Beginning in 1976 through 2011, Cambridge, Massachusetts based animator Karen Aqua made thirteen short independent films journeying within the human body, contemplating creativity, sending a love note to her favorite place in Spain, and, with her frequent collaborator, musician husband Ken Field, considering the relationship between music and image. In her penultimate work, 2009's "Twist of Fate," she used artistic expression to grapple with a diagnosis of life threatening illness. All of these works have been gathered together on DVD by Microcinema as "Animated Films by Karen Aqua."
It really is a pleasure to be able to see an artist blossom over the years, to see themes continued and find threads crossing from one work to another. Microcinema's DVD presents thirty-five years of independent filmmaking simply, and while one can jump around the disc, it really makes sense to step through the shorts in the order in which they were created.
Aqua mostly used good, old-fashioned hand drawn animation techniques, but she also employed stop motion, cut outs, still photographs and, in one case, live action film, albeit experimentally. This is a DVD, not Blu-Ray, and some of the films show some pops and scratches, but in this case, that actually feels right in light of the hand fashioned nature of the work. The bare bones DVD would have benefited from an internal booklet, even a one pager offering more information about Aqua's collaborators, although the individual films are listed with a brief description on the back cover.
1976's 'Penitralia' shows a simple figure moving over what appear to be mountains, but is actually another human body. It dives into the larger figures eye and makes a circuit before returning, like an impressionistic version of "Fantastic Voyage." Right from the onset, we can see how beautifully Aqua's drawings constantly evolve from one object or shape into another with a very fluid style. In 1980's 'Heavenly Bodies,' a figure's eyes become stars which fall into the sea and morph into a starfish. Here the artist's images almost become optical illusions, as we look at something from one angle become altogether different from another. Pairings of images are notable, something which becomes even more prominent in 1982's Vis a Vis. This self-reflective work shows a woman at work, possibly drawing, who cannot resist the view from her window. An imagined journey goes to a beach sporting a palm tree, a recurrent image in Aqua's work, but the figure of imagination cannot resist drawing in the sand. It is a beautiful and playful depiction of the two sides of creativity which literally and figuratively feed one another.
In 1984's 'Yours for the Taking,' a new element is introduced as Aqua works with clay artist Jeanée Redmond. A three legged coffee cup picks up something from every environment through which it travels, constantly changing its design. In the film's most amusing sequence, the cup stops to share a meal with one of Aqua's human figures and we see a fish and glass of wine animated on its surface turn into an empty glass and fishbone. 'Nine Lives' from 1987 uses the device of a cat's tarot reading to trip through time, reflecting on human history and culture along the way, while 1989's 'Kakania' has primitive tribal figures expressing the anxiety and chaos of modern urban culture, all set to a terrific, jazzy score performed by the band Skin. Three years later, the animator looked at time in 'Perpetual Motion,' often in ways we may not think of it. Astrological charts transition into clocks which in turn become astronomical depictions and mathematical symbols. Seeds are planted, grow and are harvested as the seasons change and Aqua never loses that fluidity as geometrical, fixed ideas turn into something quite different.
In Roswell, New Mexico, Aqua noted that ancient rock carvings exist a mere thirty-five miles from the Trinity site of the first atomic bomb detonation. This inspired 1997's 'Ground Zero/Sacred Ground,' a juxtaposition of the two where the dawn of man is horrified by its later history. One area celebrates life, the other stands for its destruction and the two come together as Aqua incorporates nuclear symbols amongst her animation of the carvings. It's a difficult work to describe, simple, yet with strong ideas that really reverberate. 2001 brings the most atypical film, 'Afterlife,' in which we see the artist as she, along with a man and another woman speaking in Spanish, repeat phrases expressing the dual fears of the aftermath of 9/11 and chemotherapy. It is a very personal work which is more experimental film than animation.
2004's 'Andaluz' is a stunning evocation of a favorite place, set to glorious flamenco by her husband Ken Field. Aqua is rarely literal here, but with a bouquet of citrus, an earthen jug, the ruffles of a dancer's dress, she gives one the vicarious experience of place. She partners with her husband again as they bounce their artistry off one another in 'Sensorium,' a 2007 work which explores the relationship between the visual and music. This recalls Chuck Jones's 'The Dot and the Line,' but only as a springboard. Aqua's animation has a push/pull tension reflected in the music as it surges and ebbs. What begins as curved lines and dots turns into the more elaborate visuals of a kaleidoscope. Mortality looms once again in 2009's 'Twist of Fate.' Using animation and collage effects with photo imagery, Aqua gives us an expressionistic view of battling cancer (Aqua lost her fight in May of 2011). It's unsettling, from its biological microcosms to the human body as battleground, prodded and altered. The chaotic noise of a hospital corridor and the rush of medical records and charts (I suspect Aqua's own) feel like an assault. 2011's 'Taxonomy' is a celebration of animal, vegetable and mineral, Aqua's illustrative drawings 'framed' against animated backgrounds, before turning into a grid of the natural world, the image chosen for the DVD's cover artwork.
Aqua's visual inventiveness is emotionally evocative - I laughed out loud in delight at some of her ideas, grew somber with others - as well as being intellectually curious. Sound and music becomes increasingly important - an echoey earthen jug being filled with water is a notable element of Andaluz. Early music is provided by Handsome Brothers among others, but Field and his bands, Skin and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, become dominant and integral. "Animated Films by Karen Aqua" is an essential collection for fans of animation, and, interestingly enough, a specific subgenre of the Boston music scene.
Robin did not see this film.
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