The 16th International Tournee of Animation, opening a week-long run at the Biograph today, is one of the strongest collections yet.
Pulled together by Prescott Wright, an independent film distributor from San Fransisco, the show consists of 20 animated films, most of them award-winners at major animation festivals around the world. They range from silly cartoons to cautionary fables to stunning realizations of familiar tales. The animators' techniques may vary widely, but the thread of excellence runs true for 106 minutes.
The 16th Tournee is dedicated to the memory of the late Tex Avery, whose 1949 cartoon "Little Rural Riding Hood" kicks things off with an appropriately zany representation of the classic Hollywood style that eventually bowed to cost considerations. In four minutes, Avery plays total havoc with logic and sequence, running sound and sight gags galore through a delirious hybrid of the "Little Red Riding Hood" and the "City/Country Mouse" stories. It makes one realize they don't make 'em like that anymore . . . though they sometimes try.
Paul Vester's "Sunbeam," for instance, evokes the manic humor and jazzy musicality of Max Fleischer's '30s Betty Boop cartoons with the added element of flashy '80s-style color. Bob Godfrey's "Instant Sex" is thoroughly modern in its humor but very '50s-ish in its animation. But up-to-the-minute techniques also flow through this collection: Mary Beams' "Whale Songs" involves an optical/animation technique that creates a futuristic landscape (or seascape, as it were) somewhere between thermography and infrared readings.
As usual, Canadian entries seem to dominate the Tournee. "Premiers Jours (Beginnings)," a beautiful film begun by the late Clorinda Warny and finished by Linda Gagnon and Suzanne Gervais, builds gorgeous pastel washes over a mournful Satie-ish score by Dennis LaRoche. This is an ethereal and ultimately sensual piece on creation and life cycles; it starts in soft formlessness and slides gracefully into suggestions of men and women, though it's sometimes hard to distinguish a curling body from a rolling hill. "History of the World in Three Minutes Flat," by Michael Mills, is just what it says (sample bridge: "Hey, it's dark in here"; "It's been dark for ages."). It's hilarious, as is Paul Driessen's "Jeu de Coudes/Elbowing," a cautionary tale about conformity.
The most moving film, however, is Sheldon Cohen's "Le Chandail/The Sweater." It's a wonderfully realized fable about a boy's growing up in a small Canadian village and being so enthralled with Maurice Richard and the Montreal Canadiens that his life revolves around wearing the big red #9, Richard's jersey. It's the kind of story that Roger Angell or Garrison Keillor could write about baseball; Cohen has created a vivid, heartwarming snapshot of family life, burning enthusiasms and adolescent fantasies and peer pressures.
Other highlights include "The Fly," Ferenc Rofusz's 1980 Academy Award winner, the trials and tribulations of that little critter told from his dizzying viewpoint; Katja Georgi's "Der Fluss/The River," a haunting love story using rotoscope and several fascinating optical techniques; and "Open Wednesdays" by Barrie Nelson, a deliciously droll parody of metaphor and illusion gone wild in a director's hands.
There are also the traditional commercials (the best is a Richard Williams spot for Vladivar Vodka that pokes fun at several blockbuster films) and the Computer Image Corporation Portfolio, a stunning, beautifully paced collage of space-age corporate and TV station logos that literally swirl, swoop, twirl, twist and turn over at the whim of a computer.
The most chilling entry is Geoff Dunbar's "Ubu," a surprisingly faithful adaption of Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi," the absurd/cruel fable of the tyrannical king and his greedy queen. Dunbar's animation lies somewhere between the ugly caricature of Ralph Steadman and the anguished sketching of George Grosz. The soundtrack is agonizing as well, horridly appropriate belches explained by balloons. It's a stunner and a dash of ice water in a festival notable for its warmth as well as its ingenuity.
The Tournee runs at the Biograph through June 14.