It isn’t often that a production will justify a reviewer’s use of the delightful word “pixilated,” especially as a homonym. That said, if ever there was a time, it is now. In Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon’s utterly transfixing and transporting 4D tribute to Scots-Canadian pioneer filmmaker Norman McLaren, here for a brief three-day engagement at the Kennedy Center, both the filmmaker and his revolutionary animation films are nothing less than pixilated. Friday night, with the assistance of dancer-choreographer Peter Trosztmer, they drew their animated audience irresistibly along with them.
Nominated four times for an Academy Award, McLaren would win one in 1952 for Neighbors, a short film employing a technique known as pixilation, a stop-motion style of animation involving flesh-and-blood actors who interact in improbable ways with animated objects and characters. In Norman, Trosztmer finds himself playing by turns observer, companion, and unwilling victim of a host of ghostly, mischievous, threatening, affectionate characters from another world, yet in many ways one we have known all our lives.
Settling into our seats at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, we find the virtual reality has already begun: After the usual cellphone announcement, we hear the musical tones of someone’s phone. As it continues unabated, our good humor starting to fray, a slim man in jeans jumps up onto the stage, answers the phone, and tells whoever it is that he’s about to start a show and will call them back later.
The man is Peter Trosztmer, and he’s come from Canada to introduce us to Norman McLaren, whose films, beginning with Flicker in 1961, became a part of Peter’s childhood.
No sooner said, than done.
The show takes the form of a story told by Peter and illustrated by film clips supported by supertitles of relevant names and dates — and holographic appearances, amusing, edifying and occasionally eerie, of the people themselves. We begin with “Begone Dull Care: A Fantasy in Colors” (1949): abstract-art images ripple, fly, float, explode and dance down and across the screen, a jazzy piano, bass and snare-drum trio offering cool comment on the ceaselessly eye-catching action. Shifting to a large and largely empty office space in predominant hues of orange and natural wood, the story continues as Peter draws our attention to one of its huge Alice in Wonderland doors, which bears a padlock. What might it hold?
What it holds is what Lemieux and Pilon found when they visited what was left of McLaren’s studios at the Montreal headquarters of Canada’s National Film Board, then undergoing renovation: recorded interviews and documentaries about the filmmaker by people who knew him. In short: the treasure that inspired the show we are watching now. “His films put you in the position of the creator,” says one holographic talking head. “You yourself become the creator.”
In other words, an imaginative child’s dream (or nightmare) come true. Who of us didn’t at least once have our sleep haunted, pursued by creepy cartoon characters, even inanimate objects whose bloodlessness made their inexplicable but inexhaustible pursuit all the more menacing? Here, we get to relive the experience from the reassuring perspective of adulthood, watching poor Peter being chased around the stage by the creatures of McLaren’s creative genius let loose to run amok around, behind, beside and even inside him, muttering cartoonish chortles, giving him and us leering grins, one kicking him while another caresses him.
McLaren once observed, we learn from the program notes, that if he hadn’t been a filmmaker, he would have been a choreographer. But Norman also wanted to be a dancer, Peter tells us, his unassuming, next-door-neighbor friendliness a buoyant counterpoint to the consummate artistic skill he displays throughout the evening.
What kind of dancer would McLaren have been? posits Peter. West Side Story? How about Space Invaders? Joan of Arc (the 1965, Robert Bresson version, bien sûr)? Why not Jackie Chan? Said, done: The Sharks and the Jets ruthlessly seize the stage with little more than a few thrusts, glares and swivels; a video game comes to variegated, pulsating life, each character sharply and identifiably delineated; the Maid of Orleans demonstrates unyielding, Cyrano-like swordsmanship; arm-locks, side-blocks and backfalls are lethally delivered and received, the vibrant 3D visual and lighting palettes (Alain Lortie) perfect complements to each re-enactment.
In another piece, a vertical, spectrally milk-white floor-to-ceiling line appears onstage; it oscillates back and forth, its motion either motivation or machination for its own reproduction, for soon, there are dozens. Now athletic and sinewy, now balletically graceful, Peter interacts with them to the strains of Ravi Shankar’s sitar as they rapidly merge, mutate and separate, change direction and density. Peter puts his arm alongside one of them; the effect is eerie, the flesh and the ghostly beam becoming one. Another spine-tingling use of the color commonly thought colorless occurs when Trosztmer, now barechested, his legs clad in dark gray, dances a pas de deux — which becomes a pas de too-quick-to-count — with chalk-like images, accompanied by the pastoral sounds of a wood flute. The figures metamorphose into pinwheels, their legs and arms multiplying, spinning circles around them and him, accompanied by Glenn Gould’s meticulous, lightening-speed, icicle-noted Bach. We can only gaze, rapt, not knowing where we will be taken, not wanting the piece to end, yet eagerly anticipating the next.
McLaren’s creations are remarkable not just in and of themselves, but in that they prefigured the popular passion that 3D film has awakened in the last 20 years, while remaining works of art that are that rare combination: they astound, entertain, and make the viewer think. Thanks to Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon’s virtual-reality, advance-projection-technology recreation of McLaren’s films, aided by Peter Trosztmer’s skillful and imaginative execution, Alain Lortie’s lighting design and Michel Smith’s sound design, among others, DC-area theater goers will have a chance to do just that.
Norman runs thru Oct 8, 2011 at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC.
Directed by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon
Concept, Media Design, Staging and Editing by Michel Lemieux
Choreography by Peter Trosztmer
Produced by Lemieux Pilon 4D Art
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission