Happy Independence Day! Despite the many, many Canadian shorts I have posted here over the last year I am actually a US citizen, and just as excited for the Fourth as everyone else. Yet what sort of short film celebration is appropriate? We could look at some patriotic cartoons from the Golden Age of American Animation, or some old fashioned propaganda films from the World War Two era. However, I did much of that back in my Pearl Harbor Day column. I could arrange a collection of patriotic films, but the history of cinema doesn’t really yield a lot of great jingoistic shorts. That wouldn’t be much fun, anyway.
So, how about some fireworks? Everyone loves fireworks. They’re fun to watch, they work brilliantly with music, and they’re quite the cinematic spectacle. Up in the sky, colorful explosions against the dark backdrop of a summer night are not all that different from catching an outdoor film. We regularly use the word “pyrotechnic” to describe movies, whether or not they actually involve anything firework-related. The grand displays of July 4th night are worth celebrating on their own. Here are a handful of shorts with excellent fireworks moments to enjoy. Oh, and Happy Canada Day!
The Yankee Doodle Mouse¸ by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera
Did you know that Tom and Jerry won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short seven times? They had an uninterrupted winning streak from 1943 to 1946, and were nominated a total of thirteen times between 1940 and 1954. That might be my all-time favorite piece of Oscar trivia. This particular short was their first victory, a wartime cartoon from 1943. Stuck in a basement, Hanna and Barbera recreate the drama of modern combat by having the cat and mouse toss fireworks at each other for about seven minutes. It’s typically hilarious, a bit patriotic, and the creativity in the representation of almost independently moving fireworks makes it a classic of American cartooning.
Day & Night, by Teddy Newton
Almost seventy years later, fireworks are still great for short animation. While this 2010 gem from Pixar doesn’t focus on the pyrotechnics for its plot, they do appear in a particularly wonderful moment. Day and Night, two ingeniously designed characters, find themselves at first in a mix of competition and jealousy. Night is left lonely, with most of the world asleep when he wants to have fun. Yet as they show off the unique moments of beauty they each get to witness, they quickly become friends. It seems sealed when Night, overcome with the excitement of a fireworks display, occupies the whole screen with the explosion of colors. It’s a heartwarming moment, and one of Pixar’s best.
Fireworks, by Kenneth Anger
In his introduction to this video, Anger states that with this film he “released all the explosive pyrotechnics of a dream.” It’s hard to argue with him. The experimental director burst onto the scene with this once-banned classic, and was promptly arrested on obscenity charges. Thankfully, the California Supreme Court eventually let him off, declaring it a work of art. Busy, flowing music combines with violent and homoerotic imagery, a bold and near-impossible cinematic statement for 1947. Anger’s brusque sense of style makes it impossible to avert your eyes, building a visual spectacle that is bound to both arouse and incense.
It’s both stressful and revelatory, and is in that way also perhaps a fitting film for the Fourth of July holiday. Love of country, after all, doesn’t have to be excited jingoistic display without nuance or context. It is of course exceedingly frustrating that Fireworks was initially condemned by the authorities. Yet on the other hand, Anger’s body of work and the tradition of American Queer and experimental cinema he inspired is absolutely a reason to celebrate the nation which gave them birth. That’s certainly part of why I’ll be enjoying the national party this evening.
There are plenty of other shorts that would work quite well to finish things off. Victor Hugo Duran’s Fireworks, which I caught at Tribeca this April, is making the festival rounds and is absolutely worth a watch the moment it makes it to the web. However, I’d rather call attention to a phenomenon I noticed while doing research for this week’s column. Fireworks, as an almost inherently cinematic spectacle, inspire more than just the professionals. YouTube is absolutely brimming with videos taken by amateurs and aspiring filmmakers, many of whom have carefully shot and edited their footage for the web. I know it sounds a bit silly, but take the time to look around and find some cool fireworks footage. There are pyrotechnic events all over the world, as well as countless fans watching with their cameras. Here’s a video of the American entry in last year’s Montreal International Fireworks Competition. American fireworks in Canada, isn’t that appropriate?