Paul Shallcross, who today played the lovely score he composed for the film, gave an excellent introduction as to why the film has historically been revered as a landmark: the youth of the director, the painstaking mode of animation involving cardboard silhouettes and thin sheets of lead which took three years to complete, how each frame was lit from below and photographed from above using layered backgrounds one painstaking frame after another, how famous avant-garde figures such as Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch and Carl Koch worked on the film etc. But personally, I always thought there was a reason why silhouette films never took off. It always felt too much like a successful attempt in gaining maximum expressivity from a limited vocabulary; and why bother? The images are delicate and pretty. The story, from the Arabian nights and featuring Aladdin, his lamp, witches, sorcerers, dragons, warriors and princesses — and a setting ranging from the Middle East to China — is exciting and involving. But why not tell the same story using a greater visual vocabulary that allowed more movement and a greater range of expression? Today I got my answer.
I had ever seen the film on a big screen before, and it made a difference. I had never seen it with a mixed race audience, and it made a difference. I had never seen it in a room full of kids accompanied by their parents, and that was the biggest difference of all: they were involved, they understood, they appreciated it. They couldn’t understand the sub-titles but they kept asking their parents what was happening and why (one insistent kid, who obviously couldn’t speak English, had a whole exciting line of questioning for his parents in Spanish from beginning to end). On one level the children understood much less than I; on another they made me see what I hadn’t been able to see before; that a limited vocabulary might not be a bad way of communicating with an audience who doesn’t have a greater one at its disposal.
That’s not the whole story of course; the film has ever been beautiful to look at; the delicate filigree curlicues of the cutouts, the shape of the figures, the rendering of ‘The Orient’, the romantic fantasy of the world created for the film. All have many pleasures (and some dilemmas) to offer any audience.
The event was another success for Flatpack, an achievement best resumed as way of involving local artists with some of the greatest artworks in film history and engaging a wide range of local communities with that work in a landmark location worth discovering or re-discovering, in this case the new Library. May such efforts long continue.
Seen at the Birmingham Central Library, 8th June 2014