Directed and Written by Dusan Vukotic
Starring Jelena Verner and Zdravko Pavlis
Best Picture 1963 was Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, a randy romp of a comedy that seems an anomaly amongst Best Picture winners. The anomaly being that it’s a comedy, very few of which have won Best Picture. And also has a plot featuring lots and lots of sex. And is also one of the rarest of Best Picture winners, which are films that explicitly acknowledged themselves as a film in the text of the film.
The other Best Picture nominees in 1963 were the gentle, Sidney Poitier drama, Lilies of the Field, and the epics America America, Cleopatra, and How the West Was Won. Having already seen Lilies of the Field, it seems this post was destined to be about one of the epics: America America, Cleopatra, and How the West Was Won. But even saying that, I know I’ve said something not entirely true. After all, I’ve seen a little bit of How the West Was Won, enough to know it’s bloated and overlong and there is no way in hell I’m going to sit through it. Of the remaining two, Cleopatra was struck from consideration because it’s nearly four hours long and I don’t have time for that sort of movie at this moment. Never mind there isn’t much left to say about it at this point that hasn’t already been said. And while America America was likely the most personal film director Elia Kazan ever made, after the way he ratted out his political allies to save his own skin before the House Un-American Activities Committee, then manipulated facts to put out the pseudo-justification of On The Waterfront, there is no way in hell I’m going to give him any more attention than necessary. As far as I’m concerned, that I still love his earlier film, East of Eden, means I’ve given him enough.
All that said, why write about a Short Subject – Cartoon Also-Ran when there are so many other films in the top races that have never been on my radar?
The short answer is while this series was meant to expose myself, and you, to movies that might otherwise be forgotten because they didn’t didn’t have the juice to win the big prize at the Oscars, that doesn’t mean we can’t give over at least a few pages to films that were never going to make it out of the Short Subject ghetto to even be a Best Picture Also-Ran. In fact, that seems all-the-more reason to do just that.
The shorter answer than that is, I want to do one of these on cartoons, so we’re doing it on cartoons.
What’s It About?
Two very real, live-action children (Pavlis and Verner) sit on the plain white floor of a room, surrounded by various pieces of colored paper, and colored pencils. Over the course of the next 12 minutes they make a series of drawings that gradually grow more violent towards the others drawings, until finally the violence against one another bypasses the drawings and instead springs out of the children in a very real way.
Better Than Best?
The winner of the 1963 Short Subject – Cartoon Oscar was a little thing called, The Critic. Written by Mel Brooks, who provides the only voice, The Critic starts out as a film of colors and shapes coming and going onscreen to classical music. There is no plot to it, and no intent on being experimental with the form. Rather, it is just colors and shapes cutting into, and out of, the frame. Eventually, an elderly man’s (Brooks) voice comes in to critique the visuals as if being spoken by a man sitting in the theater watching this. At first he is a bit baffled by what he sees, though quickly he derides the film as some art film not worth his money. Still, he does his best to find a plot in it, eventually singling out some of the visuals as being dirty, even if they aren’t anything more than white splotches against solid fields of color. Towards the end, other voices come in to shush the old man – they are certainly played by Brooks as well – and at the end of the three-minute film it feels as if you’ve just seen the earliest incarnation of MST3K, only this time the target is avant-garde European films and not some grade-Z failure. But, despite the presence of Brooks’ riffing, the film is not all that funny and seems more an excuse for Brooks to burble out his thoughts on art films, rather than on any serious attempt to make a film that is anything more than a strange curiosity on Mel Brooks’ resume.
In contrast, Igra is a much more unified piece of work, and actually stands apart as a film worth seeing on its own. Igra was produced by Zagreb Film in Yugoslavia and is a hybrid of live action and animation. Indeed, for the first quarter of the film, including titles, the film is an entirely live-action show of the boy and girl drawing. And, for the next couple minutes thereafter, it never truly leaves the live-action world. When it does, the film always keeps one foot in the live-action world, cutting back and forth between the two settings liberally. In fact, there’s so much live action in the short that under current Academy Rule 19(II)(A), which requires animation to figure in to no less than 75 percent of the film’s runtime, Igra could never be nominated. And yet, under the Academy rules of yore, it was nominated.
Also nominated were My Financial Career, Automania 2000, and Pianissimo.
My Financial Career was a Canadian production and like The Critic, feels like a lark. Telling the story of one man’s difficulty in opening a bank account in the face of a pay raise at work, it is essentially an animated anecdote. Unfortunately, as was the problem with The Critic, My Financial Career is meant to be humorous, but mostly fails at being anything other than mildly enjoyable.
Automania 2000 was a British Production that takes the form of an animated documentary of the state of the world in the year 2000, as if told by historians from much farther in the future. Specifically, it traces the evils in the world to increased automation and the prevalence of the car, with the world eventually being crushed under the weight of the demand for cars of ever-increasing size. In this way the film feels as if it exists in the universes of both The Jetsons and Wall-E, both of which are dealing with an earth crushed by the remains of the conspicuous consumptions of the humans. Like The Jetson, films from 1963 often feel very dated, including Automania 2000, even though, its conclusions are also fairly prescient. After all, while society hasn’t quite endured a worldwide trend of 40-foot-long luxury cars in every garage, the prevalence of ever-bigger SUV’s is not far off it. Still, while the film does have some mildly amusing bits, and does accurately predict where things have headed, it never really reaches the crescendo of insanity in the modern world it seems to promise and, even if it feels like a prequel to Wall-E or The Jetsons, it never really reaches the heights of either of those things.
By far the most experimental of the bunch was Pianissimo, which is essentially a stop motion film about a player piano and record player that suddenly burst with color over the course of the film. Because it has no plot or narration to speak of – instead, it has a jazzy, up-tempo score – the visuals of Pianissimo are meant to carry the day, and while they are not bad, they are certainly primitive and a bit overlong at just six minutes. In a big way this film almost feels like the work of somebody new to the artform, just now feeling out the tech and how to use it.
Of the five nominated films, it is fair to say that Igra doesn’t necessarily break the newest ground, nor does it make the most overt political statement. On the other hand, it is easily the most clever and inventive of the bunch, mixing it’s use of live-action and animated footage remarkably well. In one instance, when one of the live-action children tears a strip out of the paper it opens a chasm in the drawings that the animation falls into. In another, when one of the animations begins dropping bombs on the other, it is reflected in the paper as holes ripped out of the page. And while there is certainly a throwback feel to the film in terms of its anti-war and aggression message – or, better to say contemporary to its moment message – it also feels relevant in todays world, what with the way the figural drawings of Igra resemble the figural drawings Don Hertzfeldt employs in his work, particularly in The World of Tomorrow.
On the whole, while I doubt Igra is truly an animated film – it is a hybrid of the two, and leans more towards live-action – of these five it is the best of the lot. It’s more inventive and transformative of the form, even if it has to cheat with the inclusion of the live-action elements. Better, at just over 12 minutes long you could easily watch it a dozen times in the amount of time it would take you to watch America America or Cleopatra.
A Note On Availability
All five films discusses here are available for free, in varying quality, on Youtube.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Just seven of them have ever won, the last being The Artist (2011), and given it is a silent film, in black & white, starring a Frenchman, it’s win seems like a dare that went out of control.
 It won Sidney Poitier his only competitive Oscar.
 It was based on his own book