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Independent Short Films

Featuring selected short films by

Stan Vanderbeek, Robert Breer and
Frank & Caroline Mouris

Frank and Caroline Mouris

"I treat objects in a very subjective way, and I treat subjects by themselves in a very objective way," says independent film producer/director Frank Mouris at the end of SCREENTEST (1975, 20 minutes), a fragmented cinematic portrait of nine talented amateur actors and mimes. One cannot help but notice the way in which the Mourises give an intimate, honest, yet non-judgmental picture of these characters by making the viewer witness the actors in the creation of their art. It appears that by the end of this film that for these characters as well as the director, art and "real" life are interchangeable; the essence of these actors is their art, and the art is the essence of their life.

The independent film producer-and-director duo, Frank and Caroline Mouris, have been creating films together since the early 70s. They are best known for FRANK FILM (1973, 9 minutes), which won an Academy Award in 1973, for "Best Short," as well as winning many other foreign and domestic film competitions, including the Grand Prix at the Annecy Film Festival the same year. It was also selected for the Olympiad of Animation as one of the thirty-two greatest short films ever made. In 1996, it was chosen by the National Film Registry, an organization created in 1988, to preserve acclaimed films which have been deemed as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important." The unique collage-style animation of FRANK FILM and their latest film, FRANKLY CAROLINE (1999, 9 minutes), has been featured in commercials, music videos, documentaries, as well as on PBS, MTV, VH1, HBO, Comedy, and the Nickelodeon channels. Their work has appeared on programs such as Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, They Came From Outer Space, and I Am a Promise.

Frank Mouris claims that they made FRANK FILM as that "one personal film that you do to get the artistic inclinations out of your system before going commercial." Yet it was the success of this film that he says made the duo become "fiercely independent film makers, only interested in doing new films, whatever the genre, and not just repeating ourselves in one area of film." Indeed the innovative edge shines through in all of their work, from their commercials for Levis Shirts and Nickelodeon Toys to their broad range of 16 mm independent shorts. Their willingness to experiment with different film techniques is apparent, yet all the while they maintain their keen and unique understanding of culture as it is filtered through their use of objects, images, and setting in their films.

The creative collage animation technique that they are best known for first appeared in FRANK FILM, and is repeated in FRANKLY CAROLINE. In these two films, viewers are given a visual biography of each filmmaker’s life thus far through a series of colorful, pop art-like images. The viewer is bombarded and inundated with images in these films that are so commonplace they have become embedded in our collective consciousness. Both films uncannily appear to sum up and tell the story of a viewer’s own life, by representing images of culture through a meticulously cut out and collaged iconography. In the larger scheme, their film biographies present an interesting view of westernized culture. The images flashed on the screen in overabundance include everything from food and drink, money, political images, to body parts, pens, clocks, to name just a few. The cornucopia of objects in these two films evokes everything that is appealing and appalling about our society. Like Frank and Caroline, we are all situated in our settings, affected by the objects that surround us.

FRANK FILM gives the biography of Frank Mouris. It was created before and resulted in the duo’s great film success. In FRANK FILM, Frank talks by himself and to himself. He imagines his successful future, which came true in less than a year. A quarter of a century later, FRANKLY CAROLINE was produced with the premise that it was time for Caroline’s story to be told. The mood of this short is much more upbeat and colorful, as Frank and Caroline engage and address their audience, and they also add a new dimension to this film, by engaging, addressing and arguing with each other. FRANKLY CAROLINE not only presents her story, but it also presents the story of Frank and Caroline’s working and personal relationship. This film shows very acutely why their partnership, on a professional and personal level is successful.

One of the important aspects in their films is the use of objects to create environment, and of environment to create an individual and collective reality. This not only appears in the collage animation technique of FRANK FILM and FRANKLY CAROLINE, but is also very prevalent in their short from 1975, CONEY (5 minutes), a fast-paced look at New York’s Coney Island. In this film, the masses of people appear less significant than the Ferris wheel, than the carnival-type games, than the sun rising and setting. Coney Island would not be the childhood bazaar of fun that it is without the hundreds of people gallivanting along the boardwalk. Yet it appears that Mouris is making a statement about how an individual is less important when s/he is in a setting that has the power to completely control and envelop an individual, a setting like Coney Island. This film has a hypnotizing effect. A viewer cannot help but be seduced by this common, so-American backdrop of a Ferris wheel, nickel-and-dime amusements, and the lovely filtered pink blur of cotton candy.

In all of Frank and Caroline Mouris’ work, objects and images are utilized to create a mental and visual free-association. Frank and Caroline’s play with objects produces a feeling that is at once familiar and foreign, a pop-culture semiotics.

Robert Breer has been a major figure in experimental animation for more than 40 years. With a degree in painting from Stanford, he moved to Paris and became aligned with the post-Bauhaus neoplastic school (hard-edged geometric painting) during the 50s. He became interested in film as a practical way to make continuous variations of the same picture. In the late 50s Breer returned to America and concentrated his efforts in kinetic sculpture and filmmaking, alternating between collage films and line films. His short films have won numerous awards and have been selected for presentation in major film festivals.

Stan Vanderbeek (1927–84) was one of the most highly acclaimed producers of experimental films. Starting as a collage animator in the 50s, he quickly moved on to computer graphics and video by the mid-60s. By the late 60s he was experimenting with the idea of the multiple image and new forms of world visual communication. Considered an innovator even within the highly creative and experimental field of animation, he produced films using combinations of animated collages, drawn animation, live action, film loops, found footage, video and computer images and multiple screens. He is widely known for the development of the Movie-Drome, a dome-shaped environmental theatre in which the audience lies down at the outer edge of the dome and the images are projected on all surfaces above them.

— Jessica Firger, student intern

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