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"Ten Animated Films by Signe Baumane": Latvia on the Hudson

These days we are so inundated with safe, glossy big studio animation that it’s easy to forget the bizarre low budget scribbles on the fringes of the industry. Especially since increasingly sophisticated films from the likes of Pixar are beginning to co-opt independent animation’s traditional advantage in thematic complexity. All that’s left is to be as weird as humanly possible, a goal which Signe Baumane’s Ten Animated Films accomplishes with great relish.

False advertisingBaumane hails from Latvia, but now makes her home in New York City, where she often works with well known American indie animator Bill Plympton (I Married a Strange Person!). Like Plympton her short films have made the rounds of many film festivals since the early 1990s, though I confess this is the first I’d heard of her. Given the very noncommercial nature of her works I suppose that isn’t terribly surprising.

As I look to animation for ever richer, more realistic visuals and gripping narratives, the surreal ramblings of indie animators are not generally my cup of tea. Baumane’s mostly dialogue free films are unfortunately not standouts in either respect.

There is a vast difference in her works produced before and after the move to New York. The first three are very East European and crude in appearance, and are all twisted fairy tales of some sort. The later films are much smoother and Western looking and largely eschew story for a parade of bizarre images of love and violence. Yes, despite the cute cover art, this definitely isn’t for children.

Shorts like The Gold of the Tigers and Woman are Baumane at her strangest. The first offers up a mythology for tigers in which they rule the world and straddle the line between dreams and reality. Things end badly for them with copious amounts of bloodshed, another recurring element in the collection.

Hoovin' on a sunny afternoon...Baumane says Woman is about the fragile nature of women’s relationship with men, but good luck finding some useful insight to apply to your love life. Apparently the key to finding love has something to do with man controlling his inner beast, perhaps the one that compels us to watch ten hours of football every Sunday.

Then there’s the wild kinkiness of The Threatened One and Five… Fables, both exploring a wide range of intimate encounters. Being edgy is all well and good, but even I had trouble stomaching the baby eating scene. Perhaps that wasn’t the best choice of words.

On the other hand the disc’s two best shorts, though still a little out there, are sufficiently polished and pleasantly amusing to be at home with Cartoon Network’s late night programming. The very entertaining Natasha tells the story of a frustrated housewife who turns to her vacuum cleaner for romance when her couch potato husband ignores her. This most unexpectedly leads to the birth of two mechanical offspring, and the enraged husband engages the philandering appliance in a wild duel to the death that incorporates pro wrestling and fencing.

Cupid practices with his boomerang arrowDentist might be the closest Baumane comes to real life, satirizing Seinfeld style the tension and even the terror we all experience at the dentist’s office. After a very painful procedure in which his tooth is crushed and his hair is lost to X rays, the patient has to not only empty his pockets but also hand over every last stitch of clothing in payment.

The animation ranges from sub-Hanna Barbera quality in the Looney Tunes-ish The Witch and the Crow, to the nearly ready for Nickelodeon slickness of Natasha. The video quality follows a similar trend, grainy and faded at the start but quite crisp for the most recent productions. Apart from the occasional vulgarity the imagery is nothing all that memorable. Perhaps Baumane figured the finer points of design would be lost on an audience watching an alligator and a dog become very familiar.

I have to say that the marketing department spent their ten dollars for this DVD rather unwisely. The extremely bland title and cover are unlikely to catch anyone’s eye, and there isn’t the slightest bit of information on the presumably unknown creator. At least they might have stuck Plympton’s name on it to generate some familiarity.

Tooth Fairy house callsThe lone extra is a lightweight documentary on Baumane that sheds far too little light on her career. It seems more preoccupied with hinting at random background and character details than in telling us anything about her craft.

Among the few interesting tidbits, we learn that she has been through a few troubled marriages, which perhaps explains the often cynical view of relationships in her work. She also readily reveals a consuming interest in physical intimacy, which definitely explains her love of risque imagery and perhaps the troubled marriages as well.

Hardcore fans of similarly outlandish, low tech animation like Plympton’s may enjoy Ten Animated Films, but I don’t imagine it will hold the general public’s attention for long, and certainly not without unsettling many of them. Baumane ends the collection with a series of tongue in cheek infomercials for dentists, but what she really needs to do is get an endorsement for Natasha. Hoovers would sell like hotcakes, at least until the injury claims start coming in.

The author of this review, Chris Wood, was formerly known on Toon Zone as Desslar.

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