Saturday, November 10, 2012

Documentary Short Highlight - Why Man Creates (1968)

You stay classy, Rainbow Dash
So today was the premiere of Season 3 for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and to be frank it was soooooo awesome! Yeah, the adventure elements are kind of underdeveloped. All of the possible tension points were resolved anti-climactically, and there were a lot of build-up for something that never delivered with the villain. Still, there were a lot of great moments: Pinkie Spy with her night vision goggles and undercover costume. Some more hilarious over-the-top Rarity moments. It convinced me that the show should stick with the slice of life angle because that's what they do best. Why worry about adventures and stuff when it's more interesting to see how the characters with distinct personalities interact?

Of course, as you can probably tell that's not the reason for this review. It's been a while since I did a review on a film that wasn't nominated for Best Animated Short. The last one I did was Oink back in May. The last time I did a review on an animated film nominated in a different category was Sunrise over Tiananmen Square from April. Sunrise was nominated in 1998, and now we are at the 1968 review, a difference of 30 years. It's not that there hasn't been an animated film nominated in this category in the years in between. The Colours of My Father: A Portrait of Sam Borenstein utilized animation in telling the story and the art style of a famous Canadian artist, and was nominated in 1992. However, the film is not available online, and my efforts to acquire a copy of the DVD failed, probably because my address was in flux at the time. (I really should ask NFB for a refund.)

However, animation was featured quite prominently in Why Man Creates, the documentary from legendary graphic designer Saul Bass that was nominated for the Best Documentary Short film Oscar in 1968.

Saul Bass is a legend in the realm of graphic design. He is best remembered for his work on opening credits in various motion pictures. Among his most famous works include The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, Bunny Lake is Missing, and many of Hitchcock's greatest films such as Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho. Bass was also responsible for many of the most recognizable company logos, including the AT&T globe, the Girl Scouts of America logo, and the Dixie Cup logo. Some of his logos can be seen here. Beyond that, Saul Bass is also a filmmaker. He not only designed the ending credits for West Side Story using a graffiti style, but he also directed the entire sequence. And then he made Why Man Creates in 1968.

Why Man Creates is "a series of explorations, episodes, & comments on creativity." It explores the question posed in the title (which incidentally is never showed on screen for the actual film) by using a series of short episodes that detail the process of creation. Each successive episode not only goes farther along the process of creation, but it also digs deeper at the core question. The first episode is more of a historical look of what man has created. It is more of a reflection, but as it is the only truly animated sequence it is also what I'll focus on the most. The episode is known as "The Edifice," as it portrays human history from the caveman era to the modern era as an ever expanding building that began when cavemen discover a creative way to kill an ox. From there the building gets taller as time passes, and humans begin to discover or invent new ideas or items. Ancient civilizations and philosophies are seen rising and falling. The entire sequence plays out a lot like Michael Mills's The History of the World in Three Minutes Flat, as it spends little time on each individual event and includes a lot of humor. The animation style is also quite similar. The character designs are quite simple, but there is just enough detail to make things recognizable. The progression up the building makes for better transitions, and the jokes are quite funny.

Animation appear in the other episodes, but never quite as prominently. The second episode is title "Fooling Around" and is a visual representation of brainstorming. There are a variety of scenes, none of which connect with each other, and none of which make much sense. There is some animation involved, as there are certain shots of people dancing or talking who suddenly freeze. Their heads open up and a person reaches in to modify their heads. It''s quite random but also somewhat funny in a non-sequitur way. Episode three starts after a transition period and shows "the Process" of creation. It's a completely action sequence of an artist trying to make something using giant blocks. He fails multiple times as the blocks keep moving on their own, but quotes from Edison, Hemingway, and Einstein keep him going. The sequence is pretty funny but the quotes are pretty profound. Episode four, "the Judgment" people criticizing the piece of art created in episode three. Almost all of them are negative, and as they get more and more vicious the criticisms strike the artist like bullets.

Episode five is "a Parable" set in a ping pong ball factory. The balls are filtered through the machine and finally tested for their level of bounce. One ball bounces higher than the rest. It is singled out and rejected down a series of chutes before landing in a road outside the factory. It finds that it has the freedom to bounce as it pleases. It bounces higher and higher until it finally never comes down. I'm assuming the tale is about individualism as the one ball that is singled out is different. The scenes of the machinery in the factory is very interesting, and a lot of the sequence is made using very fluid stop motion animation. Episode six, "a Digression" is another animated sequence. It is a 10-second animated sequence of a snail asking another snail a question about the evolution of ideas from radical thought to institutions. The other snail rejects the first one's idea, but it is worth thinking about. The animation is about the same as in "The Edifice," but the snail's question is worth thinking about. However, the film doesn't give you much time as it jumps into the next episode, "the Search." The film interviews several scientists that had been working on the same difficult questions for decades and are years from a solution. One of those is the late Renato Dulbecco, who would eventually win a Nobel Prize for his research in tumor viruses and oncogenes, but not all scientists have as much success as him.

With seven episodes about various aspects of creation, the final episode, "The Mark" attempts to come up with an answer for the question about why man creates. It is a rather dense sequence that shows works of arts created hundreds to thousands of years in the past as well as modern technologies. It considers the differences in all of these works of art and technologies, but ultimately comes up with one common bond that ties all of these things together, and that is the answer to the question.

As a whole the film is funny yet profound, especially near the end. The animation sequences were terrific even if they weren't made by Saul Bass, but the live action scenes also have a level of beauty in their construction. The film's cohesion could have been better as the only episodes that had a real transition was between the second through fourth episodes, but overall the film is still a satisfying whole.

Anyways, here is the entire 24-minute film on one video.

1 comment:

  1. I see the video above comes from Pyramid Films they're still around, though their core business has always been to distribute films to schools,libraries and other institutional uses, though I see you can order films from them too (whoever designed their website apparently forgot what year it is)!