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More Than Cartoons

Animation retrospective covers art form's growth, range of styles over eight decades.

April 23, 1998|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Spotlight on Animation," two programs from the Montreal Cinematheque Quebecoise screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater on Friday and Saturday night, offers an engaging cure for the post-income-tax blues. Featuring work from 10 countries over eight decades, these eclectic shows celebrate a broad range of techniques and visual styles.

The Friday night program honors the late Louise Beaudet, who served as curator of animation at the Cinematheque for 28 years. Probably the most eminent programmer and archivist of animation in the world, Beaudet, who died of cancer at age 69 on Jan. 3, was a well-respected and well-loved figure. She prepared thoughtful retrospectives for festivals, museums and Expo '67 and made the Cinematheque an important repository of animated films and materials.

Anyone who did serious research on the history of the medium during Beaudet's tenure called on her expertise. Animation historian and filmmaker John Canemaker once called her "an icon of animation, as important and significant a figure as the films, artists, artwork and history she lovingly preserves." The Friday night program features a selection of Beaudet's favorite films, which pays tribute to her discerning taste and wide-ranging interests.

In the silent, black-and-white cartoon "Felix in Hollywood" (USA, 1923), the plucky cat visits a film studio and meets caricatures of Gloria Swanson, Will Hays, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Cecil B. De Mille. He also runs into Charlie Chaplin while doing an impression of the famous comic, using his tail as a cane. Felix's cartoon high jinks contrast sharply with "The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa" (Canada, 1977), Carolyn Leaf's moody evocation of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," done in the sand-on-glass technique she created.

Kafka used Mr. Samsa's transformation into a cockroach as a metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of life in industrialized Western society; the Canadian animators use metamorphoses to celebrate ever-shifting forms and patterns.

Figures that are half-eroded landscape/half-human bodies transform as they move through the rhythms of life in Clorinda Warny's "Beginnings" (Canada, 1980). Unfortunately, this moving short was the promising artist's only film: She died as she was completing it. Frederic Back won his first Oscar for "Crac!" (Canada, 1981), a warm evocation of the changes the 20th century brings to family life in rural Quebec. Drawn in colored pencil on frosted acetate, the delicate, humane images approach visual poetry.

In "Frank Film" (USA, 1973), the husband-and-wife team of Frank and Carolyn Mouris used tens of thousands of images cut from magazine advertisements to accompany Frank's musings on growing up in baby boom America. The film also serves as a mordant examination of America's consumer culture, and 25 years of increasingly intense advertising and merchandising have only sharpened its impact.

The Mouris' delight in crowding the screen with brightly colored images contrasts sharply with the elegant, black-and-white austerity of Norman McLaren's "Pas de Deux" (Canada, 1968). In this influential film, McLaren used step printing of sequential images to explore the patterns formed by the movements of two dancers.

Ironically, stop-motion animation is being replaced by computer graphics in special effects at the same time it's gaining popularity as a medium in its own right, spurred by the success of Nick Park's Oscar-winning "Wallace and Gromit" shorts and "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993), Disney's first stop-motion feature. Saturday night's program honors Henry Selick, the director of "Nightmare" and "James and the Giant Peach" (1996). He'll show clips and discuss those features, as well as his personal films and commercials.

The only element that links the rest of the films in the show is the technique itself: The artist adjusts the three-dimensional objects or articulated puppets in minute increments before shooting each frame. Using stop-motion techniques, a skillful animator can create vivid movements and lively characters that rival the best drawn animation.

In "Revenge of the Cameraman" (Russia, 1912), pioneer animator Ladislas Starevitch uses insect puppets to tell a tongue-in-cheek tale of marital infidelity that spoofs late-19th century romances. Two computer-animated features with insect characters are in the works: "A Bug's Life" from Disney and Pixar will open this November, and the DreamWorks-P.D.I. co-production "Antz" is due in 1999. It's interesting to see how much life Starevitch infused into his bug cast in a film that probably cost less than the makers of "Bug's Life" or "Antz" will spend on coffee.

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