Shorts That Stand Tall: ‘Nine Nation Animation’

[27 March 2012]

By Pat Kewley

A couple of generations ago, it was accepted as a standard part of the moviegoing experience that most features would be preceded by a short. Sometimes related to the feature but often not, it may have been a serial, a travelogue, a newsreel, or a cartoon. 

With the rise of television and the multiplex in the decades since however, that moviehouse practice has largely gone the way of the double-feature and real butter on popcorn. Although it’s true that today, with the advent of YouTube, iTunes, and video-on-demand, there are more outlets for alternative distribution available to filmmakers than ever before, it remains a shame that so many films that fall outside of the standard feature-length theatrical distribution model still go unseen and unavailable to general audiences. Which is why a series like “The World According to Shorts”, which releases anthologies of award-winning short films from around the world, is so important and refreshing.

The films in these anthologies, while often award-winning, exist outside of conventional commercial distribution channels due to either their length, subject matter, the fact that too many English-speaking viewers dislike reading subtitles, or all of the above. As a result, they tend to only be seen only by a few lucky film festival audiences or public television viewers. In such a climate, “The World According to Shorts” and other anthologies like it are a wonderful way curious film fans to expose themselves to diamonds in the rough that they would have virtually no chance of ever encountering, otherwise.

As its title suggests, Nine Nation Animation, the third installment of “The World According to Shorts”, focuses entirely on animation from directors as far flung as Norway, Turkey, South Africa, Croatia, and elsewhere. Taken as a whole, it’s a perfectly charming love letter to the artistic diversity possible within the artform of the animated film, which might be a surprise to anyone used to the breakdancing animals and Happy Meal toys-come-to-life that seem to represent animation at most multiplexes, these days.

Leading off the program is “Deconstruction Workers” from Norway, an amiable little vignette about two construction workers wrestling with the deep philosophical questions of life while being buffeted by one slapstick accident after another. Director Kajsa Naess seems to delight in imagining what you might get by crossing Slavoj Žižek’s memorably blue-collar turn in Examined Life and an episode of South Park.

Similar in its deadpan comedic tone is Jonas Geirnaer’s “Flatlife” from Belgium, which depicts the trials and tribulations of four neighboring apartment-dwellers whose every action has an adverse affect on one of their neighbors. Although the slow-burn comedy takes a while to get going, the tone becomes increasingly screwball as their inconveniences become more and more outlandish. Geirnaer does a fine job of filling each moment with tiny jokes and subtle details without overwhelming the viewer, and the result is a clever story that any frustrated urban dweller will relate to.

Of course, any buffet as diverse as this one is going have a few items that that might be slightly undercooked, and Nine Nation Animation is no different. But fortunately, the most trying moments are at least brief, and any viewer adventurous to watch an anthology like this will admit that separating the wheat from the chaff is half the fun, anyway.

The only complete misfire is “The Tale of How”, a steampunk-flavored music video by South African collective The Blackheart Gang, which is an attempt at Victorian cabaret whimsy, but collapses under the weight of an obnoxiously unbearable song and a twee, overly self-aware preciousness that would make even The Dresden Dolls roll their eyes.

Also falling short of the mark is “Please Say Something”, which grafts a suffocating layer of Fincher-esque alienation onto the time-honored cartoon cliché of the dueling cat and mouse. Rather than chase each other with frying pans, the two characters instead play out a fraught relationship of endless breaking up and making up in a bleak futuristic dystopia populated by CC-TV monitors and digital distortion. Depicted in the primitive 8-bit style of early computer graphics, the addition of bizarre leaps forward and backward in time make the already-strained narrative almost incoherent, and the dissonance between its tone, visuals, and subject matter never quite resolves itself. (I’ll confess that the cat & mouse characters and portentous, unrelentingly-bleak tone made me think of nothing so much as Krusty the Clown’s ill-fated Eastern Bloc replacement for Itchy & Scratchy.)

More successful but still disappointing is “She Who Measures”, a 3D-animated tableau taking place in a fantastical deserted landscape populated by a small band of ghoulishly surreal grotesques who silently trudge across the wasteland pushing shopping. The disturbing visuals are stiking, but the film itself is little more than an exercise in tone, with a sledgehammer-obvious antimaterialist message. (Ironic, given that it’s the film here that most resembles a commercial.)

Oddly enough (or perhaps not), amongst all of the visual pyrotechnics and fantasy among many of the other films, the two best shorts in the collection are the most sentimental, nostalgic, and human. “Home Road Movies” by the UK’s Robert Brabdrook uses imagery lifted from faded family vacation photos, postcards, and vintage travel ads to tell the bittersweet and deeply affecting story of an aging father whose hopes and dreams for his family are tied up in the shining promise of a new family station wagon. Its counterpart, “Never Like The First Time” by Swedish animator Jonas Odell, is similarly touching although wildly different in the focus of its nostalgia: four individuals reminiscing about their first sexual experiences. Each of the four stories covers different emotional ground, alternatingly timid, frightening, funny, or romantic, and Odell presents each of them in a different animated style suited to each subject—the nervy, in-over-her-head punk girl gets a stark black and white comic book treatment, while an aged man’s wistful memories of a romance from the 1920s are shown with witty 2D imagery from period advertisements. It’s sweet, mature, nostalgic, and flawlessly presented, and a perfect note to close out the program on.

Despite its weak moments, anyone interested in the craft of animation, filmmaking perspectives from around the world, or in simply seeing a handful of clever, original stories would do well to investigate this generous and thoughtfully-curated collection of films.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/156179-nine-nation-animation/