Two minutes ago I didn’t know who Eino Ruutsalo was. My knowledge of twentieth century European animation stopped at Svankmajer, and just to undermine any attempt by me to fake an extensive knowledge of the subject, I’ve chosen to write this article on January 18th, the day when Wikipedia went black. So I just watched the two films and I encourage you to do the same. The first thing you notice when watching Le Saut (1965) (The Jump) is the music, it sounds like an early demo by The Screamers or Nervous Gender. It’s repetitive, aggressive and incredibly modern. Everything about the film is so surprisingly modern for its time that when you look at it now, rather than feeling that you are watching a forward-thinking artifact of a long since passed decade, you feel you are watching the slightly-retro creation of a modern film artist.
Ruutsalo’s aesthetic bridges both film-making and animation. The filmic shots contain moments of mundane surrealism. The opening sequence, for example, shows a man examining a boot. At first he examines it pragmatically, a workman perhaps examining his product testing it for quality. The image is tinted red, distancing us from the subject; this combined with the soundtrack means that when the man raises the boot and moves it towards his face, perhaps with the intention of examining the inside, we suddenly feel that he is going to drink from it -- swig from the boot in his hand. The absurdity of action is the most subtle form of surrealism, the ability to so subtly pervert an action of logic and of function and to imply something absurd speaks of a surrealist perspective more socially aware, perhaps even more political, than the vivid fantastical surrealism of the Dali school.
Arthur Rimbaud once said, “the poet becomes a seer through a reasoned and immense derangement of all the senses.” As film found its feet in the first half of the twentieth century, it challenged, one by one, the art forms of the last century: theatre was the first to be challenged by the shocking immediacy and verisimilitude of film, the internal narrative of the novel was challenged by advances of the narrative technique of screenwriters and with the surrealist movement, the disordering of the senses that Rimbaud spoke of became in its own manner the territory of poetic cinema. Le Saut, through its combination of the early electronic music and disorientating shots, intercut with rapid, sketchy almost modernist animations achieves a certain disordering of the senses and as a result a certain poetry inviting us to view the repeated shots of the man and the boot in an increasingly manic and chaotic manner. In the latter half of the film, the animation takes hold, drawing us further into a monochrome expressionistic experience, his animations scribbled, messy and twitching bring to mind the paintings of Basquiat. Again, I’m struck by the forward thinking of what Ruutsalo’s doing.
We return, in the, end to the man with the boot. The shots are cut closer, uncomfortably close; our perspective painted by the anxiety of what has come before. Again we see him examine the boots. This time, he tries them on and jumps out of his spaceless black reality into the white void of a snowy frame leaping and jumping freely, like a child playing in the snow. This sudden freedom of movement, this sudden control that the man, formerly suppressed in his mime of labour, has in these final frames is invigorating. He has escaped the chaos of his thoughts, the chaos of the animation and found a way to be free, jumping in the snow. Le Saut is in turns humorous and kinetic, surreal and mundane, a great example, in my opinion, of what can be achieved in a short amount of the time through the combination of techniques and styles.
The second film, Plus and Minus (1967), has a more cohesive style: the human figures are depicted as silhouettes adorned by additional animations and accompanied by a soundscape that makes use of a more traditional instrumentation as well as sound effects that complement our interpretation of the scenarios. In the first sequence, in an almost Brechtian manner, the human characteristics are painted on the black outlines of people transforming them from props to actors. Later Ruutsalo again makes use of the image of man, this time a soldier, miming his labour -- in this case a military drill -- removing his rifle from his shoulder and marching on the spot, the accompanying fanfare striking an ironic note in juxtaposition with the seriousness of the man’s actions. I was struck less by the second film, but I was still left feeling that Ruutsalo was not only ahead of his time, but incredibly confident in his clarity of vision. His imagination as represented in both these films foreshadows much of the developments that would later come to the mainstream in the form of music videos. His confident editing, the interaction between sound and image, and, most of all, his confidence in breaking free from the naturalistic representation of people and their environments has resulted in a style that cannot be categorised and cannot be honestly labelled.
To call Ruutsalo's films avant-garde would be denying the simple humour and human appeal of them. Of course if they were feature length then they would be a different animal, perhaps too much for the majority of audiences, but surely that's the beauty of the short film, the short story or the poem: they provide the space to experiment in a time frame that anyone can appreciate, and everyone should.