Sunday, October 25, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Finally got around to watching Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir last night. It's an animated documentary that attempts to clarify what film critic Jonathan Murray rightly pegged as Folman's, "at first apparently insurmountable, personal confusion as to his physical and moral proximity to the massacre of defenseless Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut."

So probably not your typical Saturday night popcorn film. The subject matter is harrowing, fraught with the anguished, often nightmarish, memories of Israeli veterans. In an interview from this past spring in Cineaste magazine, Folman said he was "interested in the memory of the (Sabra and Shatila refugee) massacre as seen by the common soldier." Hoping to accomplish that, he interviewed on camera a series of one on one conversations with several fellow veterans/friends on a sound stage, the raw footage and dialogue from which he then used to storyboard the documentary and animate it.

There was something initially off-putting about Waltz with Bashir's use of Flash for its animation. I thought it lacked fluidity. It's a cut-out style of animation similar to what you see on South Park or those Terry Gilliam made for Monty Python's Flying Circus. According to the film's art director, David Polonsky, the possibility of animating the film entirely in computer generated imagery or in the more classical cel animation style was never even a possibility given the film's limited budget. In a great interview with Polonsky about the film's animation process, he says:

The characters were sketched and scanned in Photoshop, then copied into Flash and dismembered into hundreds of tiny pieces to allow for complicated movement, while the backgrounds were Photoshop that were exposed to after-effects, and then the whole film was given a thick layer of after-effects. And there was a little bit of 3-D (CGI).

For the first few minutes I found Flash's lack of character fluidity, the stiffness and puppetlike demeanor it gave to the film's many animated narrator's distracting, especially given the gravity of the subject matter. But as the documentary progressed I was won over by how ingeniously Polonsky and his small team of animators worked with those limitations, creating an animated film strikingly of itself.

The breaking up (or dismemberment, to be more exact) of those character sketches into "hundreds of tiny pieces" that were then animated with Flash is perfectly befitting of the film's preoccupations with the fluidity of memories, dreams, fantasies and the subconscious. It gives everything a protean, dreamlike quality.

Adding the the formal innovation was the decision by Polonsky to take photographs of the actual environments (buildings, tanks, cars, roads) the veterans in the film are describing and adding them in as background details. It creates a highly effective visual incongruity, with the hyper-realism of the environmental photographs (given a touch of after-effects), mingling with the Flash rendered character sketches of the veteran's recollections.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Abby and Dorothy Ashby

Because suddenly one night this past summer it became essential that Abby be given the opportunity to zip herself up in an old sleep sack she had long since outgrown, and then have her picture taken, that we're lucky enough to have this little memento. I love it. Not only for the joy in Abby's face and her celebratory touchdown arms. But for how her feet and shoulders have drawn the sleep sack into a taut triangle. Though I probably love it most of all for how it never fails to remind me of the cover of Dorothy Ashby's soulful album, The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby.

It's all about the rugs they're posing on. Though Dorothy Ashby looks like she's flying on hers, sweetly plucking some cosmic grooves from her harp while flying the space ways to pick up the dry cleaning. It's more about the colors the two pictures share then any similarities of pattern. It would be sublimely weird, though, to discover Ashby posing in a clearly overgrown sleep sack on the album's back cover.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Safe As Houses

I've wanted to read this book for about 10 years now. I finally bought a copy and cracked it in late August. I've found it to be the perfect tonic for getting over the fact that we've had one of the coldest October starts in 133 years. Even better, it's a great read about a subject I've had a big crush on for a long, long time. The suburbs and me go way, way back. The one I grew up in, Bay Village, is a woodsy little coastal suburb in Northeastern Ohio that shares its northern border with Lake Erie. It's proximity to the Lake is undeniably its best attribute, though it's not without an interior magic of its own. A nice little chunk of the Cleveland Metroparks hugs the coast toward the center of Bay where it's home to one the largest public beaches on the West Side of Cleveland. Once, in the 80s, however, Better Homes and Garden's successfully shamed many of us teenagers by rating Bay Village one of the nation's safest suburbs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

We Meant to Give This Past Summer a Proper Send Off

We meant to give this past summer a proper send off. But then autumn went cold and gray on us early this year. It sidetracked us. We were feeling a little bitter. We wanted to bitch about the unfortunate bouts of mid-western weather we have to put up even though we know we're whining and agree that, yes, complaining about the weather is boring.

But then that big old settlement of gray moved back into the sky above us. It makes everything look a little murky. There's been too many northern air masses forcing us to turn the heater on over the last couple weeks. I liked that it had been off since June. But the change between summer and autumn was horribly abrupt. It's a little embarrassing actually.

But we're ready for this year's batch of slush, gloom and cold winds that truly suck! We're putting our phenology hats on and becoming a "citizen scientist" observers on the National Phenology Network. For real. We'll report our seasonal data findings here. Our family phenology journal for this winter and spring promises to make Aldo Leopold's look petty.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Manny Farber On Howard Hawks' Red River

Very excited to see Library of America has just published a new anthology of Manny Farber's film criticism. Not only because I've cultivated, as book collector and reader, something of a fetish for many of Library of America's finely crafted hardcover titles. (Though it should be noted that their Farber anthology is not part of the regular Library of America series and come with "its own unique format and binding.") But because Farber's writing on film is so striking in its originality and finely stylized acuteness. His film writings ignore things like plot summations in favor of these brilliant, finally crafted declarative bursts. Sometimes it's a dazzling paragraph like this one about Howard Hawks' "ingeniously lyrical" Western from 1948, Red River:

Red River as a comment on frontier courage, loyalty and leadership, is romantic, simple-minded mush, but an ingeniously lyrical film nonetheless. The story is of the first trip from Texas to the Abilene stockyards is a feat of pragmatic engineering, working with weather, space, and physiognomy. The theme is how much misery and brutality can issue from a stubbornly obsessed bully (John Wayne, who barks his way through the film instead of moving), while carving an empire in the wilderness. Of the one-trait characters, Wayne is a sluggish mass being insensitive and cruel-minded on the front of the screen; Joanne Dru is a chattering joke, even more static than Wayne, but there is a small army of actors (Clift, John Ireland) keyed in lyrically with trees cows, and ground.