Animation grows up

Jibaro is an artistic triumph

Artillery Row On Cinema

It’s a January tradition to pick a cultural highlight of the year gone by, preferably something that may have escaped the reader’s attention. Artworld folly being the most renewable resource of all, we are spoiled for choice. 

We could gloat about the Lucifer-like fall of Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre’s former director who became France’s special ambassador for cooperation on cultural heritage, charged by President Macron to report on restitutions to Africa. As of last May, Martinez faced very different charges, being accused of looting antiquities, fraud and laundering. Or we could warm ourselves to the spectacle of fools and their money being parted: NFTs, once the auction houses’ great white hope, have proved a great white elephant. In March, Malaysian Crypto entrepreneur Sina Estavi bought Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, the immortal “just setting up my twttr”, for $2.9 million. Two months later, Estavi tried to flip it for $48 million. He got offered $6,200, about 0.2 per cent of what he originally paid. Ouch.

But let’s not start 2023 with schadenfreude. Let’s uncover something that deserves celebration. What about Donatello, the Renaissance, the show that wowed Florence in early 2022? This major retrospective of the pioneering sculptor, jointly hosted by the Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello, is coming here to the V&A next month. It’s a must-see, but Donatello being splendid is hardly news, is it? Surely there’s something more current to rave about. In other years the place to find great contemporary art would be Basel, Venice or Miami but, for my money, the most important artistic event of 2022 happened in your living room. 

A love affair so kinky, it makes David Lynch look like an old romantic

One evening in 1927 Winsor McCay, creator of the character Little Nemo, was being toasted by colleagues at a banquet. Max Fleischer, of Betty Boob fame, praised McCay as animation’s inventor — an exaggeration but only a slight one. At the end of this night of being buttered up, McCay, quite possibly drunk, stood up to say, “Animation should be an art. That’s how I conceived it. You fellows have made it a trade. Not an art, but a trade. Bad luck.” It’s been a long wait but last year Netflix released a short film that lives up to McCay’s high standards. Told with no dialogue and visuals as gaudy as Versailles, Jibaro is about the short-lived relationship of a knight and a siren, a love affair so kinky that it makes David Lynch look like an old romantic.

A band of knights ride through an autumnal forest. They pause by a lake haunted by a beautiful monster — a woman draped in golden beads who dances on the surface of the water. Her shrill screams lure the warriors into the lake, to their deaths. The one knight who resists her charms is deaf — and this very immunity drives the siren wild with lust. She proceeds to seduce the knight, although it’s unclear — to us and possibly to her — whether she plans to make love to him or eat him. Once the knight overcomes his terror and disgust, he reciprocates her attention, but his love is also ambivalent — does he lust for her lithe body or merely the gold scales that encase it? Will he win his fortune? Or will his corpse soon lie amongst the rusty armour that lines the bottom of the siren’s lake?

This bare summary cannot do justice to Jibaro’s wonderful weirdness. You must see it. It’s directed by Alberto Mielgo, the Spaniard responsible for the unique style of Into the Spider-Verse, Sony’s joyful 2018 animated feature. Jibaro is an episode of Season 3 of Love Death + Robots, the brainchild of Tim Miller and David Fischer. The animated series is one of several anthology shows that followed in the wake of Black Mirror’s success. Like Black Mirror, the episodes of Love Death + Robots vary in tone and quality. It was originally conceived as an adaption of the long-running French Sci Fi magazine Heavy Metal, a publication which is to sexy robots what Brokeback Mountain is to gay cowboys. Mielgo directed another episode of Love Death + Robots called The Witness which has similar themes of murderous obsession. His cool and meditative short film The Windshield Wiper won an Oscar last year, whilst Jibaro picked up an Emmy.

Jibaro’s aesthetic has the intensity and specificity of a fever dream: the detail of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, the golden patterns of a Klimt mural and costumes that blend Indian, European and Slavic influences. If the historical setting is ambiguous, it’s fairly clear that the knights are conquistadors. The reputation of the mad pirates who conquered the Aztecs and Incas has sunk in recent decades but they still have some ineffable quality that inspires artists to strange heights. Perhaps it’s that Latin combination of faith, wild risk-taking and limitless greed. When Keats describes stout Cortez “with eagle eyes/He stared at the Pacific — and all his men/look’d at each other with a wild surmise”, who is not swept up in that Spanish scoundrel’s ambition? Werner Herzog certainly was. His 1972 Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a timeless study in obsession, whilst in 2006’s The Fountain Darren Aronofsky pondered the fatal lure of the Fountain of Youth. 

Animation, an especially expensive artform, is often the slave of commerce

Jibaro has echoes of these weird sisters but it is very much its own monster. With perhaps the most entertaining depiction of greed on film since The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Jibaro can be read as an ecological parable, or an exploration of the perverse dynamics of colonisation. Or it can simply be enjoyed as a dance — an especially murderous tango. As a dramatisation of the battle of the sexes it merits comparison to the Afternoon of a Faun danced by Nijinsky in 1912. Nijinsky scandalised and mesmerised French audiences who were used to ballet being altogether more genteel. Watching Jibaro for the first time, I was similarly taken aback. Further viewing only deepened my respect for Mielgo’s achievement. A 17-minute film that makes one realise the medium’s possibilities have barely been explored? That’s something special.

Having once directed a cartoon show for the BBC — I was young, I needed the money — I know all too well that Bismarck’s crack about laws and sausages applies to animation too. If the onscreen results can be sublime, the making rarely is. Wringing even a drop of beauty from that jungle of logistics is jolly hard; the moving tapestry Mielgo has weaved is a veritable miracle. This tapestry is composed of sumptuous textures and telling gestures — the covetousness of the knight concealing the first gold nugget he finds, the brazen way the siren licks his sword. This wanton impudence makes the mass-murdering siren Jibaro’s most sympathetic character. She’s also an example of a woman exercising power in a way that is specifically female, something vanishingly rare in today’s cinema. Most contemporary filmmakers’ notion of a strong female lead is one who acts like a man — a puerile notion of empowerment. Mielgo knows better. The siren, in contrast to her blundering prey, is indirect and playful as she targets their weakness. She is as innocent as a spider, and as deadly.

In an age when live-action feature films have become increasingly infantile and cartoonish, it’s heartening to find grown-up themes in animation. That is rarely the case. Animation, an especially expensive artform, is often the slave of commerce. Although Pixar’s films are inventive and touching, they are primarily children’s entertainment. The toys are not peripheral; they are, to a large extent, the point. Japanese Anime allows for wider subject matter, it’s true, but Manga that makes it across the Pacific is typically youth-oriented fantasy. 

Jibaro is fantasy, too, of course, fitting the lurid style and titillating themes of Heavy Metal. The difference is that this is a full-blooded tragedy, a mode common enough in literature, theatre and opera, but essentially unknown in animation. Alberto Mielgo denies his characters, and us, the happy ending we all think we deserve, leaving us instead horny, horrified and heartbroken. I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

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