Jiri Barta – Labyrinth of Darkness Special: Part 1

At CTBF, we try to watch animation outside of our familiarity cottage with Anime. Speaking personally, I have a soft spot for the work of French director Sylvain Chomet (known for The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist), most of Pixar’s output, and the animated adaptions of the DC universe i.e. Justice League (the only DC Universe stuff I genuinely like). Off the top of my head, Alex Hajdar loves him some Samurai Jack/most of Cartoon Network’s late 90’s Cartoon Cartoons block, Disney’s Gargoyles, and Warner Bros.’ Freakazoid. A personal problem I have is finding animated material from other non-American/French origins (funny as this coincides with my current concern with comics), were most of my personal experience with other animation fans can be summed up by the exclusive praise heaping of Warner Bros. and Disney (Disneyphiles exist people, and they are best avoided like the plague). About time I was adventurous and watched some of this animation collection by revered Czech stop-motion animation director Jiri Barta entitled Labyrinth of Darkness. Now I can finally live up to that image of a cultured individual I so desperately pretend to be. We have here eight segments, so four for Alex and four for me. Like usual, Part 1 is all mine.

A Ballad About Green Wood 1983

An axe chops up some wood into lumber with manmade human designs naturally carved into them. We follow the wood people as they bring about the beginning of spring by helping saplings grow and water to burst through their ice tombs. At one point, a bird flies in and attacks one of the wood people, pecking/disemboweling the lumber into nothing but splinters. Once he finishes though, its body takes on the appearance of the tree people and soon he flies around bringing the drastic return of  winter.

An interesting thing to note about Green Wood is how much of it is stop-motion centered on depicting plants growing. Stop-motion is already a time-consuming effort, but add-in stop motioning plants and grass growing and having to wait to shot the spring-to-winter scenes must have taken forever. The effort paid off with cool sequences like the depiction of a burning at the stake by way of growing leaves (hard to describe, but so cool to watch) and mud corroding. The folksy/operatic music also helps give the piece the right amount of nature focus. Green Wood does suffer if one is not able to just node one’s head at the sight of animated lumber akin to the marching broomsticks from Fantasia.

The Club of the Laid Off 1989

In an abandoned apartment complex, beaten and battered mannequins come to life to enact repetitive tasks. The main male mannequin (the only one whose tasks involve leaving the second floor) seems to be going to work, leaving family members like his wife to repeatedly cook, bathe, play the harp, fix a radio, or even play voyeur to another mannequin. Life is good until a new batch of  modern punk styling mannequins show up and party to the point of ruining the older mannequin’s way of life.

The Club of the Laid Off excels at giving perspective to inanimate objects; since distinctly when the camera’s point of view follows the lead mannequin with all of the jolting and stop-and-starting one would expect from a mannequin’s walk. The repetition in some of the middle scenes regarding establishing the older mannequin’s lifestyle does happen to bog at a point, with perhaps 1/3rd of the running time being taken up by these scenes.

The Design 1981

A pair of human hands (plastic looking as most often seen when stop-motion depicts human features) set atop a long sheet of white paper. A bag of tools including: pencils, pens, a straight edge, erasers, and a rolling pin among other things are laid out. The hands start by using a device my civil engineer mother would call a X (harking back to earlier days when she would use them for her job) to outline a uniform apartment grid. Once complete, the hands fish cut-out images from various envelopes and place an assortment of varied furniture, appliances, and people, making each apartment stand out from each other. After this task is complete, the hands layer a wall to close the apartment, going over it with the roller pin, and reveal that all the apartments are actually identical. Pulling back, the apartment complex is shown to be but one of a uniform set of identical dozens.

The Design’s use of mixing the animation process by way of pop-art is one of the coolest things I have seen in a while. Following the hands and instruments gives way to this almost voyeuristic feeling when seeing the daily lives of these cut-out creations. Music plays a big part in depicting the apartments, with polka music showing the average Czech family, to some chill Casio keyboarding letting you know that you are in a hip cat’s pad. What I find most interesting about The Design is the ending, this uncharacteristically dark portrayal of a now uniformly identical complex that I interpreted as the creator’s commentary on 1980’s era Czech becoming more modern and uniform as time passed. But hey, just my interpretation. The Design is my personal favorite of the four.

Disc Jockey 1980

The life of a disc jockey demonstrates the man getting up in the morning to wash his face and eat breakfast. From there, we see close up shots of him buttoning one-by-one his clothes while fashioning on punk pins and flowers to his jacket. Narratively, it breaks apart afterwards into just a collection of vinyl record spinning playing melodic rock music while focusing depictions on rotating circular objects like the cutting of meat and the boiling of soup. Even the mechanics of a tractor are shown for some odd reason. Disc Jockey ends with the titular Disc Jockey popping pills like that of candy.

As I get used to watching Jiri Barta’s animation, he tends to focus on making things stand out by either making them look cool or depicting them in a random fashion. Problem is, my insistent need to believe there is something more going on with what he is depicting, summons up the biggest concern when it comes to interpretive art. Not being able to simply ask the artist. Outside of the utter randomness of Disc Jockey, I liked how it felt like a drawn out commercial, even though it for some odd reason reminded of the music video for Dir En Grey’s Agitated Screams of Maggots with its use of predominantly single color (in this case grey) on black. Disc Jockey is a perfect example of why it is hard to describe and excite on some so visually heavy.

Part 2

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  1. Jiri Barta – Labyrinth of Darkness Special: Part 2 « Children of The Blazing Fist

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