David Chai's 'Enrique Wrecks the World' is a delirious apocalypse of unintended consequences.

PFA Animates with Bay Area Works

Jonathan Kiefer August 24, 2011

SF State professor Karl Cohen’s animation collection reflexively investigates the nature of pictorial movement itself.

“The dinoris,” a prefatory screen title explains, “was the ancestor of our modern chicken. It had long legs and a kind face.” Even 95 years later, we can’t wait to get a look at this thing. And even by today’s animation standards, it does not disappoint. If the latter-day audience for Prehistoric Poultry, a 1916 short film from King Kong creator Willis O’Brien, is by now small and self-selecting, it is at least deservedly robust enough to warrant two evenings’ worth of Bay Area-pedigreed animation this week at the Pacific Film Archive.

O’Brien’s movie seems like a reasonable place to begin. A quaint relic of the stop-motion style, its eponymous creature (more commonly called a Great Roaring Whiffenpoof) also and truly is the ancestor of our modern sense of motion-picture whimsy. Local animators long have cherished that sense, and have been tinkering with it. As curated by animation historian and San Francisco State professor Karl Cohen, even this necessarily abbreviated survey of their work seems like a treasure trove.

“Hopefully it will open audiences’ eyes to the fact that animation has endless possibilities,” Cohen says. “I’m looking at individual artists wanting to find new directions—using animation as an art, not a corporate product.”

Accordingly not much more is for sale here than personal, experiential entertainment, and that’s just fine. No matter how attentively curated, any group of animated shorts might seem like merely an array of disembodied set pieces—one cartoony contrivance after another, or little visual wisecracks, briefly luxuriating in the surfaces of their self-invented architecture. To expect them to cohere would be to misunderstand. That these pieces tend on the whole to seem like notes toward dramatic or comedic or aesthetic concepts, or fleeting poetic perceptions, shouldn’t count against them or suggest incompleteness. It’s exactly the point. Unencumbered by the strictures of feature-length narrative, they’re free, as are we, to revel.

Of course all cinema is animation: images given motion and life, so as to be given meaning. Sometimes it’s enough to express only the aroma of some private feeling we’d presumed inexpressible. “One hard part of being a teacher is when students keep trying to create the world they already live in,” Cohen says. “Getting them to break from reality and explore imagination, that’s the hardest thing. Why go to all that trouble to draw something that’s already there?”

Be it languid or turgid, a whirlpool or a forced march, each displayed piece in Cohen’s collection reflexively investigates the nature of pictorial movement itself. To wit the fluid imagery and self-conscious rhythmic primitivism of Stephanie Maxwell’s Ga, or the rustic cruise through hand-augmented nature scenes in Jane Aaron’s In Plain Sight. The algorithmic abstractions in Larry Cuba’s Calculated Movements and Seth Olitzky’s Eights get at the same questions, asking also what computers could do before they could do things like Luxo Jr. , that early Pixar benchmark of household-object anthropomorphism, whose many credits suggest the level of complexity sometimes required for a perfect illusion of simplicity.

Innate musicality is made explicit in Steve Segal’s Dance of the Stumblers, in which computer-generated stick-figure acrobats riff on Rimsky-Korsakov, and Charlie Canfield’s Hide and Seek, in which a wolf cub wanders through a vividly populated forest to the tune of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.” Here it becomes clear that even the daintiest animated ditty implies a certain toughness on the part of its creator, just from having gotten made. Whether rendered by hand or by code, these things take time and tenacity. And in spite of their differences, their makers all have what Cohen identifies as “a dedicated belief in themselves as artists.” Imagining all the lonely hours spent rendering their various nightmares and enchantments, we allow that something about building a moving image one frame at a time inoculates against taking viewer attention for granted.

So no, it’s not just kids’ stuff. A clarion note of mature sobriety is sounded here and there, as in the ashen intensity of Tom Gibbons’ Kafka-inspired The Hunger Artist, or Scott Kravitz’s elegantly ghastly Loom, whose helpful epigraph is the first two lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Although products of the same basic stop-motion technique, the faces here are palpably less kind than that of O’Brien’s primordial farm fowl.

Soon enough we’ve arrived at the gnashing sexual psychedelia of Vince Collins’ Malice in Wonderland, not a family-friendly picture in any conventional sense. As Cohen quips, “Parents would be in for a shock. Kids would love it.” Clearly there is power in how the medium makes use of tension between the childlike and the wised-up. As befits a Bay Area ethos, deceptive insouciance quickly sharpens into social critique. It’s not so far a distance to travel from John Magnuson and Jeff Hale’s Thank You Mask Man, a controversial cartoon-annotated Lenny Bruce routine about the Lone Ranger, to John Jota Leaños’ Los ABCs, a self-described “animated retelling of the ABCs focusing on imperialist violence.” Both mine the same uncomfortably funny ore, harnessing ostensibly juvenile imagery for ironic comment on the noxiousness of juvenile attitudes.

And this brings us, however circuitously, us to Enrique Wrecks the World, David Chai’s delirious apocalypse of unintended consequences, which is just cutely cartoony enough to be terrible and hilarious at once. That seems like a reasonable place to end, if only then to begin again.

Wednesday August 24 and Sunday August 28, 2011, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Both shows 7 p.m.

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