The modern Disney Corp. and its imitators have convinced America that animation is suitable only for fairy tales and drippy show tunes, while the once-vibrant festival circuit has been all but crushed by the popularity of the (shudder) Sick N Twisted shows. Given the choice between singing hunchbacks and an evening of bloody evisceration, it's no wonder that more and more animation geeks stay home with a copy of Fantasia—the original, of course.
The Newport Beach Film Festival's Sound and Vision show, welcome in any season, is an absolute lifesaver in these dark days. It features 10 short films that interpret music visually. Most are quite good, several are excellent, and the rest are at least interesting experiments.
It begins with a quick blast of untitled, Escheresque psychedelia courtesy of animator Ian Emes. Then we're plunged into Oskar Fischinger's crabby 1927 short Spiritual Constructions, starring blobby little human silhouettes that engage in something like dance and rioting. For a bracing change of pace, that's followed by perhaps the looniest and most tuneful of the Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones' masterful 1957 Wagnerian burlesque, What's Opera, Doc? It's an essential item in a program like this, even if most of the audience already knows the libretto (“Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit . . .”) by heart.
We're then subjected to the evening's most unfortunate selection, Norman McLaren's Pas De Deux, a 1967 yawner that is arguably not even animated. It stars two live human dancers distorted by technical wizardry that must have seemed quite revolutionary at the time but which is now about as enthralling as a lava lamp. It's pretty for the first two or three minutes, but unfortunately this thing is almost a quarter of an hour long. Perhaps that's just enough time to sneak out to the restroom, call to see how the kids are doing with the sitter, and maybe dash out to grab a snack. Or bring a book.
Things pep up considerably with Ian Emes' French Windows, featuring a Yellow Submarineish parade of oddities set to the music of—choke—Pink Floyd. It's a pain less blast of silly retro fun until you consider just how much of the '70s you probably spent parked on your butt watching stuff like this and smoking the loco weed. Even if you've never done drugs in your life, this thing is so terribly 1974 that it's bound to give you a contact high.
Next up is Bolero, probably the most astounding film of the evening and 13 of the most amazing minutes you'll ever see. Care less astronauts leave a Coke bottle on a distant world, and in the time it would take you to eat a large sandwich, a tiny, amoebic life form arises from within the bottle, oozes its way across the land, evolves into an entire ecosystem, and then snuffs itself out . . . all to the tune of Ravel's “Bolero”! The short is as beautifully, messily ambi tious as the creatures that inhabit it. Originally done as a single segment of the feature Allegro Non Troppo, the sequence grew so expensive that it eventually ate up most of the budget that had been allocated for the entire film. Every penny is on the screen; the damn thing works as comedy, tragedy, historical epic, sci-fi and even environmentalist propaganda.
After taking in an entire planet's history in one gulp, a little breather is in order. Thus Sara Petty's gentle Furies, featuring two pretty kitties dancing to Ned Rorem's jazzy Trio for Flute, Cello and Drums, comes as welcome relief. Petty completed the film in 1978 and has since worked for Disney conceptualizing story ideas for Fantasia 2000 and its proposed sequels—but let's not hold that against her.
There follows a well-intentioned, well-crafted item that the Sensitive Viewer will nonetheless have some difficulty knowing how to take, Oscar Grillo's 1980 music video for “Seaside Woman,” a Linda McCartney tune that sounds as if it has more than a little Paul in the mix. It stars a little black pickaninny who frolics by the Carib bean, and if this imagery is pretty shocking in 2000 (come to think of it, it was probably pretty shocking in 1980, too), its makers clearly did not mean to cause offense. The film's heroine is a happy little girl, in a happy family, with two parents who clearly love their child and each other very much. If they weren't drawn like racial caricatures right out of America's bad old days, this thing would make a dandy kid's cartoon. For grown-ups who can put the short in its proper context, Seaside Woman is actually quite sweet in its drastically un-P.C. way and serves as a nice reminder that Paul had a fair 10 years after the Beatles breakup before he completely lost his brains.
Going from the endearingly ridiculous to the sublime, we find Pascal Roulin's Lakme, featuring the beautiful, beautiful Leo Delibes music you have heard in 10,000 commercials but never knew the name of. It's a surreal, lovely film starring . . . hands. Just hands, although hands as you've never quite seen them before. Hands as giraffes, hands as snakes, hands as birds. These hands are quite, uh, handy. Yoshitaka Amano's 1001 Nights, the half-hour short that closes the evening, is far more ambitious than Lakme and almost as successful; it uses pretty much every animation technique there is, from cutting-edge computer technology to cut paper, to tell a love story from the ancient Arabian folk tales. It's a gen-u-wine piece of capital-A Art, which is all the more amazing given that Amano is a rather famous artist in Japan who has also exhibited in New York and is the creator of the Final Fantasy video game series and his collaborator, David Newman, is the man behind the instantly forgettable Anastasia score. If it surprises you that good stuff could come from these guys, just think how much talent is squandered on drawing singing hunchbacks and bloody eviscerations.
Sound and Vision screens at the Orange County Museum of Art, Lyon Auditorium, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Sat., 1 p.m. $4-$6.
For more information, visit the official Newport Beach Film Festival website.