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Short film pulp the start of animation collection


Plays Thursday, Sep. 27,

at 7 and 8:30 pm at the

Museum of Fine Arts.


CONCENTRATING ON THE WORK of American animators, this 70-minute collection of recent animated short films playfully builds itself up until it unveils the grand finale: the world premiere of Flip Johnson's short film, pulp. Indeed, there is a built-in marker that counts down the number of shorts remaining until pulp arrives. Along the way, some good and some not-so-good films are included, as is the case with most other animation collections.

Fortunately, pulp is good enough to be worth the fuss. It begins by listing five dictionary definitions of the word "pulp" and then proceeds to represent the different denotations of the word in visual terms. The animation ranges from beautiful golden images and watercolor blots to line drawings, diagrams, and printed text from a technical textbook, The Bible, Plato's Dialogues, and other books. Trees grow arms and dance with (or attack) one another, accompanied by sinister music. Fibrous tentacles seem to attack (or dance over) a sheet of paper as well as one another at a furious pace, and earlier on the point of view of the camera rapidly scales mountain ranges and hills and travels through valleys.

A particularly interesting aspect of pulp is that its hyperkinetic editing is often restricted to only part of the frame. For example, toward the end of the film, a sheet of old paper with writing on it rotates counter-clockwise as it tracks toward the camera. It then travels behind the camera, revealing a white circle resembling the reflection of a full moon over a stream surrounded by dark vegetation.

Both the rotation and the tracking take place at a relatively moderate pace, but the image of the paper continuously and rapidly dissolves from one sheet to the next the rate of many pages per second. During this whole time, the background image of the stream remains virtually constant and static.

The viewer is simultaneously confronted with three separate perspectives or zones of motion, all of which change at drastically different rates. The rapid-fire succession of the written pages suggests the enormous amount of text that has been put on paper, and the relatively slow rotation/tracking and eventual disappearance of the sheets of paper could represent the collective manipulation and consumption of the natural resources that create pulp. Of course, none of the film may have been intended as a pat environmental lecture. The fact that the film can support many different interpretations -- or even no interpretation at all -- is perhaps its greatest strength. The bright colors, energetic score, and energetic editing certainly make for a thrilling viewing experience, whether one interprets the film on a deeper level or not.

The other films in the collection aren't nearly as flashy as pulp, but some are fascinating nonetheless. Easily the best one of all is a black-and-white short called The Trap. Amy Kravitz, the animator, relies entirely on flashes of light organized into dimly recognizable patterns and an oppressively bleak musical score to recreate the experience of her grandfather being transported to a Nazi concentration camp in a railroad car. The harsh, seemingly abstract patterns of light and the metallic, grating sounds are unnerving even without knowing what the film is about. The Trap stands out as an example of how to say more by showing less.

Other notable films are Preludes in Magical Time, by Sara Petty, which cleverly reconstructs images of urban life using various geometrical shapes, and Koko, by George Griffin, which features a brief rotoscoped image of Dizzy Gillespie playing the saxophone. The music is then combined with sharply defined and brightly colored fragments that coalesce over a background of fuzzy, dancing white beans to form silhouetted images, one of which resembles Woody Woodpecker. It sounds strange, but it is definitely interesting to watch.

Robert Breer's newest work, A Frog on the Swing, is perhaps the most inscrutable of all the films. It features a combination of live-action photographs of images of animated frogs and people sitting on a swing. What this means, or why live-action photographs of a swaying wrench, hammer, and screwdriver are included in the film, is anybody's guess.

More conventional are Geologic Time by Skip Battaglia, which traces history in terms of geological epochs, and Wild Animals at the Zoo by Flip Johnson, which consists of exactly what its title says. There is also Animated Self-Portraits, a collection of brief animated self-portraits of animators from the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. These films have some interesting and neat visual effects, but as a whole don't stand out very much.

The two most conventional shorts, in terms of narrative, both go for laughs. Knicknack was done by John Lasseter and Pixar Corporation and is the only computer-animated short in the collection. It tells a story about the efforts of an amorous snowman to escape from the glass bowl that keeps him from uniting with his female friends, who are seductively sunning themselves nearby. Peter Mork's The Mimsy Report is about a dreamy young girl who finally takes the time to write up a book report for school, only to have a dog eat it.

The only turkey of the lot is Bill Plympton's Tango Shmango, which is neither technically innovative nor entertaining in any sense of the word. It merely consists of two ballroom dancers twirling about in a large hall. The two come closer to the camera, the man tells a ridiculously stupid or outdated joke ("Why do you have to be careful when it's raining cats and dogs? Because you might step in a poodle!"), the woman leans back and laughs really hard, and then they dance some more. To be sure, there is some cleverness in that the dancers look fat when they are on the left side of the frame, skinny on the right side, and sometimes they are conically shaped. But that doesn't save the narrative from itself. Fortunately, the film is only four minutes long.

As a whole, though, the collection works. The most negative thing about the collection is that at least four of the films (Knicknack, Animated Self-Portraits, The Trap, and The Mimsy Report) have been shown in Boston before. So those who keep on top of animation screenings in Boston will find it a bit harder to sit through films which aren't nearly as funny the second or third time around. On the other hand, a film like The Trap is certainly worth seeing more than once, and the combination of both old and new also makes one appreciate pulp all that much more.