Priit P

The Lenny Bruce of animation comes from Estonia, but his influence is felt all the way to "Rugrats" and "Duckman."

Published July 3, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Look behind the billboards for "Shrek" and "Atlantis" and you'll find a secret world of animation hidden from the general population. It's a world where there are no ducks, no ogres and no shitless big-eyed squirrels. Instead it's populated with animators whose creations rival those of any composer, painter or poet. One of those treasures is Estonian Priit Pärn. An illegitimate conceptual crossbreeding of Lenny Bruce, George Grosz and Jean-Luc Godard, Pärn's animated films are bitingly funny, complex explorations of the effects of ideological systems on human beings.

His work has received roaring applause and fancy awards, but like much of independent animation, Pärn's films are rarely shown outside the festival circuit. In addition to being an animator, Pärn is also a noted graphic artist, teacher and lecturer whose influence is so far-reaching that students from Finland, Switzerland and America travel to Estonia to work with him. And later this year, he'll receive the prestigious ASIFA award from the Association Internationale du Film d'Animation, which is given to an individual who has made significant contributions to the art of animation.

The Pärn phenomenon has reached California via a few relocated Ukrainians and Hungarians at Hollywood animation studio Klasky Csupo. The jagged, uneven palette and the informal sketchy designs of "Duckman," "Ahhh Real Monsters" and, to a lesser extent, "Rugrats" owe a debt to Pärn's graphic style. For those who've come to know animation only through Hollywood films and American television, Pärn's work is as refreshing as it is startling. The rounded, pristinely drawn characters and landscapes that dominate traditional animation are replaced in Pärn's work with a primitive style that rejects comfortable, eye-soothing tints and classical drawing technique. His bold colors and sketchy, childlike drawing leap out at the viewer, loudly announcing, "This ain't no Disney cartoon!"

The first Pärn film I saw was "1895." It's 30 minutes long; typically, an animation short of more than 15 minutes worries an audience -- they prepare to suffer. But at that screening of "1895" I, and everyone else in the theater, sat dumbfounded. It was like watching an animated version of a Monty Python sketch. "What the hell was that?" I said aloud. It shook my senses. I wanted more.

Pärn's most recent film, 1998's "Night of the Carrots," examines the effect of computers and the Internet on contemporary society, as well as the cult of celebrity. The story finds crowds of people, led by the protagonist, Diego, trying to get into a sanitarium-like institution called "PGI." It's not clear why these people want in to PGI; as the narrator says, "Being contenders was their real aim because once they were in they would have nothing to do." In each of PGI's rooms we meet a variety of bizarre characters who want only to escape. The occupants each have a personal dream that, they soon discover, they cannot realize because they are literally plugged into their rooms.

Escape from PGI is possible only during one night when all the rabbits (who control the world through computers) turn into carrots. Contrary to the ominous warnings about a Y2K cataclysm that preceded the new millennium, Pärn instead saw the period during which he was making "Night of the Carrots" as a moment of temporary liberation. For one evening, Pärn suggests, we could step outside of our rooms, away from our computers and embrace the natural world and, with it, ourselves.

Pärn used his main characters in "Night" -- each based on a famous individual -- to examine the cult of celebrity. Just as the Internet offers virtual interaction and experience, within PGI's seemingly glamorous world of fame, there is nothing but loneliness and longing. Not surprisingly, while the film resonates as a fable for our time about the plight of Everyman, it also poignantly echoes aspects of Pärn's own life.

He was born in the summer of 1946, in the Danish-named Estonian capital of Tallinn, while the world was cleaning up a landscape of corpses lost in a battle for the pockets of privilege and two rogues with absurd facial hair destroyed Estonian independence.

As an adult, he worked as a biologist and stuntman (he is not the basis for the Estonian midget stuntman on "The Simpsons"), then turned to animation in the mid-1970s. A designer on three films, he was given the chance to direct his own production, "Is the Earth Round," in 1977. Taking Heraclitus' line that you can never step into the same river twice, Pärn's debut featured a man who decides to walk in one direction to prove that the Earth is round.

"It was like my own problem," says Pärn, "because until a certain year my main interest was to go as far as you can traveling. It seemed to me that this was real life. This man leaves but comes back poor. His friends have stayed, have nice houses, but he has seen the whole world."

While one can see the roots of Pärn's design, color and playful use of symbolism in "Is the Earth Round," it has all the problems of a first film, including a poorly recorded soundtrack and awkward pacing. "At this time I didn't know anything about filmmaking," he says. "When we made sound I had to think how it would be -- if it's OK to make some breaks between sound or if it's a bad mistake. It was like inventing a bicycle."

Following his 1979 children's film, "And Plays Tricks" (his first international success), and "Exercises for an Independent Life," he made "Triangle." Released in 1982, "Triangle" is considered a landmark in Estonian animation for its examination of modern relations between a man and a woman; it fuses the personal and political into a witty observation of contemporary domestic politics.

"Triangle" deals with a twisted love triangle between a married couple (Victor and Julia) and a little man who lives under their stove (Eduard). Victor and Julia lead a static life. She cooks. He reads the paper. Lurking beneath this sterile relationship are Julia's fantasies of being loved and caressed. Victor leaves and, with little Eduard, Julia's hopes of passion and escape emerge. But soon the passion passes and Eduard settles comfortably, paper in hand, into Victor's old chair. When Victor returns, there is a brief joyous moment of reconciliation with Julia, but lust once again turns to sterility and silence. In the meantime, Eduard returns to the stove and his own empty relationship with Veronica, the woman he left behind. Foreshadowing virtually all of Pärn's later films, the characters in "Triangle" are too busy imagining who they are not rather than being who they are.

Pdrn has a simpler explanation: "My wife was in the hospital and I was learning how to cook. There is an old Estonian folk tale about a small man who comes out from under the stove and asks for food and eats everything. I just wanted to make a film about cooking."

His blunt portrait of domestic life in the Soviet Union was far removed from the typical children's films that were being tossed out in both Estonia and Russia, and it was a shock to many who saw it. Igor Kovalyov ("Rugrats: The Movie"), one of the transplanted Ukrainians who brought Pärn's style to Hollywood, saw "Triangle" in a movie theater in Kiev in 1982: "It was playing in front of a live-action feature. I was so amazed that I bought tickets for the next screening just to see 'Triangle' again ... I had never seen anything like this. I was so excited I called all my friends to find out who this Pärn was."

"No one wanted to allow the film onto the Soviet screens," recalls Estonian film critic Jaan Ruus. "It was a controversy among Soviet animators who were used to either drawing like Disney or drawing very exact and precise pictures."

Pärn's "Breakfast on the Grass" (1988) is considered by many to be one of the masterpieces of animation. In examining a few moments in the daily lives of four Estonians, Pärn trenchantly critiques life in the Soviet Union by giving viewers a rare glimpse of the absurdities of Communist society and what people endure on a daily basis just to survive. As with "Triangle," "Breakfast on the Grass" astonished Russian audiences with its frank portrait of modern Soviet life.

"I think the general audience was not prepared for this kind of animation," recalls Pärn. "It is a description of a very concrete society told in a realistic way using a dramatic structure that is closer to a live-action feature. But the story is performed using the tools of animation -- visual gags, metamorphosis and different drawing styles. Usually so-called serious stories are dark, heavy, slow and boring. I try to make my serious film funny, multileveled and ironic. I think this fusing of the serious and comic confused people."

In 1992, the year after Estonia became independent, Pärn completed "Hotel E," a bitter critique of the hypocrisy of both the East and the West. While the East represses art and language, he contends, the West, for all its freedom, lacks art and language and, with that, individuality. Playing with stereotypes, Pärn paints the East as a dark, gray world while filling the West with bright colors and friendly, smiling faces. Beneath this pop-art sugarcoating, he seems to be saying, the West is a culture of sterility and illusion. No one does anything, no ones says anything, yet everything is "just great."

"I had been traveling a lot between East and West," says Pärn. "I was between two systems. This is my own story up to a certain point. This is not a film about two systems, about East and West; for me it is a story about this person." While Estonia's independence afforded Pärn more freedom, it came with a price: "In the Soviet time everything which was not permitted was forbidden. So there were an endless number of restrictions that were political, but just insane. Now all the limits are connected with money. The final result is very often the same as before, sometimes worse."

Pärn's post-independence films still contain healthy doses of absurdism and symbolism, but their tone is significantly lighter and wittier. His most recent films, "1895" (co-directed with Janno Poldma in 1995) and "Night of the Carrots," move beyond examinations of individuals within specific ideological systems toward larger political-technological infrastructures.

In "1895," Pärn used the centenary of cinema as an opportunity to deconstruct it. (The film opens with the statement "The cinema, it is a lie.") The structure of the film is straightforward: The protagonist, Jean-Paul, does not know who he is and decides to travel around the world in search of his identity. (It turns out he's the co-creator of cinema, Louis Lumière.)

Pärn uses Jean-Paul's journey to analyze the cinema and its influence on our perceptions of the world. He argues that our ideas of nationality and history are constructed by cinema. (For example, footage from Sergei Eisenstein's fictional film "October" was often used as documentary footage of the Russian Revolution.) During Jean-Paul's travels, each country is reduced to a stereotype -- Italy is red wine and the Mafia; Switzerland is clocks and Swiss Army knives.

Cinema, Pärn seems to argue, has become so ingrained in our lives that we often allow it to replace our own perspective of the past. In a sense, "1895" is an anti-cinema film. It reminds us that there was a time when motion pictures did not exist and suggests that perhaps a movieless world was not such a bad thing. In a world without films, cinema aficionados might have done something more beneficial for humanity. (At one point we learn that François Truffaut was working on the invention of synthetic rain clouds before giving it all up to become a film critic and director.)

As with all of Pärn's work, there is an autobiographical element to the films. In "1895" he acknowledges his own complicity in propagating the evils of cinema through the character of Louis' brother Auguste Lumière, who disappears at the beginning of the film to become a biologist (like Pärn) before returning at the end to invent cinema with Louis/Jean-Paul. Pärn reverses cinema's role as an instigator of a generic memory and instead uses it to explore his personal memories of both his life and his films.

Influential as he is, not everyone loves Pärn's work. As with Godard, his live-action equivalent, some find his films ugly, sexist and illogical. ("It is not my problem what some people call my works," Pärn responds.) Pärn has fashioned a body of work that, through its very uncertainty, irony and rejection of accessible solutions, succinctly reflects our own complex, absurd and trivial condition. "Pärn is difficult to characterize," says his friend and colleague Janno Poldma. "He is like a big rock. He has his own unique logic and his will can take him through a brick wall."

As Priit Pärn begins his next film, which he says will involve Karl Marx and Marilyn Monroe, it's time to celebrate him as an artist whose work brilliantly and uniquely challenges the sociopolitical structures we take for granted, ranging from communism to cinema to the Internet. Each of his films asks us to consider how these systems are subtly (and not so subtly) shifting and molding our actions, thoughts and beliefs. As we become lost in an ever-expanding maze of technology that is turning us away from the outside world, Pärn aspires to show us who we are and where we've come from -- while reminding us that it doesn't have to be this way. In so doing, he escapes the constrictions of conventional animation and cartoon storytelling and takes his place as an international citizen in the kingdom of art.

By Chris Robinson

Chris Robinson is a writer, film programmer, and Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

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