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Art review

Thinking outside the lines

Harvard exhibit explores marvels of animation

The exhibit features animated films, including “Sand or Peter and the Wolf’’ (above) and “Clay or Origin of Species.’’ The exhibit features animated films, including “Sand or Peter and the Wolf’’ (above) and “Clay or Origin of Species.’’
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - Nothing demonstrates our collective conservatism as imaginative creatures quite so much as our response to animation. The medium has no practical limits on what it can do. Yet for all intents and purposes - certainly for all commercial purposes - animation gets reduced to children’s programming or a vehicle for slapstick. No small part of the genius of “The Simpsons’’ has been its managing to be so much more while ostensibly, and subversively, satisfying the requirements of both.

T.S. Eliot said “human kind cannot bear very much reality.’’ The ghettoized history of animation suggests that it’s imagination we can’t bear very much of. Is there a more terrifying moment in Hollywood history than when John Huston tells Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown’’ how he’s come to realize that, under the right circumstances, “a man can do anything’’? A different kind of terror comes into play when we realize that, under almost any circumstances, an animator really can do anything.

If you think about it, wonder is a lot like terror - only with less adrenaline and a smaller dry-cleaning bill. Wonder is very much the order of the day in “Frame by Frame: Animated at Harvard,’’ which runs at the university’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts through Feb. 14 (so get there quick). Reproach runs wonder a close second. The range of artistic approaches that can be seen here - lyrical, abstract, comic, elegiac, and not forgetting the ever-popular uncategorizable - reminds us how unlimited can be this art form which has been put to such limited popular use.

Harvard has never been called the CalArts of the East. People associate it with investment bankers, lawyers, even comedy writers (“The Simpsons’’ again), but not animators. Yet Harvard started offering animation courses in 1963, with the legendary John and Faith Hubley as the first teachers. “Frame by Frame’’ pays tribute to animation at Harvard, putting on display some of its very impressive products.

The exhibit includes puppets, drawings, a vintage Moviola editing machine, an Oxberry animation table. They’re all rather enchanting (the Moviola is something out of a steampunk opium dream). But they’re secondary to the show’s main purpose, which is to showcase films by Harvard animators, faculty and students, past, present, and even future - works in progress. There are more than 35. Some are barely a minute long, while Suzan Pitt’s “Asparagus’’ runs an all but epic 20 minutes (its profusion of visual imagery is epic, too).

Among the works in progress is Lorelei Pepi’s “Happy and Gay,’’ which is even more fabulous than the animator’s name. It simultaneously parodies, celebrates, and turns inside out early Hollywood cartoons, with a cast of Felix the Cat-style animals who end up cutting a rug at a Depression-era gay night club. The details being so letter-perfect simultaneously masks and underscores the topsy-turviness of the whole thing.

The first work chronologically, Eli Noyes’s “Clay or Origin of Species,’’ dates from 1965. An early example of claymation, it earned Noyes an Oscar nomination for best animated short - not bad for a Harvard senior. Its exhilarating jazz score by the Sammy Saltonstall Quartet is one of numerous instances here of how often animation, a kind of kinetic music, works best as a duet for eye and ear.

Another example of that would be Caroline Leaf’s “Sand or Peter and the Wolf,’’ with its aptly eerie musique concrete score. Leaf uses sand to present the folk tale best known through Prokofiev’s musical retelling. In Leaf’s rendering, black shapes constantly reconfigure themselves against a white background. The elegance of her visual economy is a marvel, as is the singularity of her style.

Other films, whether intentionally or not, reveal their roots. There’s nothing psychedelic or Liverpudlian about Jan Lenica’s “Landscape,’’ from 1974, with its allegorical presentation of the Nazi occupation of Lenica’s native Poland. But it’s hard to imagine “Landscape’’ looking the way it does without the prior existence of Jeremy, the Nowhere Man, in “Yellow Submarine.’’ Or there’s Frank Mouris’s Oscar-winning “Frank Film,’’ made a year earlier. Its torrential photographic imagery uses collage and montage like a fast-forward version of Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python. The Python motto, “And now for something completely different,’’ could do double duty for “Frame by Frame,’’ too.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

FRAME BY FRAME: Animated at Harvard

At: Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Cambridge, through Feb. 14. 617-495-3250, www.ves.fas.harvard.edu/ccva.html