May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 9, 2009
The NFB has just released Animated Express, a wonderful set of animated shorts on DVD and Blu-ray that includes Chris Landreth’s recent The Spine. The production is similar to that of his innovative multi-media CGI classic Ryan, though now technology has advanced enough to render his harrowing psychological vision of our roiling mental innards in even more detail. The Spine opens in a group therapy session attended by couples whose issues deploy themselves in surreal physical conditions. Flesh molts and flumps in response to stress, deploys in strips and spatters of color when moved to speak, and otherwise undulates in Landreth’s sadly Brownian universe.
One couple goes home still caught in their web of co-dependence that snaps loose when the wife leaves. Now free from her shrill dominance, he begins to change. A technicolor spine begins to grow. Strips of flesh begin to re-adhere. His life changes in dramatic ways that are often represented in bold spurts of CGI. Eventually she returns, and what happens after this is hard to decipher. It is an abstraction of the nameless glue that makes marriages happen, for better or for worse. The Spine dissolves in an uncomfortable array of animated possibilities.
And now for a lengthy, name-dropping digression:
Landreth poses puzzling a problem. He has a distinct voice that shows itself not just in texture and line, but storytelling and, frankly, mise-en-scène. His animation is imbued with so much cinematic personality that I can’t help but think of him in auteur terms. He transgresses that boundary between animation and cinema that we preserve in familiar historical and critical terms, which are starting to slip and converge as animation technology continues to privatize the production process.
Landreth’s palette is hand-crafted, digitally and otherwise. But Wes Anderson often constructs the same palette in set design and via the lenses and filters he chooses to shoot with. Michael Mann achieves almost animated-like effects by using DV in different lighting situations, such as Collateral’s pre-dawn LA. That first section of WALL-E, with its uninhibited references to silent film, is a masterpiece of cinematic thinking.
I have always had a very Bazinian distinction in mind between animation and film, but it is slowly eroding. One can go as far back as the Melies’ films to see that at the dawn of cinema, animation and cinema were portable terms. There wasn’t a very clear distinction. This continues in Cocteau, and then Bunuel. Several times, Resnais tossed very graphic interludes into his films. Godard’s highly saturated video sequences in Eloge d’lamour. Assayas’ Irma Vep dissolves into Brakhage-like hand animated chaos. Denis’ elastic Vendredi soir license plates. Linklater’s rotoscoping.
Then there is the sheer love of physical movement that is celebrated in every section of Ryan, whether through stop motion, hand animation, CGI, or whatever. There are bodies in motion like Carax’ fire-breathing Dennis Lavant or Godard’s Louvre crashers. Larkin talks at length in Ryan about his animating obsession with the moving human form in all its disjointed glory. Landreth’s work is distinctly affected by this doxology of gesture.
These lists could go on and on, but I wonder if this distinction between animation director and auteur is going to have diminishing returns in upcoming years. Time, space, composition, movement – these basic elements of cinema may become increasingly prevelant in animation that via emerging technology that permits animators to think as auteurs about their production processes. Regardless, Landreth is able to develop rapidly in animated frames the interior poses of loss and personal distance we find in hours of other filmmakers equally sensitive to the proportions of grief. I apologize for all this name dropping, but there isn’t really any other way to express what happens in Landreth’s art. I always end up at the end of these two shorts thinking I have just caught a glimpse of whatever it is that makes cinema really tick: meaningful physical gestures that address our emotional muscle memory.