December 20, 2007

NYC in Ink (and Pixels, and Paint, and...)

An online tour of local animation superstars, surprises and best-kept secrets

A selection of the animated New Yorks reviewed at Ironic Sans: (clockwise from top left) Shortbus, Madagascar, Fantasia 2000 and Red Garden (Screen grabs: Ironic Sans)

If you spend enough time living online, you start seeing things. I'm not talking about hallucinations, either, though sometimes it may feel like it -- especially in the realm of animation. And especially in the realm of New York animation.

Continuing the tradition begun last year with The Reeler's holiday special devoted to Woody Allen, we thought we'd check out a few trends, revelations and subcultures in animated New York. On one hand we have Persepolis, the acclaimed Iranian coming-of-age tale that closed this year's New York Film Festival and whose adaptation from graphic novel to screen gets a closer look from Vadim Rizov. On the other hand, intrepid anime devotee John Lichman delivers a primer for beginners interested in the medium's most accessible points of entry. Meanwhile, with help from a few insightful tipsters and accumulated months of bleary eyed Web inhabitance, we've assembled some of our own favorite Web stopovers that epitomize the diversity and surprise of the animated city and, we hope, provide a helpful diversion while waiting for that long weekend to come -- and beyond.

--S.T. VanAirsdale, editor

MOST ANIMATED USE OF A NY TIMES BLOG: Most New York art house regulars know Brooklyn artist/filmmaker Jeff Scher's animation from the hand-painted, heavy-wattage welcome short preceding IFC Center's features. ("No talking, no cell phones, no crybabies..." Yeah, that one.) A fresher outlet for his work exists at The New York Times Web site, where Scher's blog, The Animated Life, hosts a new short each month. Scher's accompanying notes provide terrific insights into the techniques and ambitions of each film, both reinforcing and reinvigorating viewers' conception of animated media.

Among his best since launching the blog last spring: Yours, a three-minute experiment grafting individually painted frames onto a film of the popular post-WWII title song. "The result is that all the blacks have been replaced by one layer of animation and all the whites by another," Scher writes. "The surprise? How indelible the actual soundie is in the final film." Like so much of his work here, it achieves a nostalgia and bracing currency that falls cleverly in line with the institution The Animated Life calls home.

MOST DISTURBING ONE-MINUTE DEPICTION OF NYC STREET LIFE (Non-realistic category): Employing an aesthetic style that makes South Park look like Fantasia, Cat in New York twists poignancy into urban revulsion in seconds flat.

MOST DISTURBING ONE-MINUTE DEPICTION OF NYC STREET LIFE (Realistic category): Winnie Ng's Another Jerk on the Sidewalk reminds us just how compulsively intimate some guys can be with New York women. On the street. In broad daylight. Hell, I've been there.

BEST CARTOON META-HISTORY LESSON: Aaron Augenblick's Golden Age is one of the year's most trenchant cultural surveys, lampooning not only a slate of cartoon characters and advertising mascots lost to the ages but also the reality-TV machine that manufactures and dramatizes the same obsolescence today. Along with co-writer Tim Harrod, the Brooklyn-based Sundance alum (whom The Reeler interviewed prior to this year's fest) spotlights fabricated pitch-toons like My-T-Boy, the Satanic TV family the Dreddfuls and the Marching Gumdrop enticing movie patrons to the concession stand -- all rags and riches en route to some pop-culture validation.

Golden Age peaks during its visit to Sketch Towers, the bleak asylum housing characters who were "never finished, severely limited or emotionally disturbed." Among them are Ragamuff, a rag doll cut from a film in mid-illustration and now "living as a paraplegic," or a stick figure doomed to bounce a ball in the corner of a boy's textbook pages for eternity. Viewers are promised that the inhabitants of Sketch Towers will exact their revenge, and of course, in the end, you dream of nothing less.

MOST STUNNING VISUALIZATION OF CITY IN ANIME: The opening sequence of Red Garden owes as much a debt to the James Bond franchise as it does to its anime forebears (or New York itself, for that matter): Feminine silhouettes alight with rose petals, pearls and butterflies float between psychedelically rendered landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Roosevelt Island tram. Even the cold limbs of traffic signals glimmer over the street. And the theme song is irresistible... the best I can do is just shut up and let you see for yourself.

BEST NYC ANIMATOR OVER WHOM TO SECRETLY BOND WITH CO-WORKERS: Few animators probe the grotesque, perverse and distinctly primal urges of creaturedom with a more humane touch than Signe Baumane. Headed off to Sundance with her erotic latest, Teat Beat of Sex, Baumane may be best-known online and among festivalgoers for Five Fucking Fables and her stomach-turning Infomercials for dentists and patients; "Be kind!" she implores as a doctor untangles nerves from his patient's gums.

The even more stirring Baumane tandem of The Very First Desire Now and Forever and The Threatened One (based on a Borges poem) can be found at her YouTube page; neither are especially suitable for work, but they're worth the risk just for the shock and discussion sure to ensue. And hey -- it's the holidays. Who's going to fire you? Try it now!

BEST ONGOING SURVEY OF THE ANIMATED CITY: Between author David Friedman's 60 Seconds in the Life Of... short-film episodes and the diverse selections in his Animated Manhattan profiles, the blog Ironic Sans offers an endlessly engaging compendium of New York imagination. The latter series, which now numbers 19 entries with last week's glance of the gone-but-not-forgotten MTV show Downtown, previously rated the city's animated depictions in everything from Shortbus (an 8 out of 10 for its faithful recreation of landmarks) to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (a 5 for inconsistency) to The Wild (a thudding 2; "Instead of showing real places, there were awful scenes in generic settings like alleys and sewers, with killer poodles and friendly crocodiles").

Animated Manhattan doesn't break any especially revelatory ground with its subjects, and as mentioned above, it's not exclusively devoted to cinema. But to the extent it explores the relationships between and influence of the Late Night with Conan O'Brian intro, The Critic, Madagascar, An American Tail, Fritz the Cat, the Gershwin/Hirschfeld segment of Fantasia 2000 (of which Friedman writes, "Any fan of animation, music, and New York should rent this movie just for this sequence alone") and others on how viewers perceive, consider and reconsider the city, it's as thought-provoking an animation resource as any you're likely to find.

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