Saturday, 16 January 2010

Cutout Classics

(Part of Animation Month)

(1922), Lotte Reiniger

Battle of Kerzhenets (1971), Ivan Ivanov Vano, Yuri Norstein

Yuri Norstein was once asked why he shuns computers or technological aids in the creation of his animated work. He responded only by placing the tip of a finger on his forehead and drawing a line down his arm to his hand. A direct link, unmediated. If ever one is asked about the effect of these two short films it might be best to draw a line with a finger from the eyes to the heart. This is art of the highest order and, in the employment of animation, only Hayao Miyazaki can rival their mastery.

It is not about how difficult something is to do or how painstaking the process. There is limited praise one can bestow on endeavour per se or on the integrity of someone's unwavering dedication to their vision. These cutout animations instantly dispel thoughts of how they came to be because they transcend their origins - their medium, their historical and cultural roots.

In terms of the text Lotte Reiniger's Cinderella is a version like any other. In all other respects it is unique. The opening title refers to it as "a fairy film in shadow show". This is a delightful welcome to a fabulous film, the swooning product perhaps of her "extraordinarily happy" childhood during which she became obsessed with Chinese puppet theatre.

To tell her story she uses silhouetted figures with
varying shades of grey and white paper for depth. The characters move both daintily and deliberately as though underwater or subject to a whole different gravity. Their poses communicate deep wells of feeling coiled within - yearning, fear and barely contained passion. Finally the effect is one of a dream of the story, aggregated from all the echoes of the past lives Cinderella has led ever since she was born on the page. This Cinderella reminds us that animation is a type of impressionism, touching more sensitively upon emotional realities than physical ones.

Cinderella begins rather unsettlingly with the silhouetted hand of the creator cutting Cinderella herself out of a piece of paper. This instant of creation, with the open acknowledgement of artifice and the presence of the puppeteer, is a mark of much animation. In Winsor McCay's Little Nemo (1911) the artist draws the characters on a board to prove to mocking onlookers that he can make them move while Karel Zeman's superb Inspirace has the artist peering into a drop of water to gain inspiration.

Furthermore, Cinderella functions like a set of Russian dolls. One of the ugly sisters grabs a pair of scissors to cut her foot down to size to fit the glass slipper. Drawings can draw drawings and cutouts can cut themselves out. This self-referential frivolity finds a hilarious conclusion when the other ugly sister is torn in two with rage at Cinderella's happy ending.

Battle of Kerzhenets is no less striking. Using Russian Othordox frescoes and icons from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, Ivanov-Vano and Norstein magic up a brilliantly vibrant re-enactment of an historical battle to the epic strains of Rimsky-Korsakoff. The screen is set ablaze.

The icons are glowing and golden, sombre and rejoicing. They perfectly complement this wordless tale of hope, of death and rebirth, their bowed demeanours speaking volumes of obedience and muscular faith.
The two co-directors use sheets of glass and move painted or cutout figures across and between the planes. To see such fine traditional art articulated and transposed into a new dimension is a revelation.

For me this short is better than the more celebrated Hedgehog in the Fog or Tale of Tales. Maybe it is because of its panoramic 'Russian-ness'. Maybe it is in the grandeur of its attire, both angelic in azure and white and stained red with blood. Or perhaps it is in the shocking and quasi-sacrilegious implications of the flattest and most untouchable of art - the icon - stepping out into life.

The swinging of a cot, the planing of wood, the flick of a heel out of a shoe - these simple things come to provoke not only awe but the simplest of pleasures that everyone should be able to enjoy. These films are not merely to be hidden away in art-house theatres, or allowed to gather cobwebs in the dingy corners of obscure cinema history. They are for young and old and for all time.


  1. Phew, I sure hope you rank these films at the end. I'm not sure how I'm going to cover so much ground. This is top stuff.

  2. Thanks for your continued encouragement, JAFB. I hope I can lead you to something you really enjoy.

    I will be ranking my top 25 animation films, though I will not have written pieces on all the ones on the list.

    It's really not that much ground to cover - so far I've only posted about short films.

  3. Btw there is another Cinderella that Reiniger did in 1954 which is good but not a patch on the 1922 version.

  4. Seems, like most things in life, sometimes you can pull of a lot, with very little.

    Thanks for these introductions!

  5. "Seems, like most things in life, sometimes you can pull of a lot, with very little."

    Yes, well said. I completely agree.

    "Thanks for these introductions!"

    It's my pleasure. There are more to come.