Thursday, March 19, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Flutter

Films like Howie Shia’s Flutter remind me of what makes animation so attractive a medium—a distinctive artistic style put into motion in order to tell a tale primarily in images, albeit aided by music, sound effects, and the occasional sub-linguistic noise. This is prime visual storytelling, and is that not the essence of all good filmmaking?

The film takes off from a single striking image: a boy with paper wings glued to his sneakers. The boy lines up for a schoolyard race, jumps the gun, and then leaps the fence, heading out of the schoolyard as his baffled teacher helplessly blows the whistle and his classmates watch in confusion. He runs and runs—through the urban landscape, leaping over cars and buildings, into the countryside, racing through wheat fields and alongside buffalo—until he reaches a vast body of water. With the stars reflecting in the water, the night sky and the ocean seem indistinguishable from each other. So the boy simply keeps running, across the water and into the sky.

At the same time, a friend of the boy—a female classmate—takes inspiration from his escape and spray paints a huge mythological mural on the side of a building in the city before being chased away by a resident of the place. The boy’s act of rebellion inspires the girl to her own defiant act of creativity, one great deed inspiring another.

Shia’s animation style is fluid and simple—perfect for capturing the more pronounced movements of his characters as well as their more subtle expressions. The film is primarily in black and white, except for flashes of red when the boy cuts himself as he runs through the wheat field. The backgrounds are dark, imposing shapes that bring into relief the figures, which are drawn with a clean line, turning them into little pools of white space that attract the eye in the threatening urban landscape.

True, this is a modest film. Its goal is simply to celebrate creativity and rebellion with the energy and imagination such themes deserve. But even a modest animated short can attain some powerful effects that are beyond the capabilities of live-action filmmaking simply through the sheer expressiveness of its line or the shifting moods of its different shades of grey. Consider this quote from Rudolf Arnheim, who wrote in his book Film as Art, “I would venture to predict that the film will be able to reach the heights of the other arts only when it frees itself from the bonds of photographic reproduction and becomes a pure work of man, namely, as animated cartoon or painting.” Arnheim, an old-guard theorist writing during the transition into sound in the 1930s, essentially argued that film was an art inasmuch as it diverged from reality. The artistry of the medium lay in its manipulations of reality, not its photographic reproduction thereof. Colour, dialogue—these were the problems, not the solutions.

This stance might sound a bit perverse to audiences today, but considering the limitations of early sound films, which felt comparatively shackled next to the sublime gracefulness of the late, great silents, it’s an understandable if ultimately futile argument. Time marches on, and once people start talking it’s a bit hard to shut them up.

I bring all of this up not because I want to subject this humble animated short to some sort of lofty theoretical analysis—god forbid I should be so cruel to any film, never mind one as charming and beautiful as Flutter—but rather because I want to celebrate its nimble visual storytelling. Animation is really the last bastion of this type of filmmaking where everything can be expressed without words and no one will bat an eye. Film as a medium is at its most distinguished when conveying ideas and emotions through images—that much better to say things that are beyond words. If dialogue driven films most closely resemble novels, then visually driven films most closely resemble music. Sing it, Shia, sing it!

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