onomatopoeia' in which line, color movement and rhythm create the feeling of a particular experience without illustrating it."
The approach is dazzling in the seven-minute Mona Lisa, which explores commonalities and connections in various art movements by seamlessly linking masterpieces from the likes of Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Andy Warhol and Chuck Close. The film is visually arresting and thematically fascinating, and the images are buoyed by Jamie Haggerty's original music.
The other four shorts also have their charms, albeit more modest in scope. The Dowager's Feast (5:23) and its sequel, The Dowager's Idyll (5:53) are symphonies of shapes, patterns and vibrant colors. 3 Leg Torso provides nifty musical accompaniment on both shorts.
Pro and Con is decidedly less abstract. A collaboration with Joanne Priestley, the eight-minute, 18-second short is divided into two parts. In "Pro," Priestley provides Rotoscoping-styled animation of a real-life female corrections officer who offers a monologue on the prison system. There are some overly literal illustrations along the way (people being ground into meat and the like), but Priestley keeps any preaching to a minimum.
"Con" is Gratz's contribution. It is built around the voiceover narrative of an evidently fictitious (maybe a composite?) 32-year-old inmate who muses on life behind bars. The result is a bit didactic -- if chiefly because the voice actor relies on too much affectation -- but not as much as one might expect. And the flurry of imagery is as compelling as it is innovative.
The full-frame picture is excellent quality, with no discernible problems. The images are crisp and colorful.
The 2.0 mix is clean and clear, with no distortion or drop-out. No subtitles are available, although it's worth noting that Pro and Con is the only short with actual dialogue.
None, aside from liner notes on the cardboard keepcase.
Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase features a handful of occasionally incredible animated shorts by Joan Gratz. Whether the quartet of shorts is enough to warrant a purchase depends on your level of enthusiasm for painting. It is interesting viewing but, with the exception of the title short, perhaps not destined for repeated screenings.