SFFF Day 2 – Chillin’ with the Villains

The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival went globe-trotting to start Day 2. The “Drawn from Around the World” block of animated shorts offered some enthralling works. Many conveyed a sad or lamenting poignancy. Keiro (Tatiana Jusewycz, Benoît Leloup, Franck Menigoz, Zoé Nérot, and Charlotte Poncin, 2016) traced a girl’s journey to adulthood and its effect on the giant creature that accompanies her, Beyond the Books (Jérôme Battistelli, Mathilde Cartigny, Nicolas Evain, Maéna Paillet, Robin Pelissier, and Judith Wahler, 2017) envisioned the highly detailed collapse of an impossibly immense library, the Spanish short Dead Horses (Marc Riba and Anna Solanas, 2016) revealed the brutality of war from a child’s perspective and amid fabric devastation, and the Indian film Schirkoa (Asian Shukla, 2017) imagined political strife in a world where citizens wear bags and boxes on their heads. Others brought the funny, like Daniel Sterlin-Altman’s Hi, It’s Your Mother (2017), about motherhood, blood loss, and middle class living told in crude claymation, and Deuspi (Megacomputer, 2017), a very short work about a pair of astonishingly inept stick-up men and their hilarious fates.

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Hell (Rein Raamat, 1983)

Rein Raamat’s Hell (1983) adapts the engravings of Estonian graphic artist Eduard Wiiralt into a surreal, grotesque, and heavily sexual animated short. Wiiralt’s three source works, “The Preacher,” “Cabaret,” and “Hell,” date back to the early 1930s and portray a cacophony of bacchanalia, hysteria, and violence in the final years of Estonian independence amid the unrest of the Great Depression and European instability. Raamat’s Hell (Põrgu) was created in the comparably uncertain time of Soviet dismantling and collapse. The short is unsettling in its physical fluidity, like an Eastern European, art film prediction of the climax to Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989).

Snow-White (Dave Fleischer, 1933)

MMC! keeps our creepy October rolling with Dave Fleischer’s spook-errific animation classic, Snow-White (1933). This Betty Boop masterpiece was animated almost single-handed by Roland Crandall over six months, his reward for loyal service to Fleischer Studios. The short features an array of creepy gags and set-pieces, the highlight of which is the Mystery Cave portion where a rotoscoped Cab Calloway performs “St. James Infirmary Blues” as a ghostly Koko the Clown. I first saw Snow-White in a class on the Disney Company where the very knowledgeable professor cited the rotoscoped appearance of Cab Calloway as an introduction of realism into the film, something I never understood given the very fantastic animation applied to the phantom Koko transforms into and the almost unnatural, counter-intuitive physics of Calloway’s glides and moonwalks. Snow-White has been preserved by the National Film Registry and can be found on Blu-ray in Volume 4 of Olive Films’ Betty Boop: The Essential Collections.

Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921)

I recently watched Redes (Emilio Gómez Mariel and Fred Zinnemann, 1936), from the first Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project box set, and Kent Jones’s visual essay which makes reference to Manhatta (1921), a documentary short made by photographer and Redes-cinematographer Paul Strand and painter Charles Sheeler. The short is not included in the WCP set (although it was included on the now OOP DVD set, Unseen Cinema), and so I thought I would share it here at MMC! The short is inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta” and is considered the USA’s first experimental film. Strand and Sheeler link their respective art forms (painting and photography) to cinema by preferring dynamic angles and compositions over movement, using editing and intertitles to express a monumental day in Lower Manhattan. The result is a visually engaging and invaluable document of the time.

American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of classic important and contemporary films presents American Movie.

Menomonee Falls may be a long way from Hollywood, but quick-talking filmmaker Mark Borchardt has a cinematic dream and he aims to finance his magnum opus, Northwestern, through a direct-to-market, no-budget horror short titled Coven. Filmmakers Chris Smith and Sarah Price filmed Borchardt and his team of hometown thespians and semi-willing family members through two years of financial crisis and emotional turmoil. The result was a bizarrely heartfelt and hilariously poignant documentary that became the award-winning hit of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and a uniquely arresting portrait of Midwestern eccentricity, determination and character.

Disc Features:

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The Story of O.J. (Jay-Z and Mark Romanek, 2017)

MMC! readers will know by now my soft spot for classic East Coast animation pastiche, so needless to say I’m currently awestruck by Jay-Z and Mark Romanek’s stunning video for “The Story of O.J.” Sampling Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” “The Story of O.J.” unpacks the unavoidable consequences of blackness’s various shades and the place of capital as a potential countermeasure. It’s a cool and canny track whose video takes as its reference point the racist stereotypes of early animation such as the Censored Eleven. Blogs like Cartoon Brew, Birth. Movies. Death., and Dazed have provided excellent accounts of the works referenced in “The Story of O.J.” and of the transtextual subversions being made by Jay-Z in this retrofitted homage, but I’m particularly struck with how the artistry and creativity of those problematic cartoons are merged with hip hop music video conventions and the issues addressed in conscious rap – the way an MC in direct address is situated with Fleischer-style backgrounds and vanishing points, how chipmunk soul vocals are fittingly located in a cartoon cabaret or how wacky surrealism is used to draw a shortcut connection between historical exploitation and its consequential products, and the way Jaybo’s matter-of-fact, unruffled skepticism reflects on the three-fingered cool of Bugs Bunny. A welcome companion to Beyoncé’s stunning Lemonade from last year, “The Story of O.J.” is a daring and ambitious work, sure to be one of the best of 2017.