by O.W. Riegel
Cut, no. 3, 1974, pp. 22-23
These are troubled and faltering times for the art of animation, judging by the screenings at the Second World Animated Film Festival at Zagreb.(1)
It may so seem, perhaps, because one comes to a world showcase of animation with exaggerated expectations for the most international of all the cinematic arts, the freest from the restraints and limitations of photographed reality. It’s the medium which, at least in theory, offers the greatest liberty for innovative ideas, surreal insights and emotions, and generally, free play for the soaring imagination. It must be reported, with regret, that there were few new ideas at Zagreb, no special esthetic or political causes to advance, no special novelties in technique or intent, no rage, little emotion, and not much soaring. The impression overall was of déjà vu.
Yet at the same time the festival was impressive and instructive. Unless the selection committee overlooked more incisive material than we were shown, which I doubt, I do not mean to denigrate the Zagreb accomplishment. The festival was superbly organized under the leadership of Zelimar Matko, Commercial Director of Zagreb Film. About 200 films were screened, including 103 from 22 countries selected for competition out of 364 films submitted from 27 countries. The films could not have been more elegantly mounted, in the new 2,000 seat Lisinski Concert Hall with its cubistic walls of native wood, huge screen, and wide encircling foyers illuminated by balloonlike chandeliers of glittering crystal. Many of the films were skillful and stylish, most were well-intentioned, and some were very funny. What was lacking was challenge and fire.
For example, the international jury gave the Grand Prix to DIARY, impressions of a visit to New York City by Nedeljko Dragíc, one of Zagreb’s most talented animators, and an obvious choice in view of the competition. The drawing is up to the Dragíc standard, which means that it is a pleasure to see, but I find neither new insights nor novelties of emotional reaction or point of view in Dragíc’s impressions. The runner-up for the Grand Prix, awarded first place in the longer-than-3-minutes category, was another Zagreb film, SECOND CLASS PASSENGER, by Borivoj Dovnikovíc. In a series of sight gags and the incomprehensible gobble-de-gook language that is a hallmark of the Zagreb style, the film relates the tribulations of a train rider whose compartment is invaded by a succession of interlopers ranging from dogs to creatures from outer space. Most of it is hilarious, but it is hardly a classic of the art of animation.
An interesting “first film,” which won the award in that category, was THE LONG DRAWN-OUT TRIP, a mordant satire on U.S. civilization, Los Angeles locus, by Gerald Scarfe, the English artist and cartoonist whose grotesquely far-out caricatures are a regular feature of the London Sunday Times. Both Scarfe’s film and DIARY show the suitability of the medium of animated film for the quick, lively, satiric commentary on contemporary milieus and institutions. It’s like having topical kinetic portfolios by a Daumier, Searle, or Steinberg. One can imagine a welcome expansion of this genre, with quickly and relatively cheaply produced exposes and cutting commentaries on the current human condition and the follies and disasters of our time, ecological, political and other, in a happy conjunction of function with an ideal medium.
I am aware, however, that this wishful concept is not very realistic. Films need audiences. With the fading of the short subject from commercial theaters, and the coolness of television to uncustomary graphics and contemporary criticism with a sharp cutting edge, it is difficult to see where audiences could be found. In regard to production cost, by using a dissolve technique, Scarfe reduced the number of separate drawings to six per second instead of the usual twelve. Nevertheless it took him six weeks of hard work to transfer his impressions of Los Angeles to 70 mm film stock. The double meaning of “long drawn out trip” is the immense drawing chore involved in making such a film even with the shortcut.
Another difficulty with this kind of topical film is that there simply may not be a supply of first-class artists capable of offering enough fresh, acute perceptions of the current scene for an animation film, even a short one. Someone has recently noted that reality has become so surreal and Kafka-esque that fiction can no longer compete with it. What is said of fiction might also be said of graphics and caricature. The trouble with Scarfe’s vision of the United States for me was that his images are hardly fresh insights, as these aspects of U.S. life been attacked for years by Americans in American and even more savagely. He uses tropes such as John Wayne’s shooting Indians, an U.S. eagle’s turning into a vulture, and Mickey Mouse, symbol of square U.S. values, becoming a scrofulous hippy with Nixon-like features from the effects of drugs and smog. To a BBC audience the film may appear to be fresh, biting satire, but to these U.S. eyes it seems late and redundant. Incidentally, although Scarfe won the “first film” award, he doesn't appear to be an entire newcomer to the field. The British Who’s Who lists him as director of animation and film for the BBC in 1969.
The festival fell under several shadows, one of which was the Walt Disney retrospective offered every afternoon to large audiences that included swarms of delighted small Croatians. Viewing Disney in conjunction with the “best” of contemporary animation brought a sharp reminder that for all the chic sneers at Disney’s slickness, sentimentality and other shortcomings, he achieved an unsurpassed perfection in his particular genre that has no real counterpart in contemporary animation. The Disney tradition was also strongly present in some of the competition films, notably the Russian and Japanese films for children. I found these films terribly dull, but I am not a child and perhaps children like them, as someone must believe.
Another shadow was cast by the other retrospectives, especially the great puppet films of Bretislav Pojar, the Czechoslovak animator who served on the international jury at Zagreb. This retrospective, and those of Bob Godfrey, Great Britain (all the films aging well and as funny as when they were first released); Fodor Hitruk, USSR; and John Hubley, USA (Faith Hubley was President of this year’s jury), were screened in a neighboring theater.
Lastly there was the shadow of the Zagreb animators themselves, whose intelligence, talent and wit did so much to release animated film from its rigid theatrical molds. If anyone would like to know more about the Zagreb contribution, he should read Ron Holloway’s Z Is for Zagreb. While Zagreb was well represented in the festival films, the dimensions of its historic contribution to animation could be felt mainly in the ambience in which the festival was held and in several concurrent exhibitions in Zagreb of the art of the Zagreb animators. The festival is an object of Croatian national pride, in addition to its obvious benefits to publicity and tourism. It’s a fact recognized in the funding of the festival by numerous government agencies and by business and industries. A Croatian factory, indeed, rescued the festival at the very last moment before the festival was to open.
Makers of animated film seem to enjoy an exceptional camaraderie. I think this is not only because of their common interests and problems but also because they are not a great threat to each other in the world market, such as it is. Clearly a leading problem of animators is the fact that sophisticated theater audiences for sophisticated animation films are in short supply. Most of the talent and energy of animators now goes into titles for long films, television commercials, assembly-line Saturday morning cartoons, and propaganda, promotion and educational films produced for business, school authorities, and foundations that are cool to the “art” of animation in its more unorthodox and mind-bending forms. Many festival films, in fact, are labors of love produced by animators more or less on their own time without much hope of profit or of circulation except to festivals and to university and other cinema societies. This is less true in Eastern Europe, where graphic arts skills are highly developed, there are traditions of cerebral and philosophic wit, and governments have recognized a possibility, both for economic and the other reasons, to compete with other nations and win national prestige. I came to Zagreb from Hungary, where a studio employee in Budapest complained to me that animation filmmakers were greater prima donnas than the directors of feature films.
Other jury prizes were awarded to THE LEGEND OF JOHN HENRY, Sam Weis, USA; THE BIRD'S LIFE, by Macourek, Daubrava and Born, Czechoslovakia, in which a woman is liberated from her life of drudgery on wings provided by a magician; SYSIPHUS, by Marcell Jankovics, Hungary, a funny, well-drawn film in which the frantic labors of Sisyphus end with a switcheroo—the huge rock stays in place; THE FLIGHT OF ICARUS, by Georges Schwizgebel, Switzerland; COLOUR IN CHAINS, by Pierre Davidovici, France; ANIMATION PIE, by Robert Bloomberg, USA, a lighthearted “how-to-do- it” on animation; THE FOX AND THE RABBIT, by J. Norstejn, Soviet Union; ZAGOR AND THE MUSICAL GLASS, by P.L. DeMas, Italy; CAT'S CRADLE, by Paul Driessen, Canada; THE LAST CARTOON MAN, by Jeffrey Hale, USA; HOW WOMEN SOLD THEIR HUSBANDS, by I. Gurvic, Soviet Union; TYRANNY, by Philippe Fausten, France; TAKING OFF, by Reina Raamat, Estonia, USSR; and ANIMATED FILMS FROM CAPE DORSET, by some Canadian Eskimos, which won a special jury award for ingenuity.
Some weaknesses of the films at Zagreb included the anecdotal character of many of the films (slight animated jokes), and the persistence of graphic and aural clichés, among them endless bodies and other objects traveling at high speed through clouds, stars and space, and the repetition of familiar sound effects. All animators should study the sound effects catalogued by Bob Godfrey in his DO IT YOURSELF CARTOON KIT and never use any of them again, ever.
My tender personal memories of Zagreb include TYRANNY and EIN LEBEN. TYRANNY, which won a prize, has a well-worn theme, the agony of an intellectual’s body and soul imprisoned by the authorities of church and state. But the pointillist-like drawing (the film is in black and white), the quivering fluidity of the images, and the mood created by these devices seemed to me to be deeply felt, and the theme is never, alas, out of date. EIN LEBEN (Wonderful Life) by a West Berliner, Herbert Schramm, wasn't rewarded by the jury, but I thought it an exceptionally wry and sardonic commentary on the journey of man from the birth canal to the grave. It was a kind of Seven Ages of Man translated into a mechanistic and gently absurd progress—which life may indeed be.
1. The Third International Animated Film Festival will be held in New York City in 1975. The Zagreb festival has been alternating with one in Annecy, France.
Very few of these films have distributors in the usual sense, therefore the following is a list of sources or producers of the films mentioned. For assistance in booking foreign films, the cultural attaché in that nation’s ambassador’s office may be helpful. Figures after the name of the film are for running time in minutes and seconds.