Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" I always wanted to be a criminal I guess. Not this big a one. "
— Martin Sheen, Badlands

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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If you could own only one animation in your DVD collection, I don’t know that of the Dark would be the one, but if you do have a collection of animation, it won’t be complete without it. Six graphic artists have been brought together by Artistic Director Etienne Robial to create six outré animated stories as diverse as their drawing styles. This is an experiment gone horribly right.

Robial is a cofounder of the French bookstore/comic publishing house Futuropolis and if I read the garbled Google translation correctly, may have designed the logo for metal Hurlant,the original French version of Heavy metal. If he is also the guiding light behind the concept and quality of Fear[s] and the person who decided that the whole film be done in black and white, then hats off to him.

Fear[s] is cleverly presented as a whole film (rather than simply as an anthology) with some of the pieces serially fragmented between the other works. One of the interspersed animations is Pierre di Sciullo’s design-heavy abstractions of things people fear. This may look at first blush to be as gimmicky as a rubber clog until you try wearing it and then it makes sense. Geometric black and white shapes move and morph on the screen while a woman recites things that she fears. I found that each geometric shape visually agrees with the narration.

“I fear becoming bourgeois. I fear going to Asia (too many bugs ), I fear going to America (too much crime).” Most of the “fears” are petty and a laundry list of minor weaknesses. Seen all at once it might be a bit mind numbing but sprinkled throughout the film, it’s a fine seasoning. Those French do know how to cook.

French illustrator Blutch’s contribution also acts as a bumper for the other works. Fear[s] opens with the first segment of his piece. It is an episodic parable of Death (or perhaps War) personified as an 18th Century be-wigged man in short breeches and tricorn leading a pack of large vicious dogs. This segment is done as an animated pencil drawing reminiscent of Bill Plympton’s work or any number of Academy Award for Animation nominees. The story on the other hand is anything but typical. Blutch’s vision is perhaps the darkest of Fear[s]. You may think you know what Death will do with the last dog, but I’ll bet you’d be wrong.

Next up and perhaps at the heart of Fear[s] is the contribution of the American Charles Burns. An socially inept young man has a passion for collecting creepy things and putting them in jars. Unfortunately for him one of his bizarre pets gets out. Like Burn’s drawings, the little critter will get under your skin.

Burn's style has always been an elaborate play upon a hackneyed ink brush technique
Burn’s style has always been an elaborate play upon a hackneyed ink brush technique

Burn’s style has always been an elaborate play upon a hackneyed ink brush technique for shading in which repeated strokes taper to sharp points. But Burns’ drawings are anything but ordinary and his sharp eye for design and ironic mind have produced work that is some of the best around. His imagery is dark and filled with a melancholy particular to the unexceptional and ordinary.

Because of its black and white flat graphic nature, you might think that Burns’ work would be the least likely kind of illustration to be done as an animation let alone a computer generated 3D animation. The realization of Burns’ style in Fear[s] is terrific. I might be tempted to say that the Burns piece alone is worth the price of admission but that would slight the rest of the anthology.

Marie Caillou illustrates a story by Romain Slocombe that is done mainly with 2D computer graphics. Done in the style of a J-Horror ghost story it involves a frightened girl, a creepy doctor, a dead samurai and bullying school children. The French have always been fans of Japanese art and here Caillou shows them how to do Anime and at the same time tips her hat to Japanese film masters like Ozu. No real surprise in the bloody ending, but it is a clever and well done exercise in the form.

Lorenzo Mattotti’ story is a more traditional animation with an Italianate flavor. The narrator tells of a strange thing that happened to him as a young boy one summer while living with his aunt and uncle in the country. The locals suspect there is a monster loose in the nearby swamp. And they are right. It loses a little of its horror head of steam in the comic appearance of the village gamekeeper and then drifts into the land of Peter and the Wolf. There’s an attempt to inject a final note of mystery at the end (which succeeds) but the piece is still hampered by the humor muddle.

Lastly Richard McGuire’s stark exercise in black and white of a man trapped in a haunted house is a knockout. It’s like film noir on steroids and I believe it wouldn’t have been possible without the aid of the computer. That should in no way be taken as a criticism as the computer has been used here as a tool and not a crutch. If Alfred Hitchock had made an animation for Fear[s] , it might have looked like this and it shows that there can be a grim humor and a grim story at the same time.

The economy of line and nonverbal narration is a real treat. In one sequence The Man, who has broken into the empty house to escape a snowstorm, flips through an old photo album. We learn the history of the house and it’s former occupants and we get the set-up for the ghost story all in a sequence of old photographs. Like the Burns piece, it is done entirely in black and white but in this case it’s mainly 2D computer animation.

Fear[s] of the Dark is probably too visually enjoyable to be disturbing, and if it’s goal was to be simply horrific, then it’s failed. To be sure, the tone is definitely dark and moody. But I think the real purpose was to showcase and expand upon a the graphic talents of a group of exceptional artists and in that sense it has succeeded and then some. This one is worth watching.

DVD Extras

There are three in total. First up: a look at an exhibition tour of Fear[s] artwork with comments by Etiennne Robial. Also included is a diaporama [their word for a video slide show; think “what Ken Burns does” — Ed.] “From Drawing to Film” It’s a very educational piece showing what goes on behind the animation and what went into the realization of film... don’t miss it.

There are also the winners from an online contest for home-made Fear[s] of the Dark animations.

Picture and Sound

Picture and sound are very good; they survive the transition to DVD very well.

How to Use This DVD

Watch it! It’s a great insight into what can be done with animation. And it’s entertaining too!