Thursday, February 21, 2013

Surviving Progress

Surviving Progress (2011)
Dir. Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks
Written by Roy and Crooks, from a lecture series by Ronald Wright

Yes yes, we're all doomed. Is that really reason enough to make a movie? 

This disappointing Lefty doc is long on style, but eschews the fascinating history in Ronald Wright’s lectures to focus on the same old dog and pony show about wealth concentration, resource management, and global trade that you always get from this sort of thing. Yes, we know corporations have too much control and we’re running out of oil. Is that all you got?

As an introduction to ideas like this, SURVIVING PROGRESS is a pretty good primer. It’s deftly edited, well-structured, and entertainingly produced considering that at the end of the day it’s just a bunch of academics and retired officials talking about macroeconomics. But if you’re already familiar with this stuff, it’s fairly dull going. A film which is just about ideas probably needs more groundbreaking ideas than this; if you’ve heard this kinda stuff before, the film becomes little more than a slickly produced hollow shell. Though ostensibly focusing on the same topics, 2009’s COLLAPSE is ultimately a much richer film, offering the same trenchant insight but also taking the time to surreptitiously explore the human side of it’s lone talking head. It’s stylish minimalism is both more impactful and more subtle than SURVIVING PROGRESS’s flashy apocalyptic editing, too.

I’m all for exploring these issues, but frankly I’m not sure what a film like this is for, other than a spiffy self-congratulatory package for people who already think they know what’s going on. Those yet ignorant of these problems just don’t seem likely to watch a documentary about them --however entertainingly assembled-- and are unlikely to be won over by it’s alarmist tone and one-sided barrage of statistics and loosely-fitted historical anecdotes. Which is not to say that it’s not a persuasive, generally correct argument; it is. It just seems more interested in lecturing you about a conversation that’s been going on for decades now than it is in joining that conversation itself. That might be cause to celebrate it’s commitment to smartly-crafted reporting. But jeez, who wants to watch a re-run of the news?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fantastic Planet

Fantastic Planet (1973)
Dir. Rene Laloux
Written by Rene Laloux and Roland Topor from the novel by Stefan Wul
Starring drawings

Hoo boy, so here’s a premise for you. Here’s how I imagined the pitch meeting went:

“So, on another planet in the distant future, there’s a race of gigantic bald blue alien nudists* who keep tiny humans as domesticated pets, and are getting irritated by the escaped humans who live in ant-like hives in the wild. One little girl alien nudist, whose father is the Draag Great Aedile, has a pet human named Terr, who escapes into the wild and tries to join a tribe of tiny humans who live in a tree, but an alien pest control guy tries to kill them and they escape and then build a rocket and fly to the moon and they discover the aliens’ terrible secret.”

“Ok, you had me at ‘bald.’ Greenlit, let’s get this thing made.”

“Wait, don’t you want to know what the aliens’ terrible secret is?”

“No, it’s ok, just go ahead and...”

“There are a bunch of headless statues on the moon, and the aliens meditate and send their consciousness up there to make the statues come to life and get freaky, because that’s the only way they can get it up anymore.”

Long, pregnant silence.

“This is a French movie, isn’t it?”

“And then the humans threaten to destroy the statues, forever rendering the Draag race a bunch of impotent sadsacks forced have to have biological sex with each other without the aide of reanimated statue porn. So they surrender and the humans are saved.”

“Can we make it animated, so that it’s even a little more creepy when we focus on the exposed breasts of a three-hundred feet tall blue alien child?”

“You bet your sweet ass.”

David Attenborough: "The mating dance of the purple trunk-nosed eyebrow bird is a magnificent sight!"

Yes folks, those pervy frogs have gone and done it, they’ve made a science fiction animated film weird enough to make Ralph Bakshi head over to Bill Plympton’s house with a sixpack of Coors for a Leave it to Beaver Marathon. I mean, this thing is just filled to the brim with craziness, but as far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing, particularly in an animated movie.

I’ve often lamented that Americans never really seem to get the expressive possibilities animation allows for, and as a result you’ve mostly got to go overseas to really see a lot of people pushing the form. Unfortunately, high-quality animation can be extremely expensive to make, and so you just don’t really expect to see some foreign auteur get the resources necessary to pull something like this off outside Japan, and who knows what their deal is man what with the tentacles and so forth. Anyway, a nice change of pace to get to see the French fly their freak flag.

I’ve read suggestions that part of the film is a Cold War analogy (suggested, most likely, by the fact that it was a Czechoslovakian co-production) but honestly if it means anything at all (and I’m not convinced that it does) it’s entirely immaterial, because the real pleasure of the film is simply allowing yourself to get lost in its surreal fantasy world. It’s the kind of place you could be eaten by a bird that has a birdcage for a belly, or be forced to fight with a snarling alligator/worm tied to your abdomen as a weapon. You know, generally the kind of place any fantasy geek worth his or her salt would be happy to spend time in. Who cares if the story is episodic and baffling when every inch of it is soaked in the weird fever-dream world of a master animator? If you get bored with the plot, just start looking around. There’s something wonderful and strange in virtually every frame.

How are there eight channels of ESPN and this is never on any of them?

Now, you might well call me a cad and a hypocrite for taking this perspective when I panned the equally episodic, baffling, and visually baroque TRANSFORMERS 3: DARK OF THE MOON.** That would be a fair point if I was just talking about spectacle, but the key difference --lost on Michael Bay-- is that it doesn’t just matter that you show us a lot of stuff, you have to show us amazing stuff. This is a key departure between the great masters of animation and traditional genre Hollywood directors who have recently become (maybe without really realizing it) animation directors in their own right, albeit of very expensive, realistic looking animated movies. After nearly a century of laborious, ingenious practical effects, cheap and effective CG has eventually afforded Hollywood “live-action” movies (which are by this point often more animation than “live” film) the ability to conjure literally any image they want. But rather than pushing them to attempt bold, visionary new visual designs that would never have been possible with practical effects, they continue to be stuck in a rut of showing us the same old shit and expecting it to be impressive because it’s expensive. 

When you had to photograph things, it was extremely difficult to conjure fantastical worlds and unearthly beings. Hollywood --saddled (up to the computer age) with much more effort in merely creating fantastical illusions-- consequently focused its interest on effects, not the images themselves. And audiences agreed; it was pretty mind-blowing just to watch an alien sitting there on the screen! You could never see that in real life, so its purely exotic power was sufficient to hold our interest, nevermind what exactly it looked like. But even though filmmakers today have the freedom to easily (if expensively) realistically depict anything they can imagine, it seems like the paradigm still hasn't really shifted to design. They're still coasting on the idea that effects alone will entertain you. They want credit for merely depicting Garfield the Animated Cat interacting in a creepy computer-assisted way with live humans. Animation, by contrast, has always had the power to evoke anything the mind can imagine. You could always depict an army of cartoon robots (which of course is how TRANSFORMERS began!) so you didn’t get a whole lot of credit for simply depicting objects. If they wanted to impress us, they actually had to blow our minds with some genuinely trippy shit like you ain’t never seen. Something imaginative, not just busy. And that’s what FANTASTIC PLANET does.

Hope they brought a plastic baggie for the human poop.

More than anything, FANTASTIC PLANET evokes the weird dreamscapes that used to populate children’s literature before adults decided that children were only interested in bright colors and cartoon animals with celebrity voices. These were lyrical, alien worlds -- mysterious and pulsing with a powerful, sometimes frightening inner life. The animation of director Laloux and production designer Roland Topor is intricate, whimsical, but never cute. It’s a world full of strange, sometimes incomprehensible danger, where man’s powerlessness is evoked by his tiny stature in the face of his enormous, enigmatic oppressors. I suppose the relationship between tiny, passionate humans and their coldly logical, inscrutable alien overlords (who are so disengaged they have to float their brains into space to get their freak on) is the basis for the theories about a cold war analogy, but for what it’s worth I think it’s equally effective as a metaphor for the powerlessness of childhood in the face of the mysterious, tightly controlled world of adult logic. Or even perhaps the slip between the two hemispheres of the brain, and their subsequent battle for control. The beauty is, though, that it doesn’t have to mean anything explicit to be evocative. The themes, like the fluidly surreal animation itself, works on that part of the brain which is better left without words to tie it down. The power of the images is it’s own meaning, practical absurdity forgotten in the face of their symbolic potency and their riptide dream logic. In a world where humans live in cages in the homes of gigantic enlightened statue fetishists, why bother asking boring practical questions about why events transpire the way they do? Everything happens because that’s the story, dingus! They want to show you a bunch of cool stuff, so why not just go with it? Just sit back and let these freaky French cartoonists give you a far more beautiful dream than your own mind ever does.

*Holy shit, this is where Alan Moore got the idea!

**Suggested porn title: TRANSPORNERS*** 3: DORK SIDE OF THE POON.

***Beating out my earlier idea for a porn pun, “Pantsformers”