Dark tones

Arty Cartoon Noir a moody collection of shorts

GSU's cinefest
?University Center

Cartoon Noir is not the most appropriate title for Cinéfest's upcoming evening of animated shorts. Presented July 21-27, the pieces all have a dark, grown-up edge. "Noir," however, connotes a p articular pop, pulpy style usually caught up in crime, carnality and hard-boiled humor, and that's not what Cartoon Noir has to offer. Cartoon Angst might better label the moody pieces, which emphasize feelings of loss and alienation over stories or gags. Taken individually, they're not a bad bunch, but the most enjoyable animation celebrations are the ones that alternate the serious with the zany. With only a little comic relief, Cartoon Noir proves an imaginative but stoic experience.

The most lyrical of the shorts is the first one, Pedro Serrazina's "Estoria de Gato e da Luna," in which a cat speaks of his infatuation with the moon, a crescent roving across the night sky. Serrazino renders "Estoria" in a stark but splendid black and white composed of shadows, mirror images and Escher-esque cityscapes with virtually every single shot looking like a handsome piece of wall art.

"Klub Odlozenych" comes from the Czech Republic and will live up to some audiences' worst fears about Eastern European animation. The best cartoons from the former Soviet Bloc can offer shrewd, sturdy metaphors about totalitarianism leavened with earthy humor, and "Klub" ultimately makes some clever points about the collision of old Europe and new.

But it takes forever to get there. The actions depict the "lives" of mannequins abandoned in a dilapidated tenement, imitating the routines of daily life in a creepy, stop-motion parody of normalcy. But you see certain actions — like cooking, bathing, knitting and going to work — repeated so often you want to scream "I get it!" long before the film begins to pay off.

Julie Zammarchi's "Ape" takes a Russell Edson poem as inspiration for a wild, absurdist dinner table conversation between husband and wife that begins, "You haven't finished your ape, father." The lightest entry in the Cartoon Noir collection, "Ape" is nevertheless full of disturbingly malleable images of mundane faces and wild primates. Full of off-puttingly amusing lines like, "I wish you'd put some underpants on these apes!" Zammarchi's short, in part, provides a gruesomely effective message against eating meat.

"Lagodna" hails from Poland and has deliberately ancient-looking design, like a wood carving or 18th century illustration. At first it appears to be a nostalgic piece, with an old man at the bedside of a recently deceased young woman. But we gradually learn that it's not sentimental at all, but a disturbingly oblique story of lives marked by cruelty. Surprisingly effective, "Lagodna's" dim image and constant "tick ... tick ... tick" sound effects are all but guaranteed to cultivate claustrophobia.

Paul Vester's "Abductees" takes inspiration from actual accounts and post-hypnotic descriptions provided by people who claim to have had close encounters with UFOs. Vester mixes footage of interview subjects and even close-ups of tape recorders with diversely imagined visualizations of flying saucers and alien "grays." The animation styles vary from police-style sketches in pencil to vibrant, child-like paints, but with no intent of mocking or judging the witnesses.

Suzan Pitt's "Joy Street" has an intentionally ironic name, beginning as it does with a lonely woman stuck in an apartment that evocatively echoes her depression. Apparently fond of Freudian psychology, Pitt offers images that represent different emotional states, such as stagnant water for unhappiness and lushly growing jungles for lifted spirits. "Joy Street's" soundtrack cleverly features "Danse Macabre," a scat version of "What a Wonderful World" and a climactic tune sung by Deborah Harry, while intentionally "ironic" sound effects accompany the woman's guardian angel, who resembles a tiny escapee from the cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s.

Cartoon Noir resembles less a trip to an animated matinee than a visit to a gallery of modern and frequently abstract paintings. It emphasizes "art" more than "fun," so consider that either a warning or an endorsement.