Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Fantasy-Driven Life

Writing about Avatar from a taxonomist's standpoint in a New York Times essay entitled Luminous 3-D Jungle Is A Biologist's Dream, author Carol Kaesuk Yoon states:
"Please excuse me if I seem a bit breathless, but the experience I had when I first saw the film (in 2-D, no less) shocked me. I felt as if someone had filmed my favorite dreams from those best nights of sleep where I wander and play through a landscape of familiar yet strange creatures, taking a swim and noticing dinosaurs paddling by, going out for a walk and spying several entirely new species of penguins, going sledding with giant tortoises. Less than the details of the movie, it was, I realized, the same feeling of elation, of wonder at life.
Maybe it takes a dreamlike ecstasy to break through to a world so jaded, to reach people who have seen David Attenborough here, there, and everywhere, who have clicked — bored — past the Animal Planet channel hundreds of times without ever really seeing the animals. Maybe it takes a lizard that can glow like fire and hover like a helicopter and a staring troop of iridescent blue lemurs to wake us up."
Creativity is not the same thing as genius. Sometimes the creative process can be triggered by seemingly simple thoughts and events:
Take a look at how Craig Ferguson reinterpreted the famous delicatessen scene from Nora Ephron's romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally, that was originally performed by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan:

Three new films examine how creativity affects an artist, causing him to question his motives, his lifestyle and, in some cases, invent an entire fantasy world using the most common items at his fingertips.

* * * * * * * * * *
Two years ago, when I viewed a documentary about art cars entitled Automorphosis that had been directed by Harrod Blank, I was totally bowled over by the amount of creativity auto enthusiasts had lavished on their cars (as well as the work of the film's director). The son of filmmaker Les Blank, Harrod Blank is now himself the subject of a documentary directed by David Silberberg that will be screened at the upcoming San Francisco Indie Film Fest.

Blank is easily portrayed as an eccentric artist who has taken on all different kinds of work. As a young filmmaker, his first effort was entitled In The Land of the Owl Turds (1987). His subsequent documentaries on art cars were named Wild Wheels (1992), Driving The Dream (1998), and the aforementioned Automorphosis (2008). Currently working on a documentary entitled Burning Man: The Movie, Blank can also lay claim to a bit role in 1988's science fiction thriller: Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

Harrod Blank in Houston

Oh My God, It's Harrod Blank explores the lifestyle of a man who talks to chickens, almost exclusively dates black women, and has no qualms about living a fantasy-driven life. Blank has created such controversial art cars as the Camera Van (a Dodge van with 2000 cameras attached to it) and caused jaws to drop while appearing in his famous Flash Suit (a costume covered with hundreds of photo flash bulbs).

Harrod Blank wearing his Flash Suit

As friends, relatives, and ex-girlfriends describe Blank's combination of naiveté, curiosity, artistic passion, and eccentric behavior, the audience gets a look at someone who marches to a set of drummers that very few people can hear. The scene in which Blank and his father recreate the moment Harrod tried to shove a pen up his sleeping father's nose will leave some people gasping in disbelief.

Blank's younger brother describes what it was like to grow up in the shadow of Harrod's extroverted behavior and overwhelming need for attention. Harrod's mother describes the qualities which have always made her son "special." But it's up to the audience to piece together the unique personality traits that stimulate the man's creativity.

While Harrod's first car has officially been named "Oh My God, It's Harrod Blank," Silberger's documentary could just as easily have been named "What Makes Harrod Run?" If you treasure nonconformity, this film is tailor-made to suit you. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * *
Ancient fortune-telling traditions (such as reading tea leaves, casting the I Ching, or trying to predict the future through reading Tarot cards) all have one thing in common: they allow a person to rearrange certain items and look for patterns that can reveal some insight into the future. The old "let's rearrange the furniture and see what happens" technique gets a new twist in a fascinating 80-minute Belgian documentary written and directed by Johan Grimonprez with the help of his cowriter, Tom McCarthy.

Double Take (which will also be screened at the San Francisco Indie Film Fest) is a special treat for people who get off on the work of film historians and archivists. Culling video from vintage advertising and news footage (as well as clips from a vast collection of films, interviews, and television shows featuring Alfred Hitchcock), the film takes the stance that if you should ever meet your double, your best bet would be to kill him.

With impressionist Mark Perry supplying voiceovers as he imitates Hitchcock's voice, and British actor Ron Burrage appearing as a Hitchcock double in numerous sequences, Double Take will have exceptionally strong appeal for film noir fans as well as those who believe that life back in the late 1950s and early 1960s was something to be cherished.

Footage from Hitchcock's legendary thiller, The Birds, is interspersed with inane commercials from the 1960s for Folgers coffee. News footage of the infamous kitchen debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev is interspersed with reports about the early days of the space race. Meanwhile, the Alfred Hitchcock of 1962 tries to carry on a nightmarish conversation the Alfred Hitchcock who died in 1980.

Double Take is deliciously surreal, occasionally hilarious, and a chilling political exercise in showing how media can shape -- for better or worse -- messages of fear and impending catastrophe and embed them in the popular culture. Part of the film's thrust is to show how two versions of the same person (whether it be the younger and older Hitchcock or Kennedy and Khrushchev) can continue to battle each other as warring archetypes throughout history.

Watching Nixon and Kennedy prepare for their first Presidential debate brings the audience back to a time and place that was much simpler, a time when there was less media and its impact was more direct. Footage from the Cuban missile crisis is fascinating when contrasted with footage of Donald Rumsfeld pontificating to the press. (I remember how, as a stage-struck teenager, at one point during the Cuban missile crisis I decided that if I had to die as a result of an atomic bomb, I wanted to do it in a Broadway theatre -- and bought myself a standing room ticket for a Saturday matinee of Camelot starring William Squire, Kathryn Grayson, and Arthur Treacher.)

If you have ever wondered how Georges Seurat managed to create such amazing paintings with a pointillist technique -- or how giant portraits can be created using hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller snapshots -- you'll be shocked and awed by this film.

From a curatorial standpoint, the archival footage on display is breathtaking. The way it has been used to tell an increasingly paranoid story could best be described as a form of intellectual aerobics. Grimonprez's manipulation of film footage is at once brilliantly perverse and perversely brilliant.

It's difficult to describe the combination of nostalgia, wonder, and cynicism viewers might feel while watching Double Take. But if you have even the slightest interest in film noir, Alfred Hitchcock, or modern mash-up techniques, you cannot afford to miss this film. Order tickets here.

* * * * * * * * * * *
A charming full-length animation feature opens this week with the tag line "They came. They saw. They panicked." Based on a Belgian animated cult TV series, A Town Called Panic is such a delight that I found myself hoping it would never end.

Shown at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, A Town Called Panic holds the unique distinction of being the only stop-motion animated feature film ever chosen by the world’s most important international film festival. Each of its speedy characters is voiced—and animated—as if it were filled with laughing gas. With a cast comprised exclusively of cheap children’s toys that are dropped into bucolic settings while spouting wonderfully absurd dialogue, A Town Called Panic may well be the best medicine for coping with the current economic downturn.

At one time or another, most children have used store-bought action figures to act out make-believe scenarios. Whether these toys were marketing gimmicks allied with fast food chains or the type of simple, cheap, plastic figures that came as cereal box prizes, they have played an active role in expanding the imaginations of children around the world.

When I was a kid, I wasn't particularly interested in staging battles between cowboys, Indians, or military personnel. Instead, I had a pretty fierce collection of miniature dinosaurs purchased from the toy departments at Woolworth's, Kresge's, and the souvenir shop at the American Museum of Natural History. The film's co-creator, Vincent Patar, explains that:
"We hit on the idea while visiting flea markets and garage sales on Sundays. Because dinosaurs and the figurines from Manga comics were all the rage, kids had lost interest in their older, basic toys like cowboys and Indians and farm animals. So we decided to rescue these poor orphans -- and there sure were a lot of them!"
Indian, Cowboy and Horse

Together with his creative partner, Stéphane Aubier, Patar used 1,500 plastic toy figures in the course of a 260-day production cycle. The film's protagonists required as many as 200 "clones" per character in order for the animation to look as if children had been playing with their toys. The jerky movements combined with the animators' childlike voiceovers give the film a sense of grand silliness that is utterly disarming.

Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar

The first thing audiences will notice is that most of the characters do not adhere to the same physical scale. As Aubier explins:
"There are two reasons for the discrepancy in sizes. First of all, we happen to think it’s funny! And second of all, we wanted to be as spontaneous as possible without having to pay strict attention to perspective and proportions. For example, when the characters go into the house, the building looks tiny, but once they’re inside, it’s spacious. We like the fact that the characters are a mix of different sizes -- it’s more interesting for us than having to respect the rules that reproduce a strict sense of reality."
The Penguin Robot

There is no sense of reality to be found in this farce. Because the film's script is so wacky, it's only fair to let the animators describe the characters that star in A Town Called Panic:
"Horse: As Zen as they come from his mane to his hooves -- and quite handsome by the standards of his species -- Horse is secretly in love with Madame Longray, who teaches at the Music Conservatory.

Madame Longray: A welcome new addition to the Panic stable, Madame Longray’s sweetly sexy voice and doe-like eyes make her the most fetching filly in town. She’s good with children and is secretly in love with Horse.

Madame Longray and Horse

Indian: One day Indian shot his arrow into a particularly stubborn fish, who dragged him all the way to Europe. Indian’s archery skills are mediocre and yet his arrows always land somewhere interesting.

Cowboy: Cowboy may look tough, but he’s actually quite shy -- although not too shy to create havoc with Indian.

Steven: Steven is the gruff, impatient farmer who raises cows, pigs, and hens that he never kills, never eats, and never sells. He’s married to Jeanine but his three primary interests are his red Zector tractor, his red Zector tractor, and his red Zector tractor.

Jeanine: Jeanine doesn’t say much, but she’s a devoted farm wife who would do absolutely anything for her husband, Steven, and his beloved tractor. She’s got a great system for making giant pieces of toast for Steven’s breakfast.

Policeman: Molded so that his billy club is always raised and ready to hit somebody, Policeman is a terrible detective and even worse at directing traffic. He is a great dancer, though.

The Atlantes: Jean-Paul, Michel, and Gérard -- humanoid mutants and skilled thieves -- live in a parallel underwater universe connected to the 'real' world by the pond on Steven’s farm."
Any film that begins with a horse taking a shower, brushing his teeth, and ordering stuff online while tapping his hooves on a computer keyboard is going to have my utmost attention. That the adventures of cowboy, Indian, and horse should be so utterly charming and hysterically funny is mere icing on the cake. Rush to the theatre and prepare to surrender completely to A Town Called Panic. Resistance is futile! Here's the trailer:

No comments: