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Cosmonauts of Sorrow and Nostalgia: Annecy’s Postmodern Meditations on the Past

Highlights from the animation festival celebrate the materiality of animation while reflecting on stories of repression and liberation.
Jennifer Lynde Barker
Above: The Nose or Conspiracy of Mavericks
The Annecy International Animation film festival—one of the oldest and most important animation festivals in the world—took place online this year, as many other festivals have during the pandemic. Overall the online version of the festival was strong, though it postponed a sidebar on African animation until next summer. But one clear misstep was the presentation of a number of feature films in the competition only as short extracts, or worse, promotions. While this did not diminish the overall quality of the festival’s range of movies, it was certainly dismissive of the audience, especially in the case of the film awarded the Cristal: Calamity, a Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary, directed by Rémi Chayé. That a film only accessible to the jury won the festival’s highest award is problematic. The decision to wait to release the film in theaters is fine, though it betrays an attachment to a world that has momentarily disappeared, but then one cannot say the film was really part of the festival. However, having not seen the film, I cannot speak to its merits, except to say that it appears to be a revisionary tale of girl power in the American West.
Despite this less-than-ideal format, the festival nonetheless provided a cornucopia of animated styles and stories. And while there were exceptional movies from a variety of countries around the globe, a number of them—outstanding short and feature films from Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Baltic—brought the past to life with richly layered personal memories and political fables. In particular, The Nose or Conspiracy of Mavericks, My Favorite War, The Physics of Sorrow, Kill It and Leave This Town, and Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus created intricate and painstakingly crafted animated universes whose struggles with histories of repression offer deep insights into contemporary problems. These movies excavate key moments, episodes, protests, and turning points from the twentieth century (in particular the Soviet era) and present them as a collage between past and present that illuminates both. This postmodern take on history and representation also makes it clear how central art is to human experience, meaning, and survival.
Chief among the postmodern political fables, The Nose or Conspiracy of Mavericks, by Russian legend Andrey Khrzhanovsky, explores the relationship between art and politics during the 1930s, juxtaposing it visually and thematically with the 1830s and the present. The film, which won the Jury Award, begins in an airplane heading west, between and beyond nations, filled with film and theater luminaries watching a variety of exceptional movies that sadly, one seldom sees on in-flight entertainment. In this idealized space, a conversation about Gogol’s story “The Nose” (1836) sets up an animated version of Shostakovich’s opera of the same name. First performed in 1930, this brilliant opera represents a tradition of modernist art that is confrontational, uncomfortable, shocking, a mixture of high and low art—a “cacophony” as Stalin calls it in the film—and which, like all great art, demands a keen audience. This masterpiece from Khrzhanovsky, whose career spans five decades, is a postmodern antifascist tour-de-force of Russian and Soviet history—artistic, political, filmic, and literary. Confrontational and cacophonous like the opera it animates, it pays homage to the mavericks of a modernist avant-garde who were obliterated and repressed in the horrors of the Great Purge of 1936-1938.
With its use of multiple stories, collage, and historical pastiche, the film presents a postmodernism that deconstructs and undermines the Stalinism of the period. Using a mixture of animation styles, including cutouts, drawings, photographs, and film clips, The Nose focuses on three “dreams” of history: the production and presentation of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose in 1930, a whimsical story about Stalin and Bulgakov that ends with Stalin viewing the opera, and the indictment of artistic formalism amidst the Great Purge. The creators are also characters in the films—Shostakovich, Gogol, Eisenstein, and others also watch the proceedings. Inter-textual jokes abound, as when Eisenstein finds inspiration for the Battleship Potempkin staircase sequence from the Nose’s carriage. Such disjunctions contrast with repetitive and derivative Soviet realism, which must be popular, Caucasian, and above all, authentic, a chorus of gas masks and statues inform us. The movie not only pits formalism against realism, it emphasizes the act of looking as an essential activity. Audiences are central to the film—and deciding whether one is a voyeur or an involved observer becomes a key question. Much like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), and in fact many antifascist works, The Nose moves from satire to sincerity, and makes a clear appeal to the audience about the atrocities practiced during the Great Purge. A series of photographs of those who were persecuted begins with individual faces and pulls back, and back, to reveal the horrifying number of people murdered or censored. Yet, after that comes a hopeful image: airplanes named for the artists flying through the cosmos, suggesting that art can be safe from those who try to extinguish it, in a place that is eternal.
Above: My Favorite War
Ilze Burkovska Jacobsen’s animated documentary My Favorite War, winner of the Contrechamp Award, features a similar engagement with the past, but tells the director’s personal story set in Latvia during the Soviet years. Like most of the films in this report, My Favorite War took years to produce, and features an impressive layering of styles, including drawings, cutouts, documentary, and vintage film clips. The simplicity of the cutouts embodies a child’s perspective well, but the story also navigates between perspectives and experiences in a sophisticated way. Filling in our understanding of the period with such gems as glimpses of the cult Polish TV show Four Tank-Men and a Dog—these fragments of reality give life to the memories she recalls. As the story moves forward, and the skeletons literally surface in the landscape, Ilze (the child) begins to distinguish between propaganda and reality, refusing to let her emotions be manipulated to benefit the State. What follows is a moment in her youth when she begins to make choices that reflect more than self-preservation—literally and symbolically a decision to refuse to target others as enemies with a gun in her hands. This film is art as protest, and it makes a stand against dictatorships, but with a human dimension that sees beyond the surface of things, and doesn’t offer easy answers about who people are, and how they can make their voices heard and effect change.
Above: The Physics of Sorrow
The Physics of Sorrow, which won the Cristal for best short film, also navigates the paths of personal and political history. Directed and animated by Theodore Ushev, it was based on the book by Georgi Gospodinov (both men were born in Bulgaria in 1968). Meticulously animated over the course of eight years using encaustic painting—a complex process involving melted beeswax and color pigmentation—the film is an incredible work perfectly suited to charting how memory and melancholy exchange energies with each other. Ushev is the first to adapt this difficult process into animation, and in that sense his work feels like the time capsule he is so entranced by in the film: we see an ancient form of art emerge in modern technology just as mythology underscores the story of a young man growing up during Soviet rule. Identifying with both Theseus and the Minotaur, the narrator is simultaneously trapped within the labyrinth yet able to escape it. This paradox surfaces in other aspects of the film, and represents well the nature of human progress: we first destroy, then yearn for our own cultural detritus. This is why—as in The Nose—the safest space for the narrator is in the air, between nations, momentarily freed from the intense labor of living.
Kaspar Jancis’s beautifully drawn short film Cosmonaut also peers into a past from an indifferent present. The old Estonian cosmonaut of the title inhabits a small apartment dedicated to a past that has disappeared except in memory. Within the confines of the carefully preserved objects he surrounds himself with, including a bust of Juri Gargarin, he attempts to recreate his glory days. Even household objects seem designed to catapult him into space—a fish bowl serves as a helmet as he dreams his way back. But the new world does not want to understand the old, and in the end he is thrown out with the other furniture of a lost universe that seems embarrassing and outré. The film begins and ends in the stars, recalling the idea of cosmos underscoring space exploration—at its worst it can foster imperial fantasy, but at best, it embodies a love for discovering difference and connecting with others.
Above: Kill It and Leave This Town
Another Estonian film focuses on old versus new ways of relating. The madcap, bizarre, and highly scatological The Old Man: The Movie is a delirious puppet romp through generational and cultural conflict in the Estonian countryside. Directors Mikk Mägi and Oskar Lehemaa frame their film with a nostalgic 16mm propaganda newsreel entitled “Milk is Our Responsibility,” which clarifies the old-school milking responsibilities of a nation, before sending three bored city kids with their cantankerous grandfather on one of the most unexpected road trips I’ve ever seen. Kill It and Leave This Town, which received the Jury Distinction, also embraces the grotesque as a stylistic choice for probing memories from Poland during the Soviet years. Mariusz Wilczynski’s surreal film starts at the beginning of cinema, opening from darkness onto a small light burning, before revealing a man with a cigarette—an image torn from the first decade of animation, when stories were told using only ink and paper—lots of paper—by keeping the image simple and direct. Using cutouts as well, the film creates a stripped-down, dreary and often grotesque landscape lit only by the occasional neon sign floating like a beacon of promise. The drawings move and morph as memories do, and the animated world shows its seams just as the psyche of the animator does, while he struggles to portray and interpret his past.
Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus was directed, written, animated, scored, and edited by Dalibor Baric. This brainy and transcendent film from Croatia broadcasts its disinterest in pandering to audiences with its audacious title and doesn’t let up for the duration of its 80 complex and riveting minutes. The visuals are experimental: a mix of collage, rotoscoping, graphic design, abstraction, various filters, and found footage, including the classics Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) and City of Bees (1962). Bees are a presence and metaphor in the film, as are apples, jellyfish and others. Like many of the images in the film, there is an interesting overlap: is it beekeepers or cosmonauts we see lurking in some of the scenes? Is this a film about the countryside or the cosmos? Both, of course, and much more. The film is composed of multiple narratives whose voiceovers give way to each other while the visual field is a constant collage of image types. Many of the images harken from the past but the feel of the film is futuristic. The excavation of images from a distant and recent past in the context of the existential noir and apocalyptic dread the film creates suggest a kind of time travel familiar from La jetée (1963). Twice in the film we hear that the world will become a lonely place, and right now it certainly feels that way. Thus the movie erases a normal sense of past, present, and future, which is perhaps the real basis for time travel.
Above: Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus
Included in the found footage and images in the film there are many from the 1940s and 1960s, often militaristic, which suggest the abuse of power, although the film is not overtly political. Capitalists, ruthless organizations, and the state apparatus are mentioned, but the film works more as a collection of cultural detritus, unsolved mysteries, and a strong sense of future loss. It begins with a woman saying, “I think I have to tell you my story,” but the story is anything but narrative, rather it is told through surreal juxtapositions, associative logic, and stream-of-consciousness with depth and humor. Poetry—a form of literature all too often ignored in film—lends its strange magic to the proceedings, which reach us like “strange teardrops from a different universe” as the film announces. For example: one image tracks a fisheye lens overhead shot of a barren forest while smaller images overlay it—abstractions of people watching a film, driving, a worm slowly extending, clouds, scratched celluloid, jellyfish. We hear “A sandwich that eats its childhood in the shade of poplar” and see a human head covered in bees. Yes. This is how it should be!
Among other things, Accidental Luxuriance is a self-referential movie about a man who watches movies, and more so, loves watching movies. One feels immersed in the “archive of the unconscious mind” in this film in the best possible way. While he jokes that no one will still be in the theater by the end of the film, this work is an homage to the potential of film form to record, preserve, pervert, and transcend the process of representation. After watching the film (twice) I felt like one of the narrators, who grumbled: “The outlines of the nearby mountains reminded me of a poor reproduction of Rembrandt. Nature has not yet reached the level of realism of Flemish painting.” Reshaping one’s perception of the world, even momentarily, is always one of the best outcomes of an animated film.
Above: Freeze Frame
While they differ from the previous films thematically, there are several short films worth mentioning that also engage with animation history while providing an interesting distortion of the world in the form of frozen time, particle dust, movement, line, and color. With a focus on the artistry of the material world that circumvents the current obsession with creating virtual realities, these films transform basic elements of expression into elegance and grace. Betina Kuntzsch’s meta-film Snow Dust breaks celluloid and image down into particles of snow or dust, utilizing early cinema technology—a magic lantern—to project, pixilate, and decompose the fragile image. Figures skate and sled in a repetitive loop that slowly wears down into color abstractions, fragments, snow, and dust as there is a granular dissolution of celluloid into particle, or pixel. At times the image looks like stars against a black sky, a cosmos that speaks to absence and fragmentation, a breaking down of meaning that also encompasses a universe.
Another meta-film, Soetkin Verstegen’s Freeze Frame, which won a Jury Distinction, is a beautifully crafted stop motion piece that evokes the beginnings of film both in its scientific subjects and the stark images of ice that appear as frames of light in a black space. The fragility of film is mirrored here as well by the figures in ice, so exquisite and ephemeral. Natalia Durszewicz’s Portrait of a Woman, painted on glass, moves forward at times like a river of color. The lush images are set to a poem by famous Polish poet Wislawy Szymborskiej, and the animated style captures well the impossibly fluid nature of being a woman. 10,000 Ugly Inkblots, directed by Dmitry Geller and animated by his students at Jilin Animation Institute, pays homage to ink wash painter and calligrapher Zhu Da and Chinese landscape artist Shitao. Brush strokes, lines and blots bloom from abstraction into representative meaning, as the basic elements of drawn animation fashion a metaphorical journey for the two artists.
Above: Only the Seas Live Forever
Finally, David Ehrlich’s Only the Seas Live Forever, with music by Tszo Chen Guan, recalls work by Walter Ruttman and other visual music animation from the 1920s, with soft shapes and colors providing a gorgeous meditation on the constant motion of the sea. Just as watching the ocean waves can both calm and excite the senses, the simple shapes and movements of this film bring joy. The colors alone make the film worth watching, as they create a radiance—achieved by shooting through several layers of tracing paper—that displays animation as a transcendent art. Although these short films do not engage with the complex historical and political realities or personal narratives of the longer films, they similarly reveal how animated films, and art in general, can become cosmonauts of sorrow and nostalgia, whose aesthetic universes utterly transform our understanding of the world.
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