Monday, June 25, 2012

On display: The animated extremism of George Griffin

Posted By on 06.25.12 at 01:37 PM

George Griffin
  • George Griffin
University of Chicago's Doc Films has returned after a brief hiatus with its summer programming, and one of the most exciting screenings of the entire season happens this Wednesday when select films from George Griffin, one of the most influential and important independent animators in American film history, are screened in 16-millimeter. His films are fairly accessible—you can purchase a DVD of his work on his website or visit his personal Vimeo page where, for the last eight months, he's intermittently posted digital versions of some—but the opportunity to see these 16-milllimeter prints is a rare treat.

Griffin's style of animation is inherently modernist, seeking to illuminate not only the history of the form but also the intricacies of his own process as well as personal history. His filmography is one of shifting tones and themes; a large part of his genius is revealed in the way he ties his amorphous style to the work itself. Sometimes his ever-developing aesthetic would take the form of documentary: his 1975 short Head begins with himself standing in medium close-up, describing how his creative preoccupations began as a child and how they changed as he grew to adulthood. From there, he utilizes forms of documentary, stop-motion, and flip art, as well as elements of anachronistic sound and music, to illustrate his process.

What begins as a self-portrait turns into an examination of the painstaking nature of hand-drawn animation. Griffin films himself creating what have to be hundreds (maybe thousands) of individual drawings on some sort of 4x6 card stock, each one a drawing of the same face but with slight variations. The end result is a flip book that resembles a single image in motion. The first time I saw Head I was struck by how similar it was to cinema, or, more acutely, how film stock and flip books were inherently the same thing: a collection of still images made to represent the illusion of movement.

This is an important detail, because the best of Griffin's films are the ones that betray that very illusion. His most ambitious film, 1979's Lineage, is a highly reflexive, highly inventive masterwork that signifies his desire for animation's own avant-garde, which, in his estimation, would exist outside of the mainstream studios and incorporate elements of formal and conceptual extremism. (He detailed this ideology in an essay titled "Cartoon, Anti-Cartoon," which, to my knowledge, isn't available online but has since been given a reevaluation by Griffin himself, which can be found on his website.) Lineage is essential viewing for anyone interested in witnessing the boundaries of animation, film art, and creative expression.

Alongside Head, Lineage and other examples of his "extremist anti-cartoons" (TrikFilm 3, Viewmaster), Doc Films will also screen some of his less ideological—though certainly no less enjoyable—work, including the narrative-driven and PBS-commissioned It's an O.K. Life, and Flying Fur, which is his take on a Tom and Jerry-esque Saturday-morning farce.

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