Sunday, February 26, 2012

Miyazaki: A Breeze for the "2D" Doldrums

The heroes in Hayao Miyazaki's films are frequently required to negotiate convincing dangers: powerful monsters, cruel villains, sickness, war, and sometimes even environmental disasters and apocalyptic destruction. Yet while he is willing for his characters to get hurt and to hurt each other, there is no true evil in all the fantastical worlds he's created. There are always reasons for bad behavior- greed, for example- that we can see as forces of nature, standing outside of the weak humans they control. Yet a Miyazaki villain is never beyond all hope of casting off these contaminants and becoming relatable, or at least useful to the heroes. So, those who we think are enemies could just as easily be friends, if the heroes catch them on the right day (as demonstrated by the pirate family of Castle in the Sky), and the forces that may bring armageddon (the hordes of Ohmu in the case of Nausicaa) even turn out to be the very things that could protect and nurture the heroes, if afforded due respect.

Not only that, but the people the heroes trust may turn on them. This happens in the beginning of Spirited Away, when the young heroine passes through a strange portal, somewhat like Alice falling down the rabbit hole- except she is led through it unwillingly by her parents, who, once on the other side, gradually forget and abandon her.

So characters are never really "good" or "bad," and in fact, we can't even assume whether the circumstances the characters find themselves in are good or bad, either. I often think of Ponyo, when the world is flooded and the two children are setting out on a merry adventure in a toy boat. Wait- isn't everybody dead, swept away by the water? Well, the kids don't know that for sure, so why shouldn't they make the most of the situation?

And even if everyone is dead- perhaps even death itself is not entirely as it seems to us. Think of the hapless frog swallowed by the spirit with no face in Spirited Away. No Face seems to be a vicious and insatiable monster, and yet later, like a bully who's been cracked like an egg, he reveals that all he's really after is a little sympathy and attention. The frog, presumed dead, is then disgorged, fully conscious and completely unscathed.   

In this way, I tend to string together Miyazaki's films into a grand spiritual lesson: nothing that happens to us really matters as much as we think it does, not even suffering. What matters is that the cosmos itself is benign. Many of his films have god-like protective figures who comfort and reassure children, and this is a wonderful correlative to how the films themselves can affect audiences. When Nausicaa promises the little ones of her village that she will return in one piece after saving the world, they stop crying and believe her. Everything's going to be okay.

The themes of these films have been on my mind for years, but until recently, I never gave much thought to their technical side. I've begun to realize that the character animation is serviceable but typically minimal. A car bumping along a road might be animated on threes or fours (8 drawings per second or even 6); a character in conversation might not move a muscle, other than to move his mouth stroboscopically, for several seconds. I never feel short-changed by this. It's done carefully so that we won't be taken out of the story. No corner is ever cut, yet neither is any energy wasted. It is just what it needs to be and nothing more, and so it rarely calls attention to itself at all.

What is outstanding here is not the action but the design. It seems to me that his films are inspired heavily by graphic novels (he was once a Manga artist, after all), not only in theme and character but in the way the design can tell the story. Totoro is a character that any cartoonist or animator would be proud of; his bulging eyes and toothy grin are easy to draw, and once they spread across his face we understand his whole character immediately. The backgrounds of his films feel lived-in, and are packed with details for sharp eyes. And everything always looks lovely and consistently composed. It's such a delightful style that it's taken me quite some time to notice how economical it is.

The style of character animation born at the Disney studios is a different beast. Miyazaki of course uses the same essential principles that the original Disney animators codified for the first time- anticipatory actions, squash and stretch, exaggeration, and so on- but his acting is not the bombardment of technical flourishes that any great Disney scene is, and is not as obsessive about wringing every bit of feeling out of character action in every scene. Look at the number of things that Bill Tytla's Stromboli does in the blink of an eye, and the fluid, constant redrafting of Milt Kahl's Mr. Snoops (the essence of what separates traditional animation from 3D), and the ballet of secondary actions that Lady and the Tramp perform in Frank Thomas' great spaghetti scene. Every muscle in the characters' faces is articulated. There is more to look at than you can process in one viewing.

The acting in these films is so powerful and expressive that as a kid I was often embarrassed to behold it- ashamed that I could be so easily overcome with feeling by watching a fiction, and I would even shield my face from the strangers I passed on the way out of the theater, in case they might detect that I had been made to blush, or tear up, or even smile.

Disney had a very specific purpose in developing this style: he wanted to create a drama using animated characters, which had never been done before. It was an enormous risk. When the dwarves gathered around Snow White's bier and wept on each other's shoulders, would the audience do something they had never done before and weep along with these characters- or would the scene be ridiculous and laughable? The needs of the story he was telling drove him and his animators to make his technique what it was. Needless to say, they completely succeeded: when Grumpy's face dissolves from resilience to tears, we see the truth in it, and we could never laugh.

As animation grew up, that same style was applied to other powerful visions, and in some cases more innovation was required to serve one film or another. At some point, however, the style seemed to be more the point than the content. Think of The Sword In the Stone, and films from that same era, in which the animators weren't reined in and played out all the funny ideas they wanted to try. Critics considered these sequences- Merlin and young Arthur scrambling around the forest as squirrels, for instance- to be overly long and self-indulgent. I could never complain that these sequences exist- any artist can drool over them- but they do seem to exist for their own sake. Here, the style is the point.

As I get older, I find myself less concerned with technical achievement, no matter what art form we're talking about, and more about cohesiveness and having form and technique follow function in a purposeful way. As dazzlingly emotive as these old Disney scenes are, they would be of little use without the greater purpose they serve. A Disney movie with scene after scene of beautiful animation but no coherent story would be unwatchable. By the way, that's not a hypothetical- rent The Three Caballeros. You'll see.

For a nice counterpoint, think of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a triumph of structure following function. Fred Rogers' was the most minimal puppetry of all time. You surely remember that the puppets flapped their hands together as their only means of emphasis. Yet in any episode, the characters might have grappled with anything out of the full range of human emotion- disappointment, confidence, jealousy, sympathy, attraction. To bring these feelings to life, and to encourage children to project them onto the inanimate faces of the puppets, the human actors compensated with some excellent over-acting. This was the design of the show, and it worked great. Here, as with Miyazaki's work, and the earliest of Disney's films, the vision of the storyteller came first, and concerns like medium, style, and technique orbited around that. 

When so-called "traditional" or "2D" animation is mentioned in the news, it is usually to grimly report that the final nail in its coffin may or may not have been driven home. This is as ridiculous as holding a funeral for, say, oil painting. Drawn animation is simply a medium, defined by its own set of possibilities and limitations, and not replaceable by any other medium, certainly not by computer technology. We should not be scratching our heads over the fact that the Studio Ghibli films are the highest grossing films in Japan's history, and yet are "traditionally" animated. The conversation should not swirl so much around these different techniques: which is better, which is more popular. These questions are irrelevant. The very word "medium" is a hot clue that we're talking about something that is supposed to be in between two other things- the audience, and the ideas. If the ideas are good enough, and the artist is intent enough on rendering them in a sensitive and evocative way, then whatever means are employed to do this are the artist's business. Miyazaki is a colossally talented visionary who happens to dream in ink and paint.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Celluloid Curio (with the Alloy Orchestra)

It'd been nearly a decade since I'd last seen the Alloy Orchestra when, last night, I attended their presentation of Wild and Weird at the Somerville Theater.

The program was 10 short films of the silent era, most little seen and made by people long gone and little remembered, but here, sweetly, given another chance to delight an audience, and with a treatment by three wonderful performance artists such as they'd most likely never received in life.

The last time I saw these fellows was in Prospect Park in 2002, when Jamie and I lived in Brooklyn. She, even then my shining star leading me to all the great movies, flashed the news that the Alloy Orchestra would be at the bandshell presenting Speedy, the Harold Lloyd film. I brought along my two roommates and we made a picnic out of it.

In Speedy, Harold Lloyd's father (or was it his girlfriend's father?) is a Civil War veteran who operates the last trolley still pulled by a horse team in Manhattan. Trains whoosh along highlines over his head, and police direct the stream of Fords that zoom past him. With the modern age pressing in on all sides, they have to find a way to protect his business, and hang on to this last shred of the city they used to know.

Yet as we watch Speedy today, of course, and we see Lloyd spin all over 1920's New York, a tour of aching nostalgia that goes from meeting Babe Ruth in the Bronx to visiting Dreamland at Coney Island, it's hard to believe that an earlier time could have been any better.

After Speedy, I was surprised to learn the true size of the Orchestra. We were sitting at quite a distance from the bandshell and I had imagined that a much larger ensemble was responsible for all of those sounds- every police whistle, every car horn, all the rattles and grinds and clattering, not to mention the melodic instrumentation, was produced by three very busy musicians.

Last night, I was much closer to the action. Their music was actually somewhat spare; it never took attention away from the films, and it was frequently possible to forget that the music was live and not simply a soundtrack. Yet it was all graceful and considered, and only occasionally indulged in a moment of "Hey, look at this!"

Yet pointing out neat things to people- things we never would have seen or noticed otherwise- is clearly what they enjoy doing. The program, co-curated by one of the Orchestra members, was like a rummage through buried treasure. One of the films had been digitally reconstructed from two shambling copies; another had been reproduced from a single known print discovered at a junkyard in Mexico. The short subjects, some more narrative and some less, flowed nicely together and evoked a carnival atmosphere. In one, a fly with its wings glued down spins tiny props in its shivering legs; in another, a demon in hell performs magic tricks; in another, a man who has overeaten dreams that his bed is flying above New York. In between films, painted glass slides were presented, reproductions of actual messages to silent era theater patrons: "Ladies, Please Remove Your Hats."

One of the best shorts was a selection from the Dream of a Rarebit Fiend series, drawn by the astonishing Windsor McCay, one of my biggest inspirations in college. In this installment, called The Pet, the husband has a dream that his wife takes in a peculiar stray animal. The animal is an adorable cross between a cow, an elephant, a dinosaur, a dog, a cat, a kangaroo, and, let's say, a horse. It looks like all and none of these animals. Full blown from McCay's mind, it is a clean fabrication of an animal that has never existed, but is drafted so naturally that you can immediately accept it as a real species. It is also very intelligent and endearing. Nevertheless, the husband feels that there's something sinister about the animal, and takes steps to destroy it.

But by far the most incredible piece of work in the collection was The Cameraman's Revenge, made in Moscow in 1912 by the puppeteer (and entomologist) Ladislas Starewicz. His story concerns a married pair of stag beetles, their infidelities, and the subsequent fallout. The entire film was made through stop motion photography of actual dead insects. I was mesmerized by the technique; the idea that the dead bodies of little creatures were made to act out scenes of human emotion, often convincingly, was at once grotesque, heart-wrenching, and even kind of humorous (and the Alloy Orchestra score played subtly to all these things).