Friday, September 14, 2012

Animating Time and Memory

Cartoon-blogging, essay 3 of 21 blog entries on
250 great animated short films

Glassy Ocean (1998), directed by Shigeru Tamura.

This is the third of 21 essays inspired by a list of 250 great animated short films, composed in August 2012 by Scott Bussey, Jorge Didaco, Waldemar Hepstein, Bill Kamberger, Robert Reynolds, Sulo Vatanen, and Lee Price, with additional assistance from participants on the IMDb Classic Film message board.

The House of Small Cubes, Rowing Across the Atlantic, and Glassy Ocean:  For exploring the subject of time and memory, I’ve chosen to highlight these three films not only because they’re favorites of mine but also because each of them creatively plays with a common metaphor—time as water.

Time is a stream, a river, it flows into a larger ocean that is vast beyond our comprehension.  Time slips like water through our fingers;  you can’t hold on to it.  It’s such an accessible image that the metaphor has become a cliché, yet gifted animators keep finding new and inspired variations to play on the theme.  Memory is like a deep sea diving descent into the depths.  Decades of marriage are like a marathon rowboat crossing of an ocean.  If time in motion is like flowing water, would frozen time appear like… glass?

Taking a count of the animated short films on our list that touch on themes of time and memory, I’m struck by the respectable percentage of our 250 shorts that wrestle with this subject.  Maybe it’s because most memories are of short duration—quick yet freighted with meaning like a good animated short.  We retrieve memories, even treasure them, only to see them slip away as we return to the real world and time implacably carries us forward.

The subject of time and memory is inevitably tinged with loss.

The House of Small Cubes / La Maison en Petits Cubes / Tsumiki no ie (2008):  The opening setup might fool you into thinking this is a film about global warming.  The seas are rising.  An old man has added story upon story to his house, endeavoring to keep his living space above the rising waters.  When the water laps across his floor, he climbs to the roof to build his next room.  The result is that he lives in a tower, with only one small room peeking out above sea level.

It’s only when he dons scuba gear and descends to the rooms below that we realize this concept is an audacious metaphor for time.  As he descends from room to room, he recalls his past.  The images are haunting.

Vividly imagined by director Kunio Katô, The House of Small Cubes is an exquisitely-pitched masterpiece on memory and loss.  As we glimpse images of the old man’s wife and family in earlier and happier days, an overwhelming sense of loneliness pervades the film.  The final clink is sublime.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! The House of Small Cubes is available for purchase on Piecesof Love, Volume 1.

Rowing Across the Atlantic / La Traversée de l’Atlantique à la rame (1978):  Like The House of Small Cubes , Jean François Laguionie’s Rowing Across the Atlantic examines a married couple over time.  However very unlike Kunio Katô’s short, the portrait in Rowing Across the Atlantic is cynical and bleak.  Being a hopeless sentimentalist, I'm naturally more fond of The House of Small Cubes than Rowing Across the Atlantic.  Nevertheless, I have to admit to being awed by the audacious metaphor of marriage as a marathon voyage in a small boat across a seemingly endless sea.  The ocean currents are our metaphor for time.

The beginning is rather sweet (weddings tend to be and I assume we’re supposed to interpret the public launching of the rowboat as a metaphor for the wedding ceremony) but any hope of a happy-ever-after tale is crushed in a singularly grotesque scene of black comedy featuring—of all things—the Titanic.  Where The House of Small Cubes remembers small domestic moments of bliss, Rowing Across the Atlantic highlights the pettiness and selfishness of the boat’s two occupants.  I love the way the couple spends most of their time with their backs to each other, no longer speaking.  Time drifts them forward as their lives go nowhere.

Glassy Ocean / Kujira no Chouyaku (1998):  While The House of Small Cubes and Rowing Across the Atlantic depict their characters moving through time in a relatively conventional way, Glassy Ocean takes the water metaphor in an entirely different direction.  After a brief conventional prologue, it shifts into an extended exploration of our world reimagined as a surreal landscape where time moves at a glacial pace.  In this alternative time frame, the surface of the ocean is rendered glassy-solid enough to sustain the weight of a mysterious people who catch flying fish that appear suspended in air and build fires on the waves.  The images of a whale breaching the water in deep slow motion constitute one of the most magical sequences in modern film.

There’s not much of a plot—just the suggestion that life is filled with beauties and complexities that we fail to appreciate in our rushed lives.  An artist wants to capture the image of the breaching whale suspended in air above the glassy ocean.  He sets his easel up beneath the whale, seizing the opportunity to make art out of the moment.  In bringing this concept to life, director Shigeru Tamura is such an artist himself.  Primarily known in Japan for his children’s books, Tamura occasionally ventures into animation, exploring other strange worlds in the short Ursa Minor Blue (1993) and the anime series A Piece of Phantasmagoria (1995).  His vision is extraordinary.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Glassy Ocean is available for purchase as a Region 2 DVD.

Here’s a list of some other films from our list that touch upon themes of time and memory.  It’s an unusually challenging, and often poignant, selection of shorts.

Frank Film (Caroline & Frank Mouris, USA, 1973) 
The Street (Caroline Leaf, Canada, 1976) 
Tale of Tales / Skazka skazok (Yuriy Norshteyn, USSR, 1979) 
Milk of Amnesia (Jeffrey Noyes Scher, USA, 1992) 
Repete (Michaela Pavlátová, Czech Republic, 1995)
Father and Daughter (Michael Dudok de Wit, UK/Belgium/Netherlands, 2000) 
Black Soul / Âme noire (Martine Chartrand, Canada, 2001) 
Voices of a Distant Star / Hoshi no koe (Makoto Shinkai, Japan, 2003) 
The Dream of an Old Oak / Quercus (Vuk Jevremovic, Germany, 2004) 
Ryan (Chris Landreth, Canada, 2004)
The Legend of Shangri-La (Chen Ming, China, 2006) 
My Love / Moya lyubov (Aleksandr Petrov, Russia, 2006)
Printed Rainbow (Gitanjali Rao, India, 2006) 
Orgesticulanismus (Mathieu Labaye, Belgium, 2008) 
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (William Joyce & Brandon Oldenburg, USA, 2011)

© 2012 Lee Price

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