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" Every one of you, listening to my voice, tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere keep looking, keep watching the skies. "
— Douglas Spencer, The Thing from Another World

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Sin City

There's still a lack of honesty in Sin City —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

Dawson and Owen save Sin City from the cops

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Somewhere within the Big Diagram of Film History there is a line drawn from Windsor McKay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), that rises up through Disney’s Fantasia (1940), and arrives at today’s Bowjack Horseman. Peppered below Gertie are a variety of random cases of proto-animation all starred with asterisks (*close but no movie cigar). Gertie marks the point at which the figure on the screen not only moves but tells a story. In Fantasia’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence , the tour de force of the animation art itself is the star of the show. Bowjack gets a nod from me because it’s the most engaging animation I’ve seen currently, dumbing down the graphic art in the modern manner but going beyond the Simpsons in its writing. So, in a way, Bowjack is the culmination of animation art... or sure sign of its demise, your choice.


Closer to the Gertie-end of this animation timeline is Lotte Reinger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), which is credited with being the first feature length animated film. Whereas McKay and other early animators were content to simply make the inanimate move, Reinger goes full-tilt into an extended narrative. Any animation is a time consuming effort requiring the patience of a saint and determination of a madman. To sustain the animated illusion for over an hour is an amazing feat. And if the audience can rise above the simple wonder of the thing happening at all and become involved in the story, you have made a truly wonderful thing.

The simultaneous genius and weakness of Reinger’s method is that her animated figures are all paper cutout silhouettes. By weakness, I mean that a silhouette’s fundamental limitation is that it restricts the range of character expression and motion. The genius of Reinger’s work is in her amazing ability to bring that limited range to life. This is, after all, the heart and soul of “animation” — to bring to life that which is not living.

Animation purists may say that Reinger’s work using paper cutouts has departed off the mainstream animation path onto the stop-motion branch. While that is true, I will argue that Reinger succeeds in animating the paper into something other than simple moving cutouts. In a technical aside, Reinger invented a multi-plane method of shooting her films years before Disney did.

The first thing that comes to mind when watching Reinger’s animation is that it resembles an Asian shadow play. Given that her images are black silhouettes against a light background, this will always be true. And there are moments when the figures slow and the frame becomes a tableaux. For the twitchy modern audience that demands constant action, this may be a problem.

Milestone Film is now presenting a two disk set (on BluRay or DVD ) that is a full catalog of Lotte Reinger’s work spanning 53 years, from 1921 to 1974. The highlight of which is her 67 minute silent film magnum opus, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. This set is a must-have on the shelf of any student of animation art.

Set in the mythical Baghdad of Ali Baba, Jinns, and Magi, Achmed is a Thousand and One Nights-episodic adventure where wooden horses fly, the Sultan’s daughter is abducted by an evil sorcerer and strange magic lands are inhabited by beautiful Bird-Princesses all done in Reiniger’s equally magical style.

Reiniger’s work is consistently unique and enjoyable — even when production missteps occurred, as in her series of Bible-related short films made in the 1950s. Here, the frame-rate has been reduced, making the figures move too fast. Were there budget constraints or a client-from-hell intervention? These films are also uncharacteristically in color and have backgrounds that look like they were taken from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the same time. That said, the color adds a new dimension that has been compared to the effect of stained glass... perhaps appropriate for the religious theme? Apparently Reiniger did not like the color and it does compromise her own black and white aesthetics.

And so we arrive at Bowjack Horseman, Netflix’s current animated hit series. As an animation, Bowjack is a clever and lively descendant of all animation that has come before. And it is as far removed from The Adventures of Prince Achmed as can be imagined. Except for a couple scenes in Seasons 3 and 4 where Bowjack has been reduced to a silhouette. In one memorable instance, he is seen riding on the deck of his yacht as it is being towed from Santa Fe to LA (you kind of have to have been there to understand). It is the desert Southwest sunset trope... the “howling coyote” stereotyped meme for sure. But perhaps also an echo of Prince Achmed? The folks who make Bowjack are Fine Art-smart, and fond of inserting Easter egg references to famous paintings and 1950’s retro Atomic Age animation. Did they tip their hat to Lotte Reiniger or was it just a coincidence? I’m going to go with “intentional” because, like animation itself, it’s more fun.