December 11, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: Animation Abroad, 1946–59

animation film Blinkity Blank 1955 Canada Directed by Norman McLaren

Blinkity Blank. 1955. Canada. Directed by Norman McLaren

These notes accompany a program of animated films from abroad screening on December 12, 13, and 14 in Theater 2.

The Scottish-born Norman McLaren (1914–1987) was asked by John Grierson to head the animation unit at the National Film Board of Canada in 1941, and he would direct over 70 films, an output that was incredibly diverse and experimental. Laboring under a wartime scarcity of funds, he wound up trying out different styles, anticipating by decades the innovations of other acclaimed directors like Stan Brakhage. His films ranged in tone from the humor of Fiddle-de-dee and his Oscar-winning Neighbors to the somber mysticism of A Little Phantasy on a 19th-Century Painting.

The married couple of John Halas (born Janos Halasz in Budapest, 1912–1995) and Joy Batchelor (1914–1991) were remarkably prolific, including making the feature-length Animal Farm (1954), based on the novel by George Orwell. (They also worked with McLaren during this period). The Charley informational series grew out of their wartime propaganda work for the British government, dealing with various contemporary social issues.

Jiri Trnka (1912–1969)—Karel Zeman’s (director of last week’s The Fabulous world of Jules Verne) contemporary in Czechoslovakia and a predecessor in cinematic puppetry to Jan Svankmajer (who in turn influenced the Quay Brothers)—had rejected conventional animation, turning to puppetry in his mid-30s. By then, stop-motion films were well established by Ladislas Starevitch in Russia and later in France, by Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, King Kong) in Hollywood, and by George Pal in Hungary and Hollywood. The Song of the Prairie was one of Trnka’s earliest puppet films, charmingly and wittily playing off the tradition of the singing cowboy, “Home on the Range,” and “Red River Valley.” Many of his works were adaptations of literary classics, from Boccaccio to Andersen, Chekhov to Shakespeare, including a feature-length A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1959).

Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981), of course, had been a pioneer animator in the silent period, and was responsible for the first feature-length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed</a>, in 1926. Her 60-year career was devoted to silhouette animation, first in Germany and then in Britain. She worked closely with her husband, Carl Koch, a collaborator with Jean Renoir on Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, and many other projects. In the Weimar period she had worked with Fritz Lang and G. W. Pabst, and she contributed a sequence to Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938). Much of her 1950s work, including Thumbelina, was for American television.</p>

The Montenegrin/Croatian Dusan Vukotic (1927–1998) was co-founder of the Zagreb Film Studio. Concerto For Sub-Machine Gun came relatively early in his career, as part of a series that satirized American genre films. Ersatz, made three years later, received an Oscar, the first non-American animated work to do so.

The Polish-born Walerian Borowczyk (1923–2006) worked mainly in France, and a number of his early films were collaborations with Jan Lenica, another Polish expatriate. In his recent monographic essay on the Quay Brothers, my colleague Ron Magliozzi says that the shorts these two made together, “which the Quays describe as ‘animation at its most intense, mysterious and metaphoric,’…most explicitly point the way to the films they will make themselves.” Borowczyk’s collaborator on Les Astronautes was the eclectic Chris Marker.