A Year in Shorts Day 310: "The Street"
While Aleksandr Petrov is the best known name in the field of paint-on-glass animation, he is hardly the only artist to have perfected the technique, and he certainly didn’t create it. One important pioneer is Caroline Leaf, who during her time with the National Film Board of Canada not only developed paint-on-glass techniques, but also experimented with sand and etching of film stock. And all her innovative work paid off in the form of a single Oscar nomination, for her 1976 film, The Street.
Based on the short story by Mordecai Richler, who also wrote the screenplay (much of Leaf's work is derived from literature; her best known short is an adaptation of The Metamorphosis!), The Street is a fairly simple film on a narrative level. Told from the point of view of a young Jewish boy (narrated in flashback by Mort Ransen), it follows his and his family's reactions to the impending death of his grandmother. The film (presumably much like the story) doesn't follow any traditional narrative structure, instead taking a slice of life look at a brief period in the narrator's life. Moving through the story in a series of vignettes, conversations and vague memories, The Street is yet another film that finds beauty and meaning in the everyday and the mundane. Much like with The House of Small Cubes or most of the films of Richard Linklater, the simplicity is the point. Admittedly, the film does offer some extra interest for those of us unfamiliar with the Jewish culture of Montreal (which I assume includes most, if not all, of my readers), but the story is nevertheless pretty ordinary in that way. In being about nothing, it becomes a film about everything- life, death, family, religion, childhood and the act of remembering itself.
But the simplicity of the story has another purpose- it allows for the animation to take the spotlight. While the script would work just as well in live action (in fact, Richler would later adapt several of his stories into the made-for-TV movie The Wordsmith), the paint-on-glass animation really elevates this short to another level. While it may lack the refinement and beauty in the later works of Aleksandr Petrov (in many ways the animation is quite crude), it nevertheless takes full advantage of the unique advantages the form provides. Leaf's use of creative transitions throughout The Street is not only clever and fun to watch, but it really suits the film perfectly. Like I said, The Street is a film about memory, and Leaf's style manages to capture the hazy, dream-like way in which we relive our pasts. And the simplicity of the designs aids in this as well; while some of Petrov's characters can occasionally look stiff, the more cartoonish characters in The Street are afforded much more freedom of movement and expression. Unconcerned with realism or painting-like tableaus, Leaf's transitions are far more fluid. To be clear, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Petrov's way of doing things. But I have to admit that while The Street may be lacking in formal beauty, I think the way Leaf manages to recreate stream-of-consciousness in film slightly more engaging.
It is very rare, at least in English language cinema, for a film to try and capture the process of thought and memory. And it's not very hard to see why. That sort of thing is incredibly difficult to create on film without relying too much on narration, and it's definitely something more suited to literature. But when a director attempts it, it's always very welcome. And when they pull it off as well as they do here, it's amazing. And animation is certainly well-suited for that sort of thing, capable of creating dream like or surreal imagery without breaking the flow of the film. As we've seen with The Man Who Planted Trees, animated films can do a great job of capturing not only the story of the books they're adapting, but the sensation of reading them. Much like that film, The Street often feels like you're watching the movie in your head as you read a story come to life.
A great deal of that has to do with Leaf's use of color- or lack thereof. While there are some splashes of greens and reds sprinkled throughout the film, most of The Street is fairly monochromatic, making excellent use of negative space. (One particularly great instance is when most of the film is filled with black paint, with only the outlines of objects and people left untouched.) At many points throughout the film, objects will simply spring into existence as the characters interact with them, only to disappear when no longer in use. It is yet another technique that really only works in animation (or, at the very least, really really weird live action films), and it's wonderful to see. In the world of cinema, there's nothing more exhilarating than watching an animator exploring the full potential of the medium. And while this can often take the form of impossible imagery, ridiculous madcap action or beautiful backgrounds, there's something to be said for someone who experiments with the basics of how stories can be told. There is so much in The Street which could only be done by an animated film, and it's done wonderfully.
Caroline Leaf is credited by several sources as the creator of paint-on-glass animation, although I'm not entirely sure if that's true or not. Polish animator Witold Giersz's work seems to predate hers by a decade. In any case, even if she didn't invent the technique, she certainly helped develop it in new and exciting ways. The Street serves as a perfect illustration as to why she is considered such an important figure in the history of animation, even if she's a fairly obscure one. Hopefully in time she'll come to get the respect she deserves, and perhaps her work will gain a little more mainstream recognition. At any rate, hopefully today's post introduced The Street to a slightly wider audience. A beautiful and interesting short like this deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
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