This week in tactile cinema: Monsters University and Stan Brakhage

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From Brakhages A Childs Garden and the Serious Sea
  • From Brakhage's A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea
One of the most striking details in Monsters University is a student-made flyer that gets passed around throughout the story. The Pixar animators exquisitely re-create the look of Xeroxed text and Scotch tapeā€”the creases in the paper seem real enough to touch. Like Jeff Koons with his stainless steel replicas of balloon animals, the Pixar team devote discernible effort (and, presumably, money) to the facsimile of a banal, disposable object. The artistic process commands your attention, rather than the object itself. How strange, to think about the time and imagination that went into animating something that would take just minutes to create in real life.

This sort of thing is essential to Pixar's broad appeal. The hyperrealist touches give an earthbound quality to the fantasy, while the sophisticated computer animation makes those details seem fantastic. Michael Castelle once wrote at CINE-FILE that Monsters, Inc. was the most self-reflexive Pixar film because the "scare factory" represented a fusion of technology and creative effort, just like the studio's movies. Monsters University expands on that metaphor by presenting the College of Scaring as a combination of an aeronautics institute and a professional-baseball club. Who wouldn't want to work in that environment?

Well, I wouldn't, but then I'm usually inept when dealing with technology more complicated than a toaster. I find it easier to relate to Pixar's romantic view of computer science as expressed in the movies' particulars. Sullivan's fur, the grass on the Monsters University quad, that dumb flyer: I can imagine myself putting my hands on these things even though I know they aren't real.

Monsters University
  • Monsters University
After I caught up with Monsters University on Wednesday, I went to Doc Films for their screening of Stan Brakhage's A Child's Garden and the Serious Sea (1991), another movie that rhapsodizes its own creation. As in much of his work, Brakhage exploits the physical properties of celluloid for poetic purposes. Many of the garden images are purposely underlit, making the flowers appear as if wrapped in black velvet; the ocean shots are often a little blurred, evoking certain effects in watercolor paintings. There's a tactile quality to these images, but it doesn't correspond to that of the subjects. Brakhage is presenting gardens and water as they exist in the imagination, not as they exist in the world. The movie made for an interesting comparison with Monsters University, which employs technology far more complicated than Brakhage's to more immediate effect.

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