Five masters of stop-motion animation | Bleader

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Five masters of stop-motion animation

Posted By on 06.12.18 at 06:00 AM

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click to enlarge Kihachiro Kawamoto's House of Flame
  • Kihachiro Kawamoto's House of Flame
If the current Jiri Trnka retrospective at Gene Siskel Film Center, highlighting the work of the famed Czech animator, has whetted your appetite for even more films featuring nontraditional animation techniques, we offer  a selection by five great artists in the field, working in stop-motion, puppet, and cut-out works.

Shorts by Lotte Reiniger
Seven animated shorts by the filmmaker—a master (and perhaps the sole practitioner) of an elaborate form of cutout animation in which silhouetted characters perform before filigreed backgrounds: Harlequin (1931), The Stolen Heart (1934), Papageno (1935), The Magic Horse (1953), and three shorts from 1954, The Gallant Little Tailor, The Frog Prince, and Snow White and Red Rose. —Dave Kehr

Heaven and Earth Magic
Harry Smith, one of the greatest filmmakers of the American avant-garde, was a legendary eccentric: a painter, art collector, amateur anthropologist, and folk-music anthologist whose pioneering animations offer original, mind-altering visions. In his notes Smith recorded the drugs he used while working, yet his style is incredibly controlled. The hour-long, black-and-white Heaven and Earth Magic, made in the 50s, uses cutout animation to produce a mysterious world of alchemical transformations in which objects suggest a multitude of possibilities. 66 min. —Fred Camper



The Puppet Animation of Kihachiro Kawamoto
A three-program retrospective on Kihachiro Kawamoto, whose handsome and haunting puppet animations draw heavily on Japanese tales of the supernatural. Making its Chicago premiere, The Book of the Dead (2005, 70 min.) is about an eighth-century princess locked in combat with a warrior's ghost; the director has said that it represents his ambition to “heal those innocent people who have died in recent wars.” For their punch and diversity, you might want to try the two programs collecting Kawamoto's shorts from 1968 through 1990. “Haunted Journeys and Demon Pranksters” (72 min.) includes the blood-curdling The Demon (1972), in which two brothers on a hunting expedition sever the arm of a marauding creature and then discover that the limb belongs to their old mother, and A Poet's Life (1974), one of Kawamoto's 2-D experiments, in which a woman is pulled out of her clothes and spun into a sweater. “Tales of East and West” (74 min.) features the uncharacteristic but hugely eerie Anthropo-Cynical Farce (1970), about a surreal circus performance, and the primal House of Flame (1979), in which a woman dithering between two suitors discovers that they've killed each other in a suicide pact. —J.R. Jones

Alice
Czech puppet animator Jan Svankmajer began making shorts in 1964, but not until 1988 was he able to realize his dream of a feature adapting Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The world on the other side of Svankmajer's looking glass is hilariously macabre: taxidermy is the controlling metaphor, as a live-action Alice (Kristyna Kohoutova) descends an elevatorlike rabbit hole following a white rabbit that's broken out of its glass display case. She enters a subterranean house populated by bizarre creatures constructed from small animals—mammal skulls top off bird or reptile torsos, and in one scene Alice is attacked by a shopping cart with bird wings and clawing feet. In a strange kitchen, nails sprout from a piece of bread and little skulls burst out of eggs and dash away. With its episodic structure, Carroll's story is the perfect vehicle for Svankmajer's dark, 30s-style surrealism. 86 min. —J.R. Jones

Films by the Brothers Quay
These two excellent programs collect short puppet animations by Stephen and Timothy Quay, identical twins from Pennsylvania who studied at Britain's Royal College of Art in the late 60s. They were heavily influenced by Czech animators like Jan Svankmajer and the Russian pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz (who used animal and insect remains as materials), but their cryptic, mostly black-and-white films are more musical and surreal, discarding narrative for a nightmare world of fine-art references, destabilized perspectives, and animated objects that mock the human form. The stellar first program (73 min.) focuses on the body: in The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984) the venerable animator appears as a robotic character with a splayed book for a head of hair, emptying rags from the top of a doll's skull; in the acclaimed Street of Crocodiles (1986) the protagonist is taken apart and reassembled by a gang of dolls with vacant eye sockets; and in the terrifying Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1988) there's a birdlike creature composed of drafting tools. The second program (71 min.) has some gems as well: The Comb (1988) explores a gorgeous Escher-like catacomb of ladders and crimson wood, and the creepy Stille Nacht music videos (including two for His Name Is Alive) highlight the brothers' more primal emotions. —J.R. Jones

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