American independent filmmaker Anna Biller handmade costumes, sets, props and music for Fairy Ballet, an adaptation of her theatre production. Chilean papier-mâché animation Strange Creatures is a modern fable for the climate change era, in which forest animals discover humans are the truly strange creatures.
Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles
Part-pagan ritual, part-fairytale, this dance around the Maypole produced by venerable English progressive rock stalwarts Jethro Tull is a fantastical, psychedelic happening. With music and spoken word taken from the group’s 1973 album A Passion Play, the film was made as a visual component of their elaborately-produced tour for the album. As such, it is rarely considered on its own outside of the band’s context, but the short film is an exhilarating and humourous work that touches on many aspects of fairytale and folklore.
The film begins with a forest dance. We see two ballerinas emerge from the wood into a field where a maypole is surrounded by potted plants. One eats a giant apple and streamers come flowing down from the top, while a rushing instrumental track builds. The girls are joined by a number of dancing animals, each weaving around the other in a joyous dance.
The second sequence is the story itself: Tull bassist Jeffrey Hammond serves as the narrator, or rather commentator, relating the story to the camera with a microphone. Dressed in a green Houndstooth suit and with an exaggerated Lancashire accent, our host relates an absurd fable, in which anthropomorphic animals try to help the hare find his missing spectacles. All the while during these first two sections, deft little filmmaking touches keep the clip interesting, especially when the action cuts seamlessly from the outdoors to the painted theatrical stage and back again.
With his spectacles finally recovered, the final sequence is—you guessed it—yet another forest dance. This time, the action moves completely outdoors and at night, our ballerinas and animals carrying torches for the surely impending bonfire. The familiar rushing refrain heard at the beginning returns, with the animals and humans dancing around a strange cupcake fountain. Revelry turns into a mosh pit and the action suddenly stops with an abrupt musical finale. —Herb Shellenberger
The Cat is an interesting meeting of the Yugoslavian animation studio Zagreb Film and Rome’s Corona Cinematografica, a prominent producer of documentaries, animation and experimental films. The short film was directed by Zlatko Bourek, one of the prized animators in the Zagreb School, a term for a group of Yugoslav animators whose works of social satire and modernist design became inter- nationally recognised from the late 1950s through the 1970s. A day-glo adaptation of Aesop’s ‘Venus and the Cat’, The Cat holds many hallmarks of psychedelic-era art and design: shocking colours, marbled or textured backgrounds and Aubrey Beardsley-esque figures, both nude and clothed.
‘Venus and the Cat’ tells of a man who falls in love with his cat. One version of the fable is written as such:
A Young Man became so fond of his Cat, that he made her his constant companion, and used to declare that if she were a woman he would marry her. Venus, seeing how sincere was his affection, gratified his wishes and changed the Cat into a young and blooming woman. They were accordingly married; but at night, hearing a Mouse in the room, the young bride sprang from the arms of her husband, caught the Mouse, and killed it. Angry at this behaviour, and seeing that under the form of a Woman there was still hidden the nature of a Cat, Venus changed her back again to a Cat.
The fable points to the conclusion that nature exceeds nurture. The Cat follows the story closely but with one special twist: the narration is delivered through song. The Italian libretto was purpose- fully left unsubtitled, the filmmakers finding the words less important than the mood and emotion of the singer. — Herb Shellenberger
Anna Biller’s short Fairy Ballet could perhaps be considered an outlier among the American independent filmmaker’s body of work. Most known for films that take on cult and genre cinemas, upending their conventions to infuse a female gaze and perspective not commonly shown, Biller has been hailed by critics and audiences for her features Viva and The Love Witch, as well as a body of short filmmaking.
But Fairy Ballet emerges from a feature film project that was abandoned and transformed into a stage production. The White Cat was a planned feature musical adaptation of French fabulist Madame d’Aulnoy’s conte de fée of the same title, in which an enchanted princess is turned into a cat. Realising the project’s outsized ambitions, Biller eventually adapted it for the stage instead. This production, titled The Lady Cat, was performed at several underground theatres in Los Angeles to acclaim, and was followed by the short Fairy Ballet in which a scene of the unrealised film was shot.
The fragment of The White Cat which survives in this film begins with a brief introductory scene of the Prince confessing his love for the White Cat. He pleads for her to change into a woman, or else transform him into a cat. She demurs, instead serving him “the afternoon tea of spring” and suggesting a walk through the garden. There the pair witness the awakening of spring, symbolised through a fantastical musical revue, with flowers, bees, fairies, nymphs, satyrs, Cupid and young lovers all prancing and frolicking around the soundstage.
This seemingly saccharine scene is beset with amorousness and sublimated sexuality. But besides this latent feminist revisioning of traditional forms— in this case the music hall opera—another element of continuity between Fairy Ballet and Biller’s larger oeuvre is her careful control over all aspects of the production. She not only writes and directs her films, but also crafts music, costumes, sets and production design herself, creating the worlds which her characters inhabit, and in turn bringing the low culture of populist genre cinema into the realms of the art film. — Herb Shellenberger
“Nothing could alter the calm of the forest… or so it seemed”. Strange Creatures is a beautifully stylistic papier-mâché animation which can be understood as a modern fable. The film is the first collaboration between Cristóbal Léon—who has made a number of successful short and feature films over the past years in collaboration with Joaquín Cociña—and illustrator and animator Cristina Sitja. It is an adaptation of Sitja’s 2014 children’s book of the same title (Extrañas Criaturas in Spanish) in which she wanted to talk about the effects of human actions on nature.
The film begins in the idyllic forest, with all the creatures—bears, birds and bunnies—enjoying each others’ company in harmony. Frolicking in the grass or eating communally, they share joyous moments together within the safety and comfort of their environment. Until one day, they return from an outing to find the forest cleared and their home destroyed. They immediately set about to find a solution, cobbling together a new domicile out of waste materials left by the loggers, but this doesn’t weather the elements. It’s only when they truly encounter the strange creatures of the film’s title— humans—that a solution begins to take shape. They impress on them the importance of the forest and ecosystem, and convince them they all need to work together to create a solution that works for everyone.
Strange Creatures is a fairytale story that is ripped from our current realities of climate change and eco-disaster. The film has relevance for viewers of any age, and by centring its story around the animals in the forest, it demonstrates how we need to work together to make the planet a balanced ecosystem for the benefit of all forms of life. — Herb Shellenberger