Saturday, January 28, 2006

Hangin' With Frank...

The fusion of Jim Woodring and the anime maestros working with Presspop Music has yielded a grand new DVD, Visions of Frank: Short Films by Japan's Most Audacious Animators Based on the Comics by Jim Woodring (Presspop, 2005). Thanks to my amigo John Rovnak, the disc landed in my hungry hands this week, and I've been savoring the occasional trip to Woodring's uncanny dreamscapes all week off and on. It's catnip for Woodring addicts; all others beware! (My friend and artist extraordinaire Michael Zulli used to physically flinch when confronted by any Woodring art: it plucked too deep a nerve by nature for Michael's comfort level.)

Visions of Frank is the brainchild of Trancepop director Yuki Yamada, co-producing this gem of a project with Presspop Inc. media guru Yasutaka Minegishi -- and, of course, Jim himself, who is represented here with his own animated effort. Presspop and Jim have already forged their relations with some pretty cool-looking Frank 'action figures,' which I've only seen online and via ads; these look pretty remarkable, particularly those for Pupshaw & Pushpaw, my personal fave of all Rin-Tin-Tin, Lassie and The Littlest Hobo successors in pop history. If I'm not mistaken (correct please if I am, someone), Jim & Presspop also collaborated on a line of amazing little bubble-egg plastic toys a couple years back, the kind coin machines in the US usually grace with trinkets, trolls and the like -- only these contained soft vinyl Woodring creations, including some of the demons and deities that grace his comics.

The DVD is neatly packaged in a colorful boxboard folder with full-color Woodring art covers and a nifty black-and-white Woodring 'semidiorama' interior picturing Frank and Pupshaw going for a walk; the disc and nifty 16-pg. booklet tuck behind the foreground flaps. The booklet sports two new Woodring "Frank" strips -- a black-and-white single pager, and a 3-pg. color story, both playing off the Manhog's disposability -- and biographical info on all animators and musicians involved, including Seattle composer and Woodring associate Bill Frisell. There are 9 animated shorts in all, 8 of which offer bonus musical scores (including one by musician and Meatcake cartoonist Dame Darcy), expanding the 48 minute program to almost 90 minutes if you watch each animation with both music tracks.

The animations are pretty alluring and a couple of them are simply exquisite, though I confess the net effect has been to send me scurrying back to the Woodring originals (which isn't anything to complain about, mind you). In his text introduction, Jim evocatively invites the animators (and by proxy the viewer) to explore facets of Frank's universe he himself has been nervous to explore: "Sometimes I want to go to the Unifactor and sometimes I am afraid I must go there. I really, really do not want to see the two-mouthed fear cow. I do not want to be glory-poisoned, or brain-looted, or lathed. But I do want to see the field of jivas and the eyepool, and that walled city.... There is so much I haven't seen; nearly all of it. So show me, please. Interpret those elusive textures, capture that waning light, bring us to those distant temples. Show me how those things move, let me hear what sounds they make. I want to see what you see."

Do they manage this feat? Well, I'm happy to report that a couple of them do, and with intoxicating fidelity to the Woodring universe as it has cohered in my own reader's mindframe after years of drinking Jim's comics wine. It's gratifying to see so many 'straight' adaptations of Jim's comics -- including the two seminal tales relating how Frank 'acquires' (misspelled in the credits, typical of Japanese-to-English translations) both Pupshaw and Pushpaw, lending the collection as a whole a measure of authenticity and initiation. The omnipresent spindly satanic figure and his egg-beater-like reality-altering/shapeshifter device perhaps capitalize a bit too much screentime and ideaspace, but that's a matter of personal taste, I reckon: all in all, this beats the shit out of the interminable "Spike & Mike" festivals of the past ten years as an animation collective, and profers the most cohesive 'adapted' universe (even given the multiple hands and sensibilities involved) of any living cartoonist.

Frank, Pupshaw, and the devil & his reality-mixer inhabit Woodring's own introductory animated short (a mere 1m 22seconds, but a treat); no surprise that it perfectly carries Jim's distinctive drawing style to its CGI animated stylings, but it is initially surprising how beautifully Woodring's semi-anecdotal narrative drive transmutes to this form. The tension between apparently concrete forms (from the lived-in architectural structures to the organic geometries of beings like Pupshaw) and alarmingly mercurial transformative eruptions that is so central to Woodring's comics is an ideal fit with the medium of animation in all its forms. That said, Frank as a character almost resists full animation: though he is consistently 'himself' in all the diverse animation forms showcased herein, Frank anatomically challenges every animator in strikingly different ways, and only a couple of them 'get' Frank "right."

Two of the subsequent shorts follow suit in their essential fidelity to the 'look' of Woodring's comics, while maintaining their own respective orientation to the wellspring. Coincidentally, these are also the two shorts introducing Pupshaw and Pushpaw, Frank's 'pets': Kyota-based "art unit COCOA" offers Pupshaw's "origin," or more specifically the tale of how Frank picks up Pupshaw as a "Free to Go Home" yard sale adoption (in short #3 on the DVD; 2003, 4m 7s), and Taruto Fuyama animates the marvelous story of Pushpaw's entry into Frank and Pupshaw's household (as an unexpected savior when Frank's plowing excavates an active, all-devouring serpentine manifestation) with considerable imagination (in short #1; 2003, 5m 38s). With the sole caveat that Fuyama doesn't quite capture Frank as a character (something about his adaptation of Frank's facial features to three-dimensional space doesn't jive for me), Fuyama's short is in the top three for me here: the synthesis of story and spot-on (pun intended) characterizations of Pupshaw and Pushpaw and their chemistry cooks. COCOA's "Frank Acquires Pupshaw" short takes place in part under the cover of night, and the strong blacks of Jim's comics are supplanted with a photocopy-like gray (blotchy with patches of photocopy bleaching or 'burn', if you know what I mean) that lends a distinctive aura to the entire short; it also boasts one of the most strangely ingratiating musical tracks (by the prolific Rubyorla; the bonus alternative track by techno musician Yabemilk is cool, too, but Rubyorla's is actually catchy and I got a warm feeling when I viewed the short the second time, like, "oh, ya, this music"). Thus, I'd have to elevate COCOA's first short herein into a favorites position; his second Frank animation (#6, 2004, 3m 41s) embraces a crazy-quilt color-and-texture scheme similar to that of animator Eri Yoshimura (#2, 2003, 3m 55s), which is personally my least favorite of all.

In both cases, the attempt to transmute Woodring's distinctive beings and universe into their patchwork collage tapestries of bright fabric-like patterns, colors, and swatches grates on the eyes: I can't engage with the forms as cohesive characters or even a cohesive synthesis of an environment. Part of the allure of the Woodring universe is its tactile illusory 'reality': one falls into it effortlessly, and finds oneself engaged all too easily in enigmatic events and mutations that resist rational analysis. The 'crazy quilt' approach of COCOA's second short and Yoshimura's one and only make these confections all too easy to resist: they become eye candy instead of mind candy, though the strength of Jim's source narrative for the COCOA fabric-texture short lends it some impact, if only as an effective sight-gag (Frank tries to catch an insect-like creature in a jar, prompting the creature to inflate its form to 'scare' Frank; Frank gets progressively larger containers, until the insect inflates so traumatically that Frank tips the largest vessel onto himself).

The third short to display a beguiling fidelity to Jim's comics -- specifically his color comics -- is the one by TAMAPRO/DROP (#4, 2003, 2m 40s; 'original track' by now-defunct band The Double), which is a charmer. Here again is that spindly ol' Woodring debbil, this time anally (technically entering Frank's tail, not his ass) infecting Frank and prompting Pupshaw to save the day yet again by tearing into Frank mid-shape-shift and shaking the spring-tailed wormlike infecting organism loose. TAMAPRO/DROP brings the fullest animation on view here to bear, if anything expanding upon Jim's panelogical transformations to make them even more effective, and the bold color schemes (again, perfectly adapted from/attuned to Woodring's own palettes) work wonders. This is a great short!

Masaki Naito's stop-motion dimensional model-animated adaptation (#5, 2004, 5m 35s) and Naomi Nagata's wonderfully textured 'flat' animated effort (#8, 2005, 8m 15s) are in their own way quite wonderful, too, though they are less concerned with capturing the 'look' of Woodring as they are with the dream-into-nightmare ambience, events and atmospheres of his comics. Both shorts involve Frank losing his cohesion and transforming into altered variations of himself: in the former, it's the 'devil' and his damned egg-beater shapeshifting device that's the agent of change; in the latter, Frank dives into a subterranean eye-ringed pool that alters him, prompting Pupshaw to wake the Woodring 'devil' and wield the same egg-beater-like contraption to change Frank back to his familiar self, much to Pupshaw's delight. Both have their charms, though the inherent instability/malleability of Frank in both undercuts his registering as a character (once again, Pupshaw shines with more affectionate clarity), and arguably makes these less effective experiences unless one is already indoctrinated into the Woodring reality. Of course, that very aspect of both is integral to the Woodring universe (after all, Jim has been no less mutable a character in his own work!), but I'd recommend viewing both Naito and Nagata's shorts last; appropriately enough, Presspop has placed both in the latter portion of the disc's play order. Good call. Naito's begins with a foot clearly in the realm of, say, the Brothers Quay, with its organic/mechanical constructs and spaces, but eases in short order into the appropo Woodring world; Nagata’s is animated in what appears to be some sort of dust, sand, or chalk-based medium that asserts its own enchanting and curiously urgent reality.

Last but not least, the penultimate short in the disc's menu is Kanako Kawaguchi's lengthy stop-motion animation effort, the package's most expansive in terms of running time (#7, 2005, 9m 58s). Kawaguchi's approach to animating and 'dimensionalizing' Woodring's work is immediately compelling: combining intricate modelwork (including exquisitely detailed pieces of furniture and room interiors and convincingly naturalistic miniature exteriors) with construct 'cut-outs' models of Frank (composed of layered bits of Jim's art), Kawaguchi allows himself (as filmmaker) and ourselves (as viewers, participants in the dream) to inhabit Frank's environments as never before. Like Karel Zeman's brilliant adaptations of period-Jules Verne illustrations for his seminal 1960s feature films (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, On the Comet, etc.), Kawaguchi carefully renders his dimensional 'live action' sets with Woodring's distinctive linework in certain environments (Frank's dwelling, the interior of the neighbor's house he visits, expecting a party but finding only silence and a jug of skeletal remains as a barely-seen lurker malingers behind an open doorway). Others, like select exteriors and especially the outside of the neighbor's dwelling (its outside walls somehow swollen, blistering paint into unusual textures consistent with Woodring's work), eschew the direct association with Jim's recognizable rendering style, breathing fresh life into the familiar Frank universe. In this, the short evokes stop-motion universes of yore: the works of Ladislas Starevich, Jiri Trnka, Jan Svankmajer, etc. With its pitted roads, windblown grass stalks, scrub and brush composed of bleached lichens, this approach brings bracing life to the Woodring landscapes I'd grown somehow so accustomed to, making the familiar unfamiliar, without losing its palpable fidelity to Jim/Frank's universe: quite a feat, really!

But Kawaguchi brings two other elements to bear -- sound and time -- in a manner none of the other animators do. As the alternative music tracks evidences, almost all the shorts rely in a primary way on unusual scores to enhance/create their synthesis/derivations of the Woodring comics universe. Kawaguchi eschews that music-video approach to anchor his Frank film in a more primal context: a naturalistic audioverse, in which the rustling and clinking of domesticity, the crunch of gravel and relentless howl of wind compose the soundtrack, lending a strong sense of gravity, scale, and of chronology to his film. This is the short with the Dame Darcy "bonus track," which is engaging in and of itself, but I quite prefer the naturalistic "original track," in which sound and space takes on an almost Sergio Leone impact and import. Imagine Frank in the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West (not as much of a stretch as you might think, really), steeped in its disorienting blend of the banal and the mythic, and you'll have some idea of how Kawaguchi's lovingly detailed evocation of Frank's world works (despite my reaching for Leone as a benchmark, I hasten to add this use of naturalistic sound to anchor stop-motion realms has a venerable history as old as the fusion of motion pictures and sound). Thus, savoring the sounds as well as the sights of Woodring's universe, Kawaguchi conflates the other naturalistic touches -- the warm light coming in through Frank's window, the sharp 'clink' of porcelin cups (oddly embellishing the 'reality' of the details of Frank's kitchen: knifes sheathed in a wall-mounted rack, etc.), the wood interior of the draw Frank opens in his circular reading table, the cool light illuminating the interior of Frank's home in the final shot of the film -- and extends the sense of time moving to lend enormous, appropriately ominous weight to the enigmatic events as they unfold. By the time Frank is musing a bit too long over the skull and skeletal remains in the huge jug in his empty neighbor's home, the dreamy suspension and suspense really gets under one's skin in a way none of the other short films do -- and this, too, is essential to Woodring's best work. It works completely as a film and as an adaptation of Jim's comics, and that's a solid recommendation from this viewer.

All in all, Visions of Frank is a great disc, well worth seeking out and immersing oneself in ASAP. It's undoubtably available from many online sources, but check out
  • Presspop
  • -- a good starting point, if only to check out the superficials (scroll to the right and click on the ‘English’ option; all things Frank will emerge). Highly recommended, and the year's first DVD sleeper!