A Rare Treat: Bay Area Animation

This week at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive Theater, guest curator Karl Cohen will introduce audiences to a wealth of animated shorts, all produced in the Bay Area, all vastly removed from what we have come to think of as animation in the era of Pixar and Dreamworks.

The two-part program of 25 short works arose after Cohen -- president, among other roles, of the San Francisco branch of ASIFA (International Animated Film Association) -- prepared a screening of experimental animation for the PFA's 2010 Radical Light series. Works shown at that event covered the late 1940s to the late 1980s, but Cohen wanted more. "So much is happening right now," he realized. It was time to bring the program up to date.

Cohen's selections are not the result of a single curatorial theme -- the featured shorts are a wonderfully eclectic mix -- but the screenings evince his own enthusiasm and respect for the works presented. According to Cohen, Bay Area Animation is best summed up as a "collection of individual personalities and personal pursuits executed with a great deal of mastery."

Without corporate oversight and the pressure to succeed commercially, independent animators are both blessed and cursed. While they might have the freedom to create highly personal and thematically challenging animations, the distribution channels available to larger productions are simply not open to them. Nights like the Bay Area Animation screenings are few and far between, relying on the dedication of people such as Karl Cohen to pull these disparate artworks together into a persuasive argument for the persistence of independent animation.


Quasi at the Quackadero 

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The August 24 program features twelve twentieth-century animations, including products of the psychedelic era and early computer animations. Sally Cruikshank's Quasi at the Quackadero (1975) is the trippy and bizarre story of a duck's visit to an amusement park with his simpering girlfriend Anita and a pet robot. Various attractions at the park promise to make visible hidden layers of the mind. Signs proclaim "Relive One of the Shining Moments of Your Life" and "See Last Night's Dreams Today." The saturated colors, hard edges, and constant movement of Cruikshank's animation could be source material for the future realization of Pee-wee's Playhouse.

Steve Segal's Dance of the Stumblers (1987) was made on what Cohen terms a "prehistoric computer." Low-resolution shapes sprout arms and legs to dance, balance, and trip like clumsy confetti. While the technology is simplistic by today's standards, the animation transcends any lapse of time with its playful humor. The final credits read "made in Steve's bedroom," attesting to the independent and innovative spirit of early computer animation.

Triumphantly closing out the first night of screenings is Tim Hittle's Canhead (1996). In this slapstick claymation, the traveler Jay Clay braves a hostile landscape to reunite with his black-footed dog. The piece has elements of a more commercial strain of animation, but it's also surprisingly off-kilter. A Wallace & Gromit-loving child would be more than slightly disturbed by the monsters inhabiting Hittle's narrative.

 

On August 28, the second night of Bay Area Animation features works from the twenty-first century. Cohen's picks move through the 2000s in an even-wider smattering of style and subject matter. The animations range from lighthearted to meditative, pairing absurdist narratives with pointed social commentary.


Los ABCs 

Notable selections include Nina Paley's Fetch (2002), a lighthearted exploration of the trickeries of perspective. In it, an owner pursues his dog (who pursues a ball) through a world of increasingly complex optical illusions. John Jota Leaños's "Los ABCs (2005) is a primer, led by a mariachi band, on the various global conflicts and injustices that lead to death. Sung as an A to Z -- "N is for Natalia, lost in the Walmart" -- the tune is unabashedly upbeat and catchy. Similarly, Leaños's visuals are bright and crisp, an unsettling contrast to the horrors portrayed.


Enrique Wrecks the World 

In the final animation of the series, David Chai's Enrique Wrecks the World (2010), a child sets off a terrifying chain reaction with his slingshot. As disasters mount on a global scale, increasingly bloody and ridiculous, poor Enrique suffers light years beyond a simple "look what you did." The audience's laughter will be uncontainable.

It is this opportunity for a communal viewing experience that makes Bay Area Animation worth seeing. A number of the featured animations can be found online, but the screenings at the PFA offer an audience the chance to see independent animations introduced by the knowledgeable Karl Cohen, projected in a theater, and treated with the respect they deserve.

Bay Area Animation will screen Twentieth-Century Animations on August 24 and Twenty-First Century Animations on August 28, 2011 at the Pacific Film Archive Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.