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Savant Review:

Cartoon Noir

Cartoon Noir
First Run Features, FRF909488D;720229909488
1987 / Color/B&W / 1:37 / 83 m.
Selected by Ed Arentz, Cinema Village Booking

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Everyone says they want short subjects, and several startup-company discs ( like N9, reviewed last year) have tried to fill the gap.  There are decades' worth of creative and entertaining animated films still untapped: anyone who attended college after 1965 knows how popular were the veritable festivals of animation that were shown at all kinds of theatrical and non-theatrical venues.  But this popularity hasn't transferred well to television or even home video.  Bravo cable television, when they used to be a no-commercials haven of great foreign films, once showed interesting European animation whenever a feature didn't fill out an even-hour time slot.  Other than that, just about the only time you can see oddball experimental animation is if you haunt film schools or live in Los Angeles or New York, where they get shown for Oscar competition.

There's always the Film Board of Canada, but their blossoming Best of the Best animation DVD series is just getting started (Just for Kids,  Romantic Tales & Strange Tales), and you aren't going to see any alternative American Animation or work from the traditionally excellent Eastern European animation masters in their compilations.

Cartoon Noir appears to be an effort to fill the gap.  It's name might make one expect the animations to be about detectives or crime, but they're not.  In this case the noir refers to an attitude and a mood.  There's nary a joke to be had in any of these six works.  They aren't about standard entertainment values.  The critical raves on the cover say the usual things ("...beyond Disney clichés..."). while perhaps overstating the impact of the selection.  Avid animation fans might find a treasure here, whereas those looking for pretty pictures or cuteness on any level will be left out in the noir, so to speak.

The First Run packaging barely mentions the directors of these pieces, so I've added some extra info about where and when they were made, which includes some guesses.  The framing on a couple of shorts cropped some info out of my monitor's picture area, and other titles were sometimes too small to read or in foreign languages that I had to guess at.  For instance, The Story of the Cat and the Moon is from Portugal, I think, because there were mentions of Madrid in the credits, but none for Brazil.  If collections of short subjects like this are to succeed, we really need to know a bit more about who made them and where.  Any kind of context will help, if you're not Charles Solomon and already an expert on every school of animation trend on the planet.

Paul Vester, USA? Date?

All the films on this disc are odd, but this one clearly has a plan, if not a plot.  Several alien abduction testimonials (heard in authentic-sounding tape recordings) are illustrated with animations that appear to mimic the scribbled drawings provided by the abductees themselves.  This provides an interesting dimension to the phenomenon that is the flying saucer cult, because the abductees's visions reflect more of their own psychological states than any real events that may have happened to them.  Or maybe they were all abducted and probed nasally and genitally by these little almond-eyed guys from saucers right out of Ray Harryhausen.  A thoughtful piece that could have used a little more context; perhaps this was an intentional ploy to remain neutral on its subject.

Julie Zammarchi, USA? 1992

This short piece is the sickest on the disc, but not to any overt purpose besides fulfilling its own unsavory tone.  Two unpleasant people argue about their daily meal, which consists of one cooked monkey.  Eventually the subject comes 'round to an accusation that the wife is having sex with the monkey corpse before chow time; it's not as shocking or as provoking as it sounds, but more of a mentally oppressive expression of human relationships.  The color style changes for a moment where the wife garnishes the monkey with a flower, so the tone isn't all ugly faces and off-putting dialogue.  Savant has seen some intentionally horrid & nasty animations (thanks to some unscheduled awfulness at Savant Secret Cinema) and this is neither that bad nor without possible merit.  However, the film might be a good icebreaker for a get-together of uncommunicative serial killers. Club of the Discarded
Jiri Barta, Czechoslovokia? Poland?/ Date?

The DVD package rightly relates this pixillated found-object animation to the work of Jan Svankmajer.  It's long and repetitive, but has a couple of running gags that might appeal.  A grim loft in a decaying building is home to a collection of old-fashioned mannikins, who live sysyphus-ish lives of clearly existential meaninglessness.  One tries forever to hear something from a broken radio, another peeps through a crumbling wall at a naked dummy at a window.  You get the drill.  Eventually movers deliver a crate of modern mannikins with wild hair, sexually explicit features and extreme facial expressions, which leads to a predictable clash of lifestyles.  A violent orgy of mannikin murder results in the creation of a hybrid race of dummies made from mix'n match parts.  They now can watch TV.  Obviously allegorical and 'meaningful,' the one is still a chore to watch despite some handsome photography. Gentle Spirit
Piotr Dumala, Poland, 1985

This selection has the most interesting animation in the artistic sense; as slow and grim as some of the others, it's always fascinating to watch and comes up with some beautiful textures.  A bearded man appears to oppress a delicate, alienated woman in a dank set of rooms.  Although almost nothing happens that amounts to a narrative, the rich visuals evoke real emotional responses, as opposed to the cooler intellectual games played by most of the other selections.  A tiny spider grows to a hairy monster as if representing the domestically-enslaved woman's reaction to sex with this domineering man.  Objects keep transforming into beds where she lays either hopelessly resigned to his advances, or growing ever more ill.  Strangely enough, this phantom drama is played out in the context of the woman already being dead, with the man in sincere mourning, and the resulting sadness is remarkable for such an abstract short subject.  You get the feeling that there's a strong personal or autobiographical connection here: this 'cartoon' has an overpowering feeling of remorse.

Joy Street
Suzan Pitt, USA, 1995

This is the most conflicted show on the disc.  It has terrific work combined with some less-than-compelling sections, is too long and ambitious, yet actually pays off nicely by daring to be hopefully optimistic.  A despairing woman in a film-noirish room has what seem to be romance problems (can't get him on the phone).  She smokes and drinks and obsesses over the hopelessness of it all until she collapses on the bed.  So far, the cliché factor is pretty high; this is the subject of so many lightweight art films that want so badly to be heavy.  But in her sleep, a cartoonish character from a ceramic ashtray comes to life and tries to get her attention, entertaining her by distorting his features grotesquely.  After the crude animation style of the opening, this section is inspired - the flop-eared 'thing' moves like Pinocchio crossed with a Fleischer character, but differently ... well, Savant's never quite seen a fully animated character who behaves this way.  For once the attempt to mix morbidity into the stew is compelling, as the valiant 'thing' grows and carries the limp (dead?) girl out to the park, to try to get her to see beauty and hope.  Some of the animation here just gets too bizarre to maintain the tone, but the wrapup is rewarding.  Defeated, the ashtray 'thing' brings her home, and the story finds an ending that makes this long and uneven piece pay off nicely. The Story of the Cat and the Moon
Pedro Serrazino, Portugal, Date?

The least noir and the most charming, this exercise in silhouettes is still a bit too pat.  A cat's lifelong unrequited love affair with the moon is accompanied by beautiful music.  At different stages in his life he tries new strategies to get the moon's attention, until old age makes waiting patiently his only option.  There's a surprise and a nicely handled finale.  It's not particularly noir, but this one is the most elegant of the six.

To be really memorable, to inspire word of mouth, short films have to make solid home runs, just knock you out.  To be frank, none of the films above quite reached that status for Savant.  But that's individual taste.  Savant's seen enough 'meaningful, dark, allegorical' films of all kinds to last lifetimes.  And another reason to be suspicious of Savant's taste is the fact that just like the unenlightened hordes, Savant responds favorably to 'funny' animation.  I'm no populist Spielberg, no sir, but I got my fill in college.  And every time I tried to 'create', my friends would ask me questions like, "Is this another "The Ground Was Cold and Wet" movie?

Animation fans and freaks may find some real inspiration here.  Comedy joyriders, forget it. Kids, no way.  You're too twisted, Paul, Julie & Piotr!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cartoon Noir rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: , 2001

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