Priit Parn, Estonia's animator-general

  • 2006-04-26
  • By Paul Morton

MY MARILYN: Priit Parn's most recent film, 'Karl and Marilyn'(2003), is the latest work from an artist whose career has mirrored contemporary Estonian history.

TALLINN - Priit Parn spent some hours at the cinema when he was growing up in the '50s and '60s. "I saw Russian films, Georgian films, Hungarian and Polish films." Did he see any French New Wave movies, any Godard or Truffaut, which at the time were testing censorship standards in the States? "Yes…and Italian neorealism." But other than some Chaplin and old Tarzan flicks, he can't remember seeing too many American movies.

And, even though Parn's three-decade career as an animator is among contemporary Estonia's great cultural touchstones, he can't remember seeing many cartoons as a child.

Though Parn, 59, doesn't say so himself, his lack of influence may very well have freed him to find his own voice. Critics have called him the master of metamorphoses, a label he dislikes. "It's only because of 'Trickster,'" an early film from 1979 about a trickster-transformer who becomes, among other things, a tree and a Picasso-like face.

Still, though "Trickster" was his only film to focus on the idea of a single character morphing and remorphing, all his rather Dadaist films play games with rapid changes in perspective, mood, time and space. In "Breakfast on the Grass" (1987), for instance, a group of Soviet icons and images somehow morphs into a famous Monet painting.

Every frame of Parn's movies is filled with quick details that last as little as a half-second on the screen. An over-the-top table setting in "Triangle" (1982) contains lamb and exotic beans. An image of a squirrel going into and out of a hole in "1895" (1995) was apparently an "inside joke" for "the small animation community."

Some frames of his films are as complex and precise as a line from Eliot. And watching any of his movies once is a bit like speed-reading "The Wasteland" and not bothering with it again.

I met Parn on April 20 at the Eesti Joonisfilm studio in Tallinn. There were a series of trophies from various animation festivals piled on a small cabinet behind us. A '50s-era animation camera stood in the corner as decoration. Parn is a small man, with a gray pencil mustache, and he has a quiet manner offset by a subdued sense of humor.

Soviet Dreams
"I was never a dissident," Parn says. "I was a political protester," working in and around a system reliant on Soviet funds and at the mercy of the Soviet government. After an early career as an ecologist, Parn became a caricaturist, "a small step," he says to animation. He made his first films in the '70s. Life was easier for Estonian artists than for artists elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but in 1982, when "Triangle" came out, Parn earned the ire of communists.
The film tells the story of a love triangle between a wife who seems a slave to her kitchen, a businessman-husband who seems a slave to a newspaper, and a man who looks the very image of a greasy Greek stereotype who lives in a mouse hole.
Moscow was not amused. "They said it was insulting to Soviet women."

Luckily, the movie was finished. "If the movie wasn't done, they could put pressure on you, change the director, cut your funding. But once it was done, you just faced them as they threatened to cut your movie." Of course, there was the risk of his never getting work again.
The committee wanted to cut eight minutes. Parn refused and there was a stalemate as his studio in Estonia continued to lose money. Eventually, they made a compromise. He would cut one-and-a-half seconds. "Instead of making 400 prints of the film, we could only make 20 prints."
But here's the great part:
"We couldn't show it at film festivals [in which relatively few people would see the film]. But they let us show it on Soviet television for 100 million people. The Soviet system was so stupid."

In 1983, Parn wrote the script of what would become "Breakfast on the Grass," a grim series of vignettes about the horrors of Soviet life. "We were showing what it was like to live in a totalitarian society where everyone has to think one way."
At one point, a bleak black-and-white vision of a Soviet-era supermarket is interrupted by the images of fat colorful women. When he wrote the script, he never thought he would get funding from the central authorities, but he did. "Nobody understood it."
Parn traveled with the movie to several animation festivals in Western Europe in the late '80s, when his country was starting to open up and gained an interesting perspective of a unique period, spending two weeks on one side of the falling Iron Curtain and then two weeks on the other. His response was "Hotel E" (1992).
In the film, Parn constantly switches between a sterile vision of the American dream, in which a dull living room is filled with paint-by-numbers pinks and blues and a grim vision of faceless Eastern European drones standing around a circular table.
"That film is very much still alive after 15 years. When you look at the issues of Polish workers going to France and with the tensions that still exist between Eastern and Western Germany."

"Hotel E" ends with a vision of a Looney Tunes-type cartoon in which a wolf places a carrot up a rabbit's ass, perhaps a vague premonition of McDonald's capitalism.
After the Flower Revolution, Parn gained a new level of freedom and his work reached a new level of maturity with "1895," his own personal favorite.
"1895" follows the life of one Jean-Paul through a late 19th-century landscape filled with anachronisms and film references, and held together by a long rhapsodic monologue, written by Parn. At one point, Jean-Paul arrives in Sweden in the early 1870s, wonders whether Alfred Nobel is inventing dynamite and thinks he sees an image by Ingmar Bergman, all while ABBA plays in the background.
"When you're from a small country, everyone always stereotypes everything about you. I wanted to turn it around and stereotype all the big countries, like France, Sweden and Germany."

But there is much more to "1895" than petty nationalist jokes. The film, his epic, is Parn's half-insane love letter to cinema. You can imagine it as a conglomerate of all the images that hit him as a child going to the movies, filtered through an unsentimental comical lens shaped by his own country's unsteady years.

Animator in winter
Though he sits on the juries of various animation festivals and teaches animation one week out of every month at the University of Turku in Finland, Parn says he doesn't really like watching cartoons. There's nothing new anymore. "Everything fits in a box." He reads novels instead, Garcia-Marquez and Murakami.
Parn seems to have had a bit of a dry spell lately. A half-hour movie, he says, takes six months of pre-production and one year of production, but the last film he directed came out three years ago.
Right now, he's preparing for his next films. He will direct a two-minute short that will work with charcoal drawings. He's also looking at making a longer movie, of which he would only reveal the title, "Life Without Gabriella and Ferri."

Last year, Eesti Joonisfilm produced "Frank and Wendy," which he wrote. It's a feature-length cartoon which again plays with nationalist stereotypes. The Russian Orthodox Church in Tallinn's Old Town is decorated with the sign, "Topless Exchange Rates." American CIA bosses are presented as morbidly obese Texans. At one point in the film, Jacques Chirac dresses up as a terrorist in order to sneak French cheese into America. "It's politically incorrect," Parn says. "Like 'South Park.'"