The art of play

Pub date April 13, 2010
SectionFilm Features

FILM Through the rear window of a nondescript vehicle, three lines of dotted lights stream by in the darkness. The perspective shifts, and you realize you are at the seat of a car, driving through a tortuous tunnel, about to emerge into a skylit, open highway. You’re unsure of your location, or even your destination, but slowly, like a detective story, clues help you piece together some semblance of meaning and purpose. You peer into the rear-view mirror, dive into the road flickering behind you, and let your mind wander beyond that concrete past.

From there, animated filmmaker and multimedia artist Al Jarnow guides you on a hypnotic trip through the interconnected pathways of nature, art, and machinery in Autosong (1976). The dark tunnel returns anew, and the car disappears, unhinging your viewpoint in a disembodied drift. Oceanic tides wash away the whirling road and grids of cubes emerge, twisting in harmony as Jarnow deconstructs the geometrical notions that give form to subjectivity, motion, and space. “In my experimental films I leaned more toward music than a traditional narrative structure,” Jarnow says, calling from his home and studio in Long Island. “Themes build up and then repeat, come back slightly changed and repeat again… like a jazz variation on a theme.”

Brooklyn-born Jarnow found a supportive and inspired community for animated films in New York during the 1970s and ’80s. Trained originally as a painter, he fell into the medium by chance, coaxed by a friend into animating humorist Edward Lear’s offshoot love story The Owl and the Pussycat (1968) with his wife Jill Jarnow’s vibrant paintings. “As we were in the process of making that film, I started doing experiments. And the thrill of seeing something move, and come alive, just woke up a whole new world for me,” Jarnow says. Fascinated with “sculpting in time” more than conventional cartoon plots, Jarnow populated his mesmerizing worlds with an atypical cast of characters and ideas.

Jarnow’s experimental shorts — handcrafted from cell-animation, stop-motion, painting, drawing, and photography — revel in the unending process of exploration and discovery. In left field films like Cubits (1978), Jarnow wields an unlikely power, bringing abstract concepts and formal procedures to life. Ink-drawn geometric shapes dance in rhythm on flashcards like robotic pop-lockers, revealing both operations of motion and a methodical creative process. Yet the logical rigor underpinning Jarnow’s stories feels human and impassioned, saturated with a visceral aura of wonder that is far removed from a scientist’s sterile research lab. Call Jarnow the Carl Sagan of animators (well, a bit more fun than that). “I think art is a form of play,” he says. “It’s a tactile experience of experimenting with the world around you, pushing it this way or that way, and seeing what happens. It’s as much for children as grownups.”

So it’s fitting that Jarnow also brought that playful spirit to bear on educational shorts for PBS’s Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact. In his first commercial piece, Yak (1970), the talking beast drops knowledge about the letter y, before running headfirst into the screen and terrifying many an imaginative youngin’ under the sheets (just check the YouTube comments). In Facial Recognition (1978), humans reproduce the computational functions of a dot-matrix printer, thanks to stop-motion magic. And billions of years are reduced to two minutes in the time-lapse of Cosmic Clock (1979), where the lifetime of a boy, a city, and nature all pass through their respective cycles (the last civilization even blasts off into space in a moment’s flash).

Even though Jarnow’s multilayered vision made a lasting impression on a whole generation in heyday of the Children’s Television Workshop, no one knew the author behind the box — and very few had the opportunity to penetrate NYC’s avant-garde animators scene. But earlier this year Jarnow finally got his due. Chicago’s archival imprint Numero Group digitally transferred 45 of Jarnow’s 16mm shorts and compiled them in a handsomely packaged DVD. Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow includes a 30-minute documentary and 60 pages of liner notes. The title piece, Jarnow’s most explicit scientific voyage, traces the window-light defining his studio walls from equinox to equinox, montaged with heliocentric frames of Stonehenge. It’s stunning — and difficult — but with some patience, you can travel the cosmos with the druids and back again.

The retrospective is hardly exhaustive. “Making art is a way of learning about the world,” Jarnow says. “It’s a way of processing the information coming in through you.” Jarnow hasn’t stopped experimenting with new artistic forays, ceaselessly searching for engaging mediums to provoke and compel. From installing exhibits at San Francisco’s Exploratorium (which set the framework for cofounding the Long Island Children’s Museum) and developing interactive computer software to making ephemeral sculpture on the beach, Jarnow continues to make a playful game, and invoke an animated wonder, of the world.


Screening and Q&A with Al Jarnow

April 22, 7:15 and 9:30 p.m., $6–$9

Red Vic Movie House

1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994