Friday, August 11, 2017

MIFF: Alternative animation double feature!

In an earlier post, I told you that at this year's MIFF, for the first time in my four-year history of the festival, I was going to be seeing a movie I'd seen before.

Three times before, in fact.

And the way it worked out, it allowed for a nice themed double feature, albeit separated by 90 minutes to allow me to get a dumpling dinner in between.

My fourth MIFF seemed like an appropriate time for my fourth viewing of Renee Leloux's trippy 1973 film Fantastic Planet, but just seeing it on the big screen for the first time would not have been excuse enough to expend one of my minipass tickets on it. No, this particular Fantastic Planet screening was special, involving live musical accompaniment.

It's part of the Hear My Eyes film series that a friend of mine is involved with. A couple times a year, his organization curates films whose visual style or other characteristics invite an in-house trio of musicians -- this roster may change, I'm not sure -- to compose and perform an accompanying score. As I know the guy who's involved with it -- he's a "friend" but really more of an acquaintance -- I'd been looking for an excuse to finally pull the trigger. And though the live musical accompaniment took this outside the realm of tickets eligible under my festival minipass, costing a separate $35, it was clear from the moment I heard it was scheduled that this was something I was doing.

And indeed I really dug it. Despite having seen the film three times before, my last viewing was in 2012, so I couldn't immediately call to mind the film's original score. Whatever it may have been, this was preferable. It was a hard-to-describe combination of synth and jazz, making regularly use of a saxophone but in only suitable ways. It didn't necessarily seem like an attempt to graft modern music on top of a period movie, like Giorgio Moroder's score to Metropolis. It was more like an amplified, intensified version of music that might have been available at the time, but with very modern sensibilities. It cast a spell and I was rapt.

The one thing that worried me was that the music was going to play over the whole movie, relegating the movie itself to a trippy backdrop. You know, like how you go to a party and someone has left Fantastic Planet playing on one of the TVs just because that's a cool thing to do. Which might have actually worked in this case because the movie is in French with English subtitles, so you don't strictly need to hear it. But no, this was intended as a proper screening of the film, as presumably most of the audience had never seen it, so the music only played over parts with no dialogue. More than losing the dialogue, I was worried we might lose some of this movie's fantastic sounds, like the inimitable shrieking noises of this guy:

But no, he was shrieking in full glory, and all the other wonderful, irreproducible sounds from the original film were left lovingly intact.

As I mentioned in my Ingrid Goes West post, the seats in the Comedy Theatre aren't all that comfortable, so I was glad for the film's brevity (just 72 minutes). Before I knew it I was off for dumplings.

The second film kept the alternative animation theme going. It was Dash Shaw's My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, playing at Cinema Kino, one of my regular viewing locations (where I just saw The Big Sick on Tuesday in fact). From the opening moments I knew I was under this film's spell as well, though it didn't rise to the level of greatness of Fantastic Planet -- and really, how could it.

Bolstered by the voice work of a number of familiar talents (Jason Schwartzmann, Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon), High School tells pretty much the story advertised in its title. A high school built at water's edge on a fault line, then left to deteriorate over the years as the principal forges reports from the building inspector to keep it from closing down, does indeed break off and begin sinking after an earthquake. As its levels steadily submerge and it starts to flip sideways (think Titanic), our three nerdy heroes, who write for the school paper, must navigate the the school's social hierarchies as well as the conditions of the disaster (not to mention sharks). They are assisted by a lunch lady built like a linebacker (Sarandon).

Since I'm not an expert on the techniques of animation, I can only describe what I believe to be the technique they used. It's an intentionally rudimentary technique in which far fewer then the number of cells needed for typical hand-drawn animation are required, and each cell is drawn a little bit differently than the one before, so there's a jumpy quality from frame to frame. Not distractingly jumpy, of course -- just meant to indicate that these are kind of like somebody's notebook doodles come to life. This should give you some idea what the characters look like:

Some idea? It's what they look like.

But the heavy black lines were drawn a millimeter to the left or to the right from one frame to the next, so they are constantly bouncing around, kind of giving the impression of old-fashioned stop motion animation -- but most assuredly in a good way. The painterly backgrounds are often changing colors as well, and at times I was reminded of a favorite film of mine, Richard Linklater's Waking Life, even though that film aims for a much greater sense of realism with the rotoscoping technique it uses.

The movie is pretty clever and funny as well -- perhaps just a little less clever and a little less funny than I wanted it to be. I also have to wonder how much my enjoyment of the movie was tempered by the guy sitting next to me. He was engaging in the type of bad audience behavior that is most difficult to fault -- he was laughing too hard. So in other words, he was not doing anything intentionally toxic, as I'm sure it was just his natural reaction to the movie and nothing purposefully disruptive. But there was a disconnect with my own enjoyment of the film, which was more mildly amused in nature, and driven further in that direction by his outsized reaction.

All in all, when you factor in the little errands I squeezed in and the foods I ate (I also had a mini chicken sandwich with cole slaw before the first movie and a chocolate milkshake just before the second), this made for a great MIFF evening on the town. It's the only double feature I have planned in which both films are festival films, and if it's the only one I end up getting, it sure was the right way to do it.

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