Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Maria Lassnig: Animation Films

[This is the start of a new series here, where I'll be exploring the work of the Austrian DVD label Index DVD. This company has released a great deal of valuable European experimental cinema onto DVD, naturally focusing on the Austrian underground but occasionally branching out as well. Index's DVDs are distributed in the US by Erstwhile Records, so anyone intrigued by Index's catalog should take a look and support the fine work both these companies are doing for obscure and avant-garde cinema. The review below focuses on a sampling of the nine films included on Index's Maria Lassnig DVD.]
Maria Lassnig was trained as a fine artist, but throughout the 70s, during a stay in New York, far from her native Vienna, she made a series of rough, nearly childlike animations in short film form, exploring ideas of sexuality and male/female relationships through her loose, jittery, continually shifting and reforming animated figures. Her work from this period varies from crude and simplistic to visually stimulating and inventive, covering a pretty broad territory in just a few shorts.

Her first completed film was 1971's Iris, and it's undoubtedly one of her best, a briskly moving and restlessly inventive film in which she subjects the female form to a series of outlandish distortions and reinventions, alternately erotic and nightmarish. A naked woman lounges on a bed, and Lassnig's camera crawls across her body as though exploring an alien surface, settling into the crevices and protrusions created by her voluptuous model's form as she twists and turns around on the bed. On the walls behind her, a reflective surface creates funhouse mirror distortions of the woman's body, and these reflections increasingly become the focus of the film. Lassnig dives into this twisted mirror world, where the woman is whittled down to a cubist abstraction, disjointed and sharply angled, or expanded into a blob-like waterfall of flesh. These abstractions, occasionally resolving into familiar facial features or body parts, are by turns beautiful and horrifying — sometimes crystalline and delicate, glistening like the water in a lake at sunset, at other times turning hard and dark, creating globular mounds of flesh that seem to be hungrily devouring each other, flesh turning parasitic on itself.

This is what Lassnig is exploring here, in fact: flesh. It's a film about the skin, about the physical reality of the body, and against that the transience and malleability of images of the body. The body itself continually edges back into the frame, stretched out on the bed, languid and corporeal, natural and somehow graceful, set off against the fractal patterns on the wall. Even the soundtrack suggests the body, with mouth squeaks and chirps and laughs creating loose rhythms, a kind of quirky, light-hearted analogue to the more disturbing bodily confrontations of the Vienna Aktionists, working at roughly the same time back in Lassnig's homeland. Lassnig shares their interest in the body, in bodily processes, but from a very different perspective. Whereas the Aktionists reveled in confrontation and abjection, Lassnig undeniably sees beauty and grace in the physicality of the body, in its weight and heft, its folds and curves. That's why the abstractions her camera carves, with light and refraction, are equal parts disturbing, moving and erotic. It's a fascinating film, fluidly managing these contradictions to create a powerful and unified whole.

Although Iris is a rather uncharacteristic work that's wholly filmed, Chairs is more in the form of the rough animation that is Lassnig's primary means of expression. This brief 2-minute short consists mostly of crudely animated chairs (no surprise there), though Lassnig manages to give these drawings a weird kind of life, almost as though she's translating her fascination with the human body into these inanimate objects. Her drawing style is extremely rough, using pencil and felt-tip marker, and there's little attempt to disguise the transitions from one cell to the next. The result is a rough flipbook effect, with Lassnig cycling through various permutations, transforming these chairs so that they seem to breath and vibrate, pulsating with hidden life. There's something almost obscene about Lassnig's chairs, a darkness and ugliness in her mutations.

It's obvious that Lassnig's crude animation here is an extension of her work in Iris, another very different perspective on questions of sexuality and the erotic. And yet, despite the unsettling qualities of Lassnig's vision, this film, and most of her others, always retain a sense of play, of not taking anything too seriously. This is basically just a brief sketch, a series of charming visual non sequiturs as Lassnig cycles through some of her absurd chair designs, then ends with a filmed shot of a woman in a gas mask sitting in a chair. The whole thing is set to a tinkly piano score reminiscent of a silent movie soundtrack, and there's definitely more than a hint of the surreal and the nonsensical to this work. Coupled with the child's coloring book aesthetics of Lassnig's drawings, it gives the impression of a rough sketchbook diary being aired in public.

This impression is more prominent on the even sketchier and cruder Selfportrait, in which Lassnig narrates, in a dry, deadpan tone, the story of her struggles with love and relationships. As that description probably suggests, it all has the potential to be a bit unbearable; Lassnig's work, at its worst, frequently tips over into confessional diary ranting and trite "insights" into contemporary relationships between men and women. Frequently, when her voice or texts intrude into these films, she has a tendency to say things flatly and in conventional, overly familiar language — psychobabble, regurgitated feminist propagandizing — rather than allowing her images to stand on their own. The strength of a film like Iris is its ambiguity, its openness to multiple readings about sexuality and the female form and its representation. There is no openness, no ambiguity in Selfportrait or the slogan-laden animations that follow it in Lassnig's oeuvre.

It's unfortunate, because despite her tendency to proselytize about feminist ideologies and her troubles with men, Lassnig's visual sense remains engaging in this film. Her aesthetic is simple: the film consists mostly of a roughly sketched portrait of her face, crudely animated so that as she talks, the lips chatter away no matter what she's actually saying, and her features move slightly but expressively. It's simple, but not simplistic, and she has a healthy sense of surrealism to enliven her drawings, as when she draws herself with wild distortions to her face — like a camera convincingly assembling itself over her features — or creates dreamlike effects, like her body disintegrating into grains of sand and blowing away with the wind. This restless creativity, and the amateurish enthusiasm of her drawings (a precursor to modern avant comic artists like C.F. or Frank Santoro), carries her films even when her intrusions get in the way.

Lassnig doesn't provide a voiceover for Shapes, but in this case the material itself just isn't that strong. Here she's animating cutout figures of male and female forms, spraypainted in various multi-colored patterns that rapidly change as she switches from one image to the next or overlaps multiple exposures. The figures sometimes seem to be dancing, but more often simply stutter in place, changing positions and colors and rotating around, but doing little else. It's another exploration of form and the body, but without an actual physical form on which to rest this inquiry, Lassnig's ideas here seem rather bloodless. It's ironic, but for an animator and painter, she often seems to be more comfortable — and to craft more powerful images — when she's not working exclusively with her own drawings.

She proves the point here with an exquisite section towards the middle of the film where she expands upon the simple animated cutout figures. Instead of animating flat drawings, she affixes several of her cutouts to the outer rim of a glass filled with water, then photographs the glass in extreme closeup as she turns it slowly around. The effect is startling, especially juxtaposed against the more prosaic animated spraypaint that characterizes the rest of the film. This short segment has weight and an ethereal beauty, the black outline figures drifting by the camera as though on a merry-go-round, while behind them the surface of the water vibrates and water droplets shine on the inside of the glass. The textures, the playing with light and form, are reminiscent of a slower-paced Stan Brakhage, and it's a disappointment when Lassnig returns to her two-dimensional forms. There are moments like this in her oeuvre when one regrets that she was not more committed to film as a form, that she didn't experiment more outside of her animations.

Of course, Lassnig's most recent film, made long after her 70s animation experiments, in 1992, is exactly such a departure. It's a bizarre, whimsical film, made with the help of co-director Hubert Sielecki, called Maria Lassnig Kantate. In this film, Lassnig blends together her signature animations with her own digitally inserted image, dressed in a variety of increasingly wild costumes and speak-singing the story of her life from early childhood to old age. It's a silly conceit, something like a children's storybook, demonstrating that Lassnig still has the playfulness and free-spiritedness of her youth. It's a bizarre pastiche, with its rough animation, even rougher digital effects, and Lassnig's flat, atonal voice delivering an awkward ballad atop a bed of Sielecki's wheezing barrel-organ. It shouldn't work, and yet somehow it does.

The initial few verses of the song are a kind of adjustment period, entering into this weird aesthetic, which calls to mind the goofier extremes of Polish animator and digital effect pioneer Zbigniew Rybczynski. But once one surrenders oneself to Lassnig's silly style, and her shameless singing, this film reveals itself as one of her most fun and light-hearted offerings. Her sheer exuberance is hard to resist, especially during the tour de force montage signaling her journey to America, during which, in front of an animation of the Statue of Liberty raising her skirts, Lassnig dons an Indian headdress, a tasseled cowboy outfit, a noir tough guy's trenchcoat and fedora, and most outrageously, a full punk rocker get-up, with leather jacket, black eyeliner and black lipstick. It's absurd, and goofy, and so much fun: Lassnig was in her 70s when she made the film, but her sense of humor and play remains youthful and irrepressible. She's not afraid to act like a fool and just do something for its own sake.

It's this attitude that shows through in all her films, which give the impression that they're simply unmediated outpourings from her psyche. No animation can really be as direct as that — even Lassnig's unpretentious style must require many hours of painstaking labor for each animated sequence — but Lassnig seems to work hard at maintaining this unstudied, improvisatory quality in her work, as though she's simply goofing around, having fun. Thankfully, she usually invites her audience to have fun with her, and her quirky, inventive and sui generis body of work is well worth exploring.

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