Wednesday, September 30, 2020

HARRY SMITH, No. 11: Mirror Animations (1956-57)

"To be an animator requires a methodical and systematic mind, diligence and meticulous attention to detail, and the patience and sheer stamina to withstand long-haul, labour-intensive  and hideously fiddly work. Harry Smith was unusually endowed with these qualities. Although best known for his work as a collector of obscure folk and blues 78 rpm recordings (resulting in 1952’s epochal and hugely influential six-LP compilation The Anthology of American Folk Music), McLaren’s true passion was animation. 

"Using various self-developed techniques of hand-painting and marking the film using masking tape,  working with scratch-board drawings, and cut-out images, Smith would spend years holed up in his New York apartment toiling over a single film.  His animations often reached several hours in length and required drastic editing down before he could show them.  Many projects were abandoned in an unfinished state. On their rare public performances, Smith would project the films onto special painted screens of his own construction. Music – usually jazz  – was central to his work, as with the original version of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” that soundtracks “Mirror Animations”.

"Like his hour-long masterpiece “Heaven and Earth Magic”, “Mirror Animations” (1956-57) emerged out of Smith’s obsessive collation of illustrative material from 19th Century catalogues.  He filed the cut-outs – photographs or drawings of people, animals, vegetables, tools, furniture, and sundry other objects -  in glassine envelopes for protection, while noting on file cards every possible interaction that a given image could have with another image.  Yet, contradicting all this obsessive-compulsive preparation, when it came to the assembly process, Smith aimed for a state of mental vacancy akin to automatic writing. 

"The deliberately stilted movements of the snipped-out images have a quaint and creaky quality that casts back to the magic lanterns of the 17th Century. Magic of a different kind – not conjuring tricks and illusions, but the occult and hermetic knowledge – suffuses Smith’s work. Some of the imagery in “Mirror Animations” looks like it’s plucked straight off a set of Tarot cards.  No wonder film-maker and critic Jonas Mekas celebrated “the magic cinema of Harry Smith” while avant-jazzman John Zorn hailed him as a “Mystical Animator”."  - SR

".... An eccentric polymath. He painted, made experimental films, practiced occult alchemy (he was ordained in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, a spiritual group affiliated with the magician and self-appointed prophet Aleister Crowley), and believed that the careful accumulation and ordering of things could bring about new knowledge....  Smith collected all sorts of stuff: paper airplanes, Ukrainian Easter eggs, figures he made by looping or weaving lengths of string, anything shaped like a hamburger, and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of 78-r.p.m. records... Like many serious collectors of arcane but precious objects, Smith could be irascible, mean, and single-minded to the point of psychopathy. There are stories of his thieving, particularly when he believed that an item would be better off in his care. He never married, drank to unconsciousness, went absolutely nuts if anyone talked while he was playing a record, and, according to his friend Allen Ginsberg, kept “several years’ deposits of his semen” in the back of his freezer for “alchemical purposes.' "
 - Amanda Petrusich, in The New Yorker, on The Harry Smith B-Sides, a box set of the flipsides of all the 78 rpm tunes that he collected on The Anthology of Folk Music. 


Confession: I have owned the reissue of The Anthology for a couple of decades now,  but only ever got round to playing one of the discs. When I did, I unawares miscued the CD-player controls -  as a result, one particular Dock Boggs song played over and over for about 35 minutes. It took me quite a while to notice - about 20 minutes in, I was like "wow this is intense, this endless incantatory folksong saga, verse after verse!". Eventually I twigged what had happened. 

Never went back to the set - never seemed like the right time, always something more pressing in the present, or a corner of the past that seemed more compelling. Perhaps it's finally time - indeed the box is sitting reproachfully near the front of the records by the stereo. Should definitely listen to  first, before getting on to the B-sides... 


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Ryszard Czekala - Apel (The Roll Call), 1971

"It is one of the most stirring animated films in the history of animation. In a simple, but powerful way Czekała presents a horror that happened in concentration camps – prisoners’ dread, humiliation, and lost humanity. The everyday roll-call ends tragically because of prisoners’ “insubordination” in this black and white film. The Roll-Call crossed borders of what can be presented or not in animation. It is sometimes interpreted as a response to the trend of allegorical and philosophical films that dominated Polish animation in the 1960s."
- Animaphix

"Czekała was one of the reformers of Polish animation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. What sets him apart from our other animation artists? First of all, his focus on the plot of a film, his way of treating material in a way that brings animated film closer to feature film or documentary. Therefore it is the themes, which seemed reserved for feature films and documentaries until Czekała's animation appeared. He has said,

"I take the themes for my films from everything around me [...] I model the matter of my films from everyday life accessible to everyone [...] eliminating all the formal ornamentation and spectacular material - I select the form to match what I want to say. What I say are simple things. (Polska 5/1971)

"Today it seems obvious that an animated film can tell a story, that it can be subtle, expressive, close to people's hearts, yet still remain an animated film. This has been proved by Czekała's successors, mentioning especially Piotr Dumała. Though critics point out that Czekała's films might just as well have been told with actors, the formula of animated films give them additional meanings, greater expression, strengthening an impression that maybe the same stories told traditionally could not have created.

"What were those stories? Ptak (The Bird, 1968) - the main character dreams of freedom, its substitute being freedom for a bird that he is saving up his pennies to buy. Syn (The Son, 1970) - the loneliness of parents abandoned in the countryside by their now "urban" son. Finally, Apel (TheRoll-Call, 1970) - a shocking picture of life in a concentration camp, a story of fear, humanity and the inhumane camp system. These stories could have been told differently. However, what Czekała did when he made these three films can be compared to the contemporary achievements of Art Spiegelman, author of the Maus comic book, and Zbigniew Libera, who proposes that we build ourselves a concentration camp from Lego yoy bricks (LEGO Concentration Camp), where the material adds meanings but also forces people to take an aloof look at the consumers of things that, one would think, are impossible to consume.

"Andrzej Kossakowski wrote that with Apel (The Roll-Call), Czekała contributed to overcoming certain mental barriers: "It's true that animated films have long come out of the nursery ... but not all issues seemed possible to transfer to the world of animation." The director also showed that animated films can be used "to speak about serious matters seriously, without that seemingly necessary wit, that 'tongue in cheek'," something that had seemed reserved for documentaries or acted films. (Film 50/7)

"Ryszard Czekała's proposal was interpreted by many critics as a reaction to the ossification of philosophical films, which dominated the 1960s. Czekała confirmed this:

"I simply don't really like animated films which are allegories, or films which are philosophical tales, where people and objects have symbolic meanings. I want to show specific events and situations. My only concern is that they be evocative. ("Film" 25/1970)
As Kazimierz Żórawski writes:

"The works of Ryszard Czekała are a natural and conscious reaction to the philosophical or rather pseudo-philosophical aspirations of many makers of animated films, to those films - parables of the world, films - syntheses of existence, films - grand symbols. 'Ptak', then 'Syn', and finally [...] 'Apel', are works telling simple and uncomplicated stories, where the simplicity is intentional, it is an artistic method [...] The aim of a realistic story line supported by a visual setting reminiscent of documentaries, is to bring the author's thoughts closer to the viewer." (Kino 10/71)

"It is worth noting this comparison, because it comes up in texts by critics analysing Czekała's early animated films. Alicja Iskierko compares them to documentaries in her book Znajomi z kina. Szkice o polskim filmie krókometrażowym / Cinematic Acquaintances. Sketches on Polish Short Films (Warszawa 1982). So does Kazimierz Żórawski, mentioned earlier, many times in fact, writing even more explicitly:

"His films give [...] the impression of being "documentaries" transposed to the language of animated film, not only in the images which Czekała composes three-dimensionally, but equally, thanks to the themes and references to reality, in moving from the realm of"'thinking" to the realm of "feeling". (Film 12/71)

"In fact, Czekała comes much closer to feature films. The drama of his works, the way he leads the camera, the rhythm, sound, the precise and extremely meaningful editing similar to that of features, the use of detail, all this gives them an affinity to feature films.....

"Ryszard Czekała said:

"I try to create a certain evocative vision of the world in my films which would make the viewers forget they are at the cinema. The audience should feel participants in the events, they should identify themselves with the characters. [...] Even a world drawn on paper can look enough like genuine reality for the viewer to believe in its existence. Even a drawn person can betray their personality, their feelings. (Film 9/1971)

"Asked point blank if that meant he wanted to make feature films, he replied:

A producer who can narrate an event with the help of drawings should also be able to narrate it with the help of staged shots. ... We should think in film terms, not in terms of graphic art, painting, or theatre. To a filmmaker all these disciplines are only an element of directing. (Film 25/70)

"As Kazimierz Żórawski writes (Kino 10/71), Czekała emphasised that he thought in film images from the start, including the sound, or maybe even initially he heard his films more than he saw them. That's an important confession. It is exactly this equal value of story line, sound and image that constitutes the value of Czekała's films. Żórawski writes:

"It is that naturalistic and surreal sound to which the black-and-white images in Ptak are synchronously set, which creates images of the loneliness of a hunched man, and in Syn the loud swallowing of soup, the sound of a piece of bread falling to the ground, the quiet splash of a tear flowing down the father's cheek and hitting the smooth surface of the liquid filling his plate, finally the rustle of the newspaper as the son reads it, create the mood and the audience's emotional reception.

"After he made his feature debut Zofia / Sophia (1976) and abandoned animation for 10 years, Wanda Wertenstein wrote that a careful observer could have predicted that Czekała would find animated film too confining. In his three early pieces, "Their graphical realism was not far from photographic realism, while the notional, philosophical aspects were shaped by classic means of expression of narrative cinema - the choice of standpoints, light gradations, editing, the relation of image and sound. The drawn figures were surrogate actors, the animated cut-outs - a substitute for real gestures." (Kino 10/76)....

- Culture.Pl

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Mike Burakoff + Hallie Cooper-Novack - When You Die (2017)

"It’s a testament to the speed with which culture moved in 2017 that “style transfer” already feels a little passé. This technique started life in the AI community as a way of applying the textures and tones from image onto another, but it soon made its way into apps like Prisma then big platforms like Facebook as a tool for sprucing up snaps and selfies. Now, MGMT have used it in the music video for their latest single, When You Die, and to the credit of the video’s creators [Mike Burakoff and Hallie Cooper-Novack] made style transfer look fresh once more.

"The video stars actor Alex Karpovsky (of Girls fame) as a magician who seems to be trapped in some sort of Groundhog Day-style loop and floating through the astral plane. Whatever’s going on, it all fits very neatly with the aesthetics of style transfer, which give surfaces weird new hallucinogenic depth, shifting and mutating from one scene to the next. The visuals were produced with the help of some custom software named “Glooby,” and you can check out more of its weirdness on the creators’ Instagram account" -   James Vincent, The Verge.