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By Phil Hall | February 15, 2006

The Museum of Modern Art in New York seems to be filling a fascinating niche as the presenter of feature-length animation that Hollywood distributors cannot or will not release. Last year there was the extraordinary anime “Mind Game,” and now here comes the South African “9 Drawings for Projection.”

“9 Drawings for Projection” consists of nine short films created by William Kentridge between 1989 and 2003. Working with intense black-and-white sketches punctuate by occasional stabs of red and blue, Kentridge creates a grim, surreal world of avarice, lust, rue and anxiety. Speaking both of the human condition and the events that shook his native land, Kentridge offers a startling vision which is radically different from the too-safe animation being churned out by American studios.

The series begins with “Johannesburg – 2nd Greatest City After Paris.” The focus here is a triangle involving Soho Eckstein, the bloated mine owner and land developer who watches over his kingdom in too-tight pinstriped suits and a toxic cigar; Mrs. Eckstein, a somewhat chubby and lonely woman who is not part of Soho’s work and (it seems) is not part of his heart; and Felix Teitlebaum, Mrs. Eckstein’s overly romantic lover. Felix is depicted as being naked, as if he wears his passion by wearing nothing. (Why the characters have Jewish names is never clear.)

Each cartoon follows the gradual deterioration of Eckstein’s corporate empire and the collapse of the illicit affair between his wife and Felix. “Monument” shows Eckstein overplaying his hand by unveiling a giant statue of an African laborer – the statue comes to life, heaving in anguish of the load it carries. “Mine” depicts the cramped living conditions and dangerous working environment of African miners who plumb the earth and fill Eckstein’s fortune with their output. As they toil, the magnate lies in a heavily cushioned bed and blows smoke rings that turn into adding machines.

“Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old” (the best of the group) finds Eckstein’s world collapsing. He is abandoned by his wife and his finances disappear while voices of protest against white rule fill the streets beyond his window. All he has to comfort him is a black cat, who at one point jumps on his face and turns into a protective gas mask – an irony, given the man has inhaled a poisonous warped world for so long that fresh air of change could kill him.

Eckstein’s marriage recovers with “Felix in Exile,” which finds the nude lover in a lonely room. He prepares to shave, but with each razor stroke the reflection in the mirror responds by slicing away the face until nothing remains. Four more cartoons (“History of the Main Complaint,” “Weighing…and Waiting,” “”Stereoscope” and “Tide Table”) fill the cycle, each offering similar views of despair and anguish.

It is not a perfect concept. At times, it is easy to feel Kentridge’s films run the risk of being more artsy than artistic (especially the distracting bits of color). And some startling concepts lose their impact when repeated (most notably with Felix kissing Mrs. Eckstein’s hand, which turns her palm into a pond for small fish to swim about in).

Yet even with such flaws, One can easily determine why “9 Drawings for Projection” will not be at a cineplex near you: it presents too much of an aural and visual challenge (no dialogue, unsettling music and sound effects, eerie and frequently grotesque imagery). This is not animation for kids, by any stretch. But then again, segregating animation to kiddie fare destroys the power which this genre can offer. “9 Drawings for Projection” helps to restore the notion of what animation can and should achieve. It is a remarkable achievement.

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