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The Reeler Blog

Getting (Un)Even With Oscar

By Paddy Johnson

A little like Sarah Jessica Parker's proposed reality show pitting all artists against one another as if sculptors and painters had comparable skills, this year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts (screening through Feb. 26 at IFC Center) award one prize for a group of work needing three. Considering the range of animation technique –- puppets to broadcast design to painted animation –- it’s hardly surprising that the first question I had exiting the theater was why anyone would attempt to determine “the best” animated short when the skill sets and results are so entirely different.

A still from Josh Raskin's I Met the Walrus, one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short Film (Photo: IFC Center)

Puppet and computer animation constitutes the largest genre of animation represented this year, taking 60 percent of the entries. These films include Suzi Templeton and Hugh Welchman's collaboration Peter & The Wolf, retelling the legend of a boy, his animal friends and a wolf; Madame Tutli-Putli, Chris Lavis's tale about a woman’s experiences on a hijacked train; and from France, Even Pigeons Go To Heaven, Maciek Szczerbowski and Simon Vanesse's short about a corrupt priest who tries to sell heaven to an old man. Coincidentally or not, each of these animated shorts address depraved human behavior.

The "Arty Broadcast" genre of animation was met by one nominee this year, Josh Raskin's I Met The Walrus. This short provides a visualization for a guerilla style interview between John Lennon and 14 year old Jerry Levitan in Toronto in 1969. Representing the oil-painting-come-to-life category, Alexander Petrov's My Love features the story of an annoying teenager and his two ill-fated crushes.

Aside from lacking a way to accurately compare the genres, this kind of decision-making inevitably privileges of one genre over another. Naturally, I can’t wait to see the scandal unfold this year if one of the puppet animations wins; will this signal an increased interest in puppets and computer animation? Is oil painting animation dead? What of arty broadcast design? Of course, if oil-painting animation was actually in question as a legitimate genre, nobody would look to My Love as evidence of life within it; I can’t remember the last time I involuntarily sighed so much through movie. With far too much visual noise and stylized paint handling, the sentimental aesthetic choices matched those within the narrative of the film. Never has the stupidity of a teenage boy “in love” been so painful to watch.

The problem presents itself in the design-friendly interview I Met The Walrus, which, while easily as strong as the puppet animations Peter & the Wolf and Madame Tutli-Putli, is entirely different in shape and feel. It may not seem like such a big deal that one film comprises a series of drawings while the other is largely based on a sculptural process defined by creating puppets and complex set designs. However, it is essentially the difference between working three-dimensionally and two-dimensionally. Of course, looking to the field of fine art for award categories and precedents on this subject will ultimately only result in frustration; one need only look to the Hugo Boss prize, whose nominees last year included artists working in performance art, video, installation and more, with winner Tacita Dean who utilitized a variety of mediums, including film, drawing photography and sound.

It may seem like a lot to ask of a long ceremony that already gives out a large number of awards to open this can of worms. On the other hand, working to create an equitable system in which professionals can compete among their peers might add some legitimacy to a process that has resulted in a number of highly questionable decisions made by the academy has made over the years. This isn't quite the same as Three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" claiming Best Original Song over a Dolly Parton tune and a ballad from Crash. These are technically qualitative differences beyond taste, and a revised competition would account for them.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art culture blog Art Fag City.

Posted at February 20, 2008 9:01 AM

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