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Offbeat movies: clay and dreamlike logic

By David Sterritt / May 6, 1987



New York

I have no special affection for clay, so I wasn't predisposed to like the Claymation cartooning process - which uses clay instead of drawings - when it came along a few seasons ago. But it wasn't long before the witty and colorful approach of Claymation director Will Vinton started to win me over. My good opinion was confirmed when ``The Adventures of Mark Twain,'' a full-length Claymation epic, proved to be last year's most intelligently conceived and emotionally complex animated feature - easily beating such conventional cartoons as ``The Great Mouse Detective'' from Disney and ``An American Tail'' from Spielberg.

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Vinton and his cronies have now decided that their oeuvre is large and varied enough to merit a retrospective. Their newest offering is ``The Festival of Claymation,'' made up of several whimsies produced over the past few years. Some are fairly short. Others are very short. Too many, however, are not short enough.

As ingratiating as the Claymation process is, and as clever as Vinton has been in dreaming up subjects and stories that suit the technique, it's hard to swallow a steady diet of characters and settings all molded from the same squishy substance. Many items in ``The Festival of Claymation,'' such as the TV commercials that have become Vinton's most widely seen works, are minor confections even by movie-cartoon standards.

The festival only runs about 90 minutes. But that seems like a mighty long time when everything in sight is made of clay, and when the screenplay rarely reaches the storytelling heights that distinguished the ``Mark Twain'' movie. The compilation also underlines Vinton's tendency to revisit fertile territory (such as creation-of-the-world tales) that he has already explored.

There are some amusing moments involving a couple of film-critic dinosaurs, among other characters. But this festival wears thin long before it's over.

Moving a light-year farther away from traditional Disney-style animation, one comes to the films of the Brothers Quay, two Americans who have lived and worked in London for many years. Four of their dark, proudly eccentric cartoons recently had their American theatrical premi`ere at the Film Forum in New York.

In collaboration with Keith Griffiths, a producer and director, the Brothers Quay have turned out a number of ambitious works under the auspices of Atelier Koninck, their production company. The latest (and their first in 35-mm) is ``Street of Crocodiles,'' a surrealistic exercise that sums up the key aspects of their style: bizarre imagery, a brooding atmosphere, and an off-kilter narrative style that's both haunting and unsettling.

``Street of Crocodiles'' borrows its themes from Bruno Schulz, a gifted Polish author whose writing bears a striking resemblance to Franz Kafka's work. (A translation of ``The Trial'' and a tale in the vein of ``The Metamorphosis'' are among the few works he completed before his death at Nazi hands in 1942.)

Schulz is a fertile source of inspiration for the Brothers Quay, who share his inclination toward the dauntingly dreamlike. Less interested in telling stories than in suggesting moods and half-realized meanings, they have faithfully turned his ``Street of Crocodiles'' into a stream of unpredictable images with a delirious logic all their own.

I respect the Brothers Quay for following such a distinctive path in ``Street of Crocodiles'' and in such earlier works as ``The Epic of Gilgamesh,'' the musical ``Leos Janacek: Intimate Excursions,'' and ``The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer,'' perhaps their most memorable accomplishment.

I can't share all the enthusiasm that some critics have expressed over their work, however. For all their imaginative power, I find their films cluttered in style, crabbed in tone, and stingy in their grudging use of movement and color. In the movie-as-dreamworld genre, I prefer the generous hallucinations of a Suzan Pitt or the quirky fabrications of a Harry Smith.

The Brothers Quay are promising talents, but they have yet to learn that eccentricity is not a synonym for profundity.