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Silly and Surreal

UCLA professors choose 11 short films for a Halloween animation festival.


"Surreally Scary," a program of 11 international animated shorts screening Saturday at UCLA, offers viewers comic and eerie visions. With the demise of the International Tournees and the increasing focus of traveling programs on "sick and twisted" or "outrageous" films, Americans have few chances to see foreign animation of this caliber.

The films range from the familiar--"The Friendly Ghost" (U.S., 1945), the first "Casper" short--to such lesser-known works as surrealist Jan Svankmajer's stop-motion "Food" (Czechoslovakia, 1992). The tone of the program bounces from the madcap metamorphoses of the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence from "Dumbo" (U.S., 1941) to the endearingly silly images of Betty Boop defeating a Frankenstein-esque monster with a perfume atomizer in "Betty Boop's Penthouse" (U.S., 1933).

The idea was to mix some of the top European surreal films with the best fantasies from Hollywood, all keyed to a Halloween theme, says Dan McLaughlin, who chose the films with fellow UCLA animation professor Celia Mercer. "We wanted to mix differing styles to show the breadth of approaches possible in animation, and do it in a way that would appeal to a wide audience."

The most disquieting works in the show are the excerpts from "Labyrinth" by Jan Lenica (Poland, 1962) and "Street of Crocodiles" by Stephen and Timothy Quay (U.S., 1986).

Lenica uses animated cutouts to present a mordant portrait of totalitarianism: In one disturbing sequence, a hole is drilled in a prisoner's head and a fluid is poured in; after the hole is sealed, he's returned to the streets of his city.

In contrast to the spotless worlds generally seen in stop-motion films, the Quays create a scabrous, surreal vision of peeling walls, gritty corridors and characters that appear to have been gnawed by mice. Their work is technically brilliant and profoundly unsettling.

On a lighter note, the Flip the Frog cartoon "Spooks" (U.S., 1932) and the Mickey Mouse short "The Mad Doctor" (U.S., 1933) highlight the differences that set the work of the Walt Disney Studio apart from its competitors and imitators during the '30s. "The Mad Doctor" is the animated equivalent of a short story--every scene and action contribute to the carefully plotted narrative.

"Spooks" by Ub Iwerks, Disney's onetime partner and the designer of Mickey, is little more than a series of gags. It's fun to watch such individual bits as Flip trying to eat the skeleton chicken served by his skeleton host in a haunted house, but the lack of a real story leaves the viewer, well, hungry for more.

The program concludes with the striking "Night on Bald Mountain" by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker (France, 1933), made seven years before the better-known sequence in "Fantasia" (1940). This haunted and haunting short showcases the pin screen, a perversely difficult form of animation invented by the filmmakers. The shadows of thousands of tiny steel pins produce a collage of images that resemble charcoal drawings of quirky monsters, wind-blown scarecrows and sinister clouds. Unlike Disney, Alexeieff and Parker follow Mussorgsky's ending for the piece: A single bell in a country church drives away the bogeymen, and the film concludes with lovely images of a rural dawn.


"Surreally Scary" screens Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall at UCLA; Admission: $6; $4, students and seniors. Information: (310) 206-FILM.

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