Friday, September 12, 2008

Further comparison: Madame Tutli-Putli and Street of Crocodiles - Toward an understanding of poetic form


Some time ago (feb 21st to be exact) I felt compelled to start a thread at the SMA message board comparing and contrasting two great stopmotion films - the classic masterpiece Street of Crocodiles by the inimitable (but so often copied) Brothers Quay, and the fresh masterpiece of the Clyde Henry production company Madame Tutli-Putli. Here's the result if anyone's interested in reading a lengthy mess of a preliminary alnalysis:

"Surrealism versus narrative.... let's brainstorm"

It isn't necessary to read that in order to understand this post though (I hope you didn't just wade through the whole thing!) At that point I was vaguely aware of a certain difference between the two films that interested me. There's a certain similarity as well - otherwise I would never have felt the urge to compare them to understand the differences. But for some reason I felt like it was important for me to try to understand WHY they're different, and why to me Street of Crocodiles seems to work better structurally. There was a lot of misunderstanding on that thread, as there tends to be when I do these analyses. Most people don't seem to understand that an analysis isn't a blanket statement of whether you like a film or not... it's a detailed study of some particular part of it (in this case the structure). Comparison and contrast is a powerful tool to help gain insight into matters that would otherwise remain elusive, and when I say that Street seems to work better overall than MTP, it doesn't mean I"m condemning the film or that it sucks or anything... just that I don't feel the structure is coherent. So I state right here - I absolutely LOVE both films, and in spite of any esoteric problems with the structure of one of them, I have bought it in several forms (the original DVD, only available to Canadians, which was extremely difficult to get ahold of let me tell you, and then the iTunes version to have on my computer) as well as writing about it multiple times and lavishing it with praise - a lot more so than anyone else on the board has done. So please, I don't want to hear any whining here about "Hey you @$$hole... I LIKE that movie!" - please let's take off our emotional hats and put on the student hats for a while, ok? I like it too, but this comparison serves the valuable purpose of helping me to understand the underlying structure of poetic films. You have to tear something apart in order to understand it, and at least for me, this doesn't lessen its value - in fact it deepens it.

Ok, so to business then!!

My entire understanding of poetic film and poetic fiction has changed dramatically since I delved into Theatre of the Absurd. That's because, prior to that study, I knew almost nothing about it... just vague intuitions. Little did I realize how important that particular study would prove to be.... and it's not that I necessarily LIKE Theatre of the Absurd all that much... I don't care for most of the plays I've seen versions of, but I love the ideas behind it and in particular the essential study done by Martin Esslin in his book of the same name. It's this book that gave me the underpinnings of a greater comprehension of what poetic fiction is. Not that I completely understand it now... but I have a much better grasp than I did before. And in light of that greater understanding, I now have a more clear idea of what it is that bugs me about Madame Tutli-Putli's structure, and why I don't have the same reservations about Street of Crocodiles.

One of the major problems with MTP for me is the fact that, while it seems to be an attempt at poetic film, it comes across more as a mess of narrative fragments that don't add up to a whole. Now I know --- I just did a post about what I call Poetic Narrative, but here's the problem --- if you're going to do a narrative (poetic OR straightforward), then you need to address the concerns of narrative - IE wrap up loose ends and make sure everything fits. MTP starts one narrative thread, then just drops it and switches to a different one without resolving anything in the first thread. Characters are introduced elaborately, and when this is done you expect them to figure into the story in some way, but as soon as they're introduced they quite literally just disappear and we enter the second narrative thread. The first thread began with an elaborate shot of MTP's excessive baggage, which seems symbolic (baggage in the emotional sense). Possibly it's meant to be taken in that sense... in fact I'm pretty sure it is, but once that idea is introduced, it like the extraneous characters also just disappears. Whether you're doing straightforward narrative OR poetic film It seems to me if you introduce something (idea, character, theme, whatever) you should follow up on it... it should prove to be some part of the overall concept of the piece. Especially if that introduction is elaborate and drawn out, giving it great import in the eyes of the viewer. When a viewer has been really hit over the head with something it takes on special significance... and they'll keep thinking about it throughout the film trying to understand what part it plays. In my studies of film form, I learned that any image or sound that's repeated is what's known as a motif - and simply because it's repeated it takes on extra significance and becomes a powerful element that viewers feel they should know more about. This is true also of any element that is given particular attention by the filmmakers.

Imagine you're sitting in a bar and the guy next to you begins making elaborate, magicianlike gestures with his hands, pulls some object from his pocket, and says "hey buddy... check THIS out! Ever seen anything like it?" --- then he just puts it back in his pocket and walks out, leaving you wondering what all the fuss was. And it was nothing special... just maybe a rock or a bean or something. Frustrating because he set up powerful expectations and then failed to deliver on them. The Clyde Henrys do this repeatedly in their film.

The second narrative thread also introduces new characters, making them even more important than the more ordinary characters from thread one. We never find out who they are, what they're doing, or what part they play in the story (if there is one) or in the poetic image (if there is one).

So the lesson I've gained is.... it doesn't matter if your narrative is straightforward or poetic, if you use narrative at all in a film you must obey the laws of narrative. You can bend the hell out of them, distort them to no end, but you must obey them. if you introduce an idea... and especially if you favor it with extra significance, then FOLLOW UP ON IT. This applies really even if you're doing a poetic piece with no narrative. You still have to follow up on any ideas you introduce, especially if they're in boldface and flashing neon colors.

Finally, here's one of the major reasons MTP feels like narrative and not poetry --- it's a JOURNEY film. Not only does it take place on a train, but there's a distinct sense of beginning (MTP waiting for the train, boarding) middle (journey itself) and end (literally). Even if otherwise it was handled in a purely poetic fashion, this whole journey device is a staple of narrative. It gives narrative structure. It may be the biggest flaw, though the introduction of then unused characters and ideas comes in a close second.

Street of Crocodiles doesn't suffer from any of these problems because the overall structure is purely poetic. Not only is it not contained within a stereotypical narrative framework like a train journey, the entire thing takes place INSDE a small machine -- going nowhere. It's a frozen tableau, an idee fixe. And even the box, the housing in which the action takes place, is a mere representation of "The Zone", which is a stagnant part of an ancient city.... another sense of "going nowhere"... literally stagnating. There's no exhilarating forward rush of movement to relieve the fixed idea of the poetic image. Also the puppets don't represent real people - and in fact don't really represent people AT ALL except in the loosest most metaphorical sense. It's largely the sheer REALISM of MTP that works against it's being poetic. Another factor.... Street is a film framed within a film. The intro and closing take us to a different work=ld which seems metaphorical/symbolic. MTP is presented as a straight movie.

I don't think it's NECESSARY for a poetic film to take place in a static environment, but honestly I can't think of an Absurdist play set on anything like a moving train, or with a sense of the plot (or anything else) moving forward. Progress by it's very nature is narrative. I COULD see a poetic film set on a train, but in a very different manner.... possibly beginning and ending inside the oppressive train itself, never getting out into the fresh air, not seeing the passengers boarding or disembarking... only trapped inside playing out their static roles. This would be a microcosm -- train interior as small version of the world, representing the world of the character(s). I think the old fashioned notion of forward progress (for humankind and for individuals, evolution etc) has been pretty much obliterated by more modern thinking. And I"m not only referring to stagnancy as a metaphor for a depressing life. I don't think poetic fiction need necessarily be depressing. But it does seem to rely on a still setting. A Poetic Image sounds to me like a still image, or one with limited movement (ha! Imagine assembling an animated GIF!). I see narrative as a forward progression through a storyline, and poetry as the study of items arranged on a table like a still life or the pieces of a puzzle.

Ok, here's the part where I soothe any raw nerves I might have roughed up. In all honesty, I really do love Madame Tutli-Putli. I love many films in spite of any problems they may have and I don't know of any perfect movies. Even Street of Crocodiles, which comes pretty close for me, is incomprehensible and vague, but it does offer fascination that makes up for that. Good points in the favor of MTP -- some of the absolutely FINEST design, fabrication, and animation I've ever beheld bar NONE!!! Character animation like I've never seen before, brought to a completely new level, and not entirely just thanks to the innovative and breathtaking use of composited eyes (which is another fantastic feature of the film). My vast enjoyment of the film is only slightly disturbed by my vague sense of something wrong under the surface, a nagging hint that only revealed its nature under close scrutiny. I know from all my writing about "What's Wrong With Madame Tutli-Putli" it must seem like I hate it, but let me assure you that's the farthest thing from the truth. I only write so much about it in my efforts to understand, because I know it's these vague feelings that will lead me to my own way of filmmaking. It's these soft inner voices we MUST heed over all others... follow wherever they lead.

Ok, I"m done. Wow, is it just me, or did I get REALLY wordy on this one?!??!?! Sorry about that!

Further clarification of Poetic Fiction/Narrative


Ok guys, I know most of my readers would rather see exciting progress pics than read more of my blatherings about poetic fiction, but this is what's happening right now in the Realm of Darkstrider. I get on these obsessive kicks, and for a while my mind cogitates and broods over these concepts, slowly simmering the stew until it's done. And right now, this is what's cooking. I need to get it down before it slips away forever, and I'll share it with anyone who stops by. Hold out your bowl and wooden spoon, and I'll ladle some out.

I've been reading more Gene Wolf. Got 2 books - The Doctor of Death Island and 5th Head of Cerberus. Cerberus is by far the better book IMHO, consisting of 3 novellas that interlink together to tell a single sprawling story, each part being written by a different character. Island is a collection of short stories, of which I only really liked a couple. The ones I like are the ones that deal with his obsessive themes - the nature of humanity (explored through variations of cloning, mutation, artificial beings, robots, and various other false humans) - the elusiveness and kaleidoscopic nature of memory and its often surprising clarity, family drama in the vein of Shakespeare or Homer, and the difficulties and occasional joys of communication between people. I probably missed a few too.

These are the same themes explored by the Absurdist playwrights and by other great writers of the modern era. He also uses a sophisticated and unusual technique for telling his tales that reminds me of a particular strain of modern films... particularly the New Waves (French, German, Italian Neo Realism etc) and their American progeny like The French Connection, The Graduate etc. There's a certain terseness, cutting directly to the important parts and not over-explaining and smoothing things over for the slow students the way Hollywood films tend to do. In the films I mentioned, there are abrupt, almost shocking cuts from a slow silent scene to a noisy, fast moving one. Elision I believe is the word.... compressing elements together and extracting what's unnecessary. Trusting the viewer to be able to fill in the blanks, or better yet to follow the real storyline without needing extraneous details that they've become used to from so many lackluster films made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Personally I enjoy films that are just a bit challenging like this, though hopefully they actually do seem to make sense if you delve into them and don't just end up a hopelessly confused mess. Sometimes Wolfe's writing leaves me behind, but I always get the definite feeling that further work on my part would bring me up to speed. And that's something I also want to discuss here....

Reading more of Wolfe's stories helps to explain things you might have missed. Many of his short stories deal with issues that he later compiled (in different form) into the masterwork Long Sun series. 5th Head of Cerberus in particular, and the story Hero as Werwolf from Doctor of Death Island. The character from the central novella in 5th Head bears a close resemblance to Severian in fact. And the more of his stories I read, the more the mysteries begin to clear up. But not entirely yet, thank god! That mystery is a big part of the appeal of his work.

His fiction is what I call Poetic Narrative. I've spliced the two (normally exclusive) terms together to describe a type of story I'm drawn to. If you look at the block of white text just to the right, where my About Me section is supposed to be, it's Martin Esslin's extremely enlightening description of the way Theater of the Absurd works. Very different from the much more familiar narrative structure we see in 99% of Hollywood movies. Rather than arranging things in an easily comprehensible timeline and following a clear storyline, it presents pieces of the "poetic image", in no particular order, and it's the job of the viewer to put the puzzle together and try to figure it out. But there are stories that do something midway between the two, which I'm referring to as Poetic Narrative. These would include films like Mulholland Drive (and just about anything by Lynch), Paris Texas, and Marketa Lazarova. I could name more, but these are the examples that spring to mind (and the ones I keep using, I know). They use the elision as was done in the New Wave films, but unlike the more hardline Absurdist plays, there's still a narrative to follow. From what I know of Absurdist plays, the idea is to completely mix up the order and the logical flow of ideas, scramble them like puzzle pieces in the box that the viewer must then piece together in order to create the "poetic image". Only then does it make sense.

This kind of gamesmanship is obviously only for the hardcore viewers, who love to be challenged and don't care to be entertained. I don't class myself in that camp, and I want to make appealing films that at least 40% of the normal viewing audience would actually enjoy even if they don't fully "get it". I enjoy Wolfe's books, even though I know there are levels that fly right over my head. The way he writes them, you don't need to fully solve the puzzles to reap enjoyment, though that level is there if it's something you feel compelled to do.

I don't know if I've really said anything new here, I thought I had more. But at least I've clarified some of the ideas that have been whirling through my cranial cavity (and hey, I don't just write these things for you guys you know.... I might need to look in here later to remind myself of something!) I was also going to include my newly improved analysis of the differences between Street of Crocodiles and Madame Tutli-Putli, which has yielded much better results since my studies into Theatre of the Absurd, but that feels like a completely different topic that deserves it's own post, so I'll do it separately and make 2 posts right after each other (well, it might make up for so much down time on my blog lately... a bit of a bonus to my readers for their patience). See ya then! (though you probably read that post before this one, if you didn't completely miss this one thanks to my inconsistent posting habits! ... And if you did, then who am I talking to anyway??!!)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

John K - not a fan of his work, but he's a great teacher


Recently I've been edumacatin' myself about traditional cartooning concerns via John K's Stuff blog:


John K(ricfalusi) is the creator of Ren & Stimpy and other sick & twisted type cartoons. Not my cup of tea, but he's using his blog to educate a new generation of aspiring cartoonists from which he hopes tp recruit a stable of employees - and for that he uses examples from great cartoons of the past, both still and animated. And he reveals a vast wealth of knowledge about it. Pretty smart feller, he is!

The link is for all his posts about composition, which are the ones I've been absorbing. Exciting stuff for sure, and it makes me almost want to give up stopmo and turn to cartooning, which is the purest form of animation. Most of these principles can be applied only loosely to stopmo (unless you were to design a new set for each shot, or work out some way to substitute new elements each time you move the camera). There's a lot more latitude in drawing... you're not bound by reality as much as when you have to make things in 3 dimensions. But just being aware of these design principles can help you lay out your sets and work out a style for everything. It can also help you break out of boring visual styles (or lack of style).

In related news, I have finally managed to get a printer/scanner that actually works with my computer, so work on my film will be able to resume.