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Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase

Director: Joan C. Gratz
Cast: Jean G. Poulot

(US DVD: 31 Mar 2009)

Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase is a semester-long art history course stuffed inside a kaleidoscope.


Familiar works like the Mona Lisa, Starry Night and The Scream blend seamlessly together as director Joan C. Gratz packs a century of innovation in art into a few minutes. The Oscar winning 1992 short film is even more amazing to behold when you consider that Gratz recreated dozens of pieces by blending and etching multicolored bits of clay.


Gratz’s masterpiece of masterpieces comes to DVD along with three other short films: The Dowager’s Feast and The Dowager’s Idyll and Pro and Con, collaboration with fellow animator Joanna Priestly.


While all of the films are feasts for the eye, there are limits to how much the DVD offers to the brain. So many questions come out of watching Gratz’s work, the most important being: How does she do it? Every artist is entitled to a few secrets, but the lack of bonus features is a shame.


In Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase , Gratz uses the Mona Lisa’s mysterious grin as an anchor to create fully formed recreations of more than 30 paintings. As soon as they become recognizable, she unravels them and uses the leftover colors and shapes as the building blocks for what comes next. A girl lying in bed morphs into a girl sitting up, staring straight at the viewer. Her delicate face becomes the wide-eyed monster at the center of The Scream, which becomes large enough to fill the screen before breaking apart.


The transitions between the works are deliberate, an attempt to show how art developed in the 20th Century. Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase also provides a peek into social history and culture – for example, snatches of commercials and television shows are the soundtrack for the works of Andy Warhol.


In a short interview printed on the DVD case, Gratz explains that her technique involves painting directly in front of the camera, shooting a new frame for each slight alteration. It sounds like a painstaking and tedious way to create work so fluid and weightless.


Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase was created in pre-DVD times so it’s understandable that no one was saving footage for deleted scenes or feaurettes. But an on-camera interview with Gratz that included a peek into her process would have gone a long way toward introducing her to an audience beyond art and animation devotees.


What outsiders would have found out is that they’ve probably seen some of Gratz’s work before. She created clay animation sequences for the video of Peter Gabriel’s song “Digging in the Dirt” and won an advertising award for a 1994 Coca-Cola spot.


You can see some of Gratz’s commercial work – including spots for United Airlines and Microsoft – on her Web site, Gratz Film.com. It’s well worth a look.


The Dowager’s Feast and its follow-up, The Dowager’s Idyll are more abstract than Staircase While movement, shapes and flow were key in the latter, they are the focus of the former.


Gratz creates waves and intersecting lines of rich, orange, purple, red and blue in The Dowager’s Feast , while The Dowager’s Idyll seems to concentrate more on shapes, symmetry and creating a pattern only to shatter it. Both pieces recall Disney’s Fantasia, minus Mickey Mouse—The Dowager’s Idyll was actually commissioned by the Portland Symphony Orchestra and screened during a live concert performance.


Pro and Con carries the most concrete messages of any of the films – the documentary focuses on life in prison, with Priestly building her narrative around an interview with a prison guard and Gratz focusing on an inmate.


The division of labor is interesting considering each animator’s medium. Priestly illustrates the story of the guard, who by most would be considered the safer half of the pair, using hard, sharp-edged materials including pencil sketches, keys and tools. 
While the guard’s voice is affable and approachable, the inmate’s voiceover is bitter and threatening.


In a departure from the other works, Gratz’s clay seems as impenetrable as steel as she creates the bodies and faces of men behind bars. Even when the picture becomes softer, when the inmate dreams of women and the outside world, there is no hint of the hope and whimsy that infuses Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase and the Dowager films.


Gratz uses the clay and traditional animation techniques in a way that puts computer graphics to shame. Technology may have her beat as far as visual realism, but in emotional resonance she comes in first by a mile.

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