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House of Tudor 

A baptism of Firewater, some animated animators, and The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Wednesday, Nov 12 2003
Founded and fronted by former Cop Shoot Cop bassist Tod A., Firewater has always possessed the elements that commingle to transfix a person like me: a lead vocalist who sounds as if he's been gripped by mean winds and smooth whiskey; a songwriter preoccupied by the cracks, crevices, and grime acquired by the faces, blacktops, and halos of the world; and a musical director held in the sway of minor keys and musical diasporas, such as Rom and klezmer, but groomed by the post-apocalyptic punk of Taxi Driver and Mad Max. By himself Tod A. is all of these, and yet Firewater has not quite lived up to the promise of its 1996 debut, Get Off the Cross (We Need the Wood for the Fire), until now. Excepting the second and third songs (and perhaps the 11th), which seem nothing more than barker's bluffs to instill indie fans with a false sense of security, the group's latest, The Man on the Burning Tightrope, is a delirious carousel ride operated by a brokenhearted dipsomaniac with homicidal tendencies. Among aural sideshow lovers, the dark night of the soul on the midway is nothing new -- and Tod A. does not shy away from road-tested clichés like, "His heart beats out a cold tattoo," "Between the devil and the deep blue sea," "The glass is half full but the bottle's half empty." But his delivery, as the grizzled carnival crier and obsequious ringmaster, is exceptional and creepy, and his players (all now contributors to other Brooklyn "carnival" bands such as Gogol Bordello and the World/Inferno Friendship Society) are expert and unabashed. Calliope, bouzouki, accordion, and castanets lope and lure; trumpets and marimba grind and leer; crowds applaud, gasp, and jeer; and, beneath it all, Tod A.'s tears collect in florid, greasepaint puddles, upon which his misanthropic sentiments might float. "It's hard to dance when you're down on your knees," he sings. "Put him with the other stiffs, boys -- take the pennies from his eyes," he howls. And on the title track -- the P.T. Barnum equivalent of Pink Floyd's "In the Flesh" -- when Tod A. is at his most vicious and alluring, he spells it out quite clearly: "It only takes one clown to blow the whole parade." Firewater performs on Thursday, Nov. 13, at the Bottom of the Hill with Full Moon Partisan and the Ebb and Flow opening at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 621-4455 or go to

For five years, the "Ideas in Animation" series has presented and premiered animated shorts from all over the country, with Nik Phelps & the Sprocket Ensemble composing and performing live musical scores that challenge and delight as they more deeply anthropomorphize the dogs, balls, balloons, mutants, and squiggles that dance across the screen. I hope no one has taken this series for granted, because the "next times" might be counted on one hand. Over the last couple of years, Phelps and his producer wife, Nancy Denney Phelps, have taken to traveling abroad as ad hoc ambassadors of American animation (no kinder, more delightful, or visionary ambassadors could we have). Most recently, they were invited to participate in the Russia/Ukraine-supported KROK International Animation Festival, held on a cruise ship in the Black Sea. Besides an abundance of wonderful stories and the desire to move to another country, the Phelpses have come home with an armful of cartoons from the Ukraine, Australia, France, Estonia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Russia, including Ivan Maximov's Slow Bistro, which strikes a chord somewhere between Maurice Sendak, Franz Kafka, and Yellow Submarine, and is worth the price of admission on its own. Nina Paley's ingenious new work Sitayana: Episode XXII, which uses the Ramayana as a backdrop for an Indian music video in which a cleavage-heavy Sita pouts through Annette Hanshaw's 1929 classic "Mean to Me," will also be shown, along with the West Coast premiere of See the Truth by American animator Jerald Howard. Original scores composed by Nik Phelps accompany every film. Go see "Ideas in Animation" before the Phelpses move to Belgium next year. This installment will be held on Thursday, Nov. 13, at the Red Vic Movie House (1727 Haight at Cole) at 7 and 9 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 668-3994 or go to

Ten years before Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which is often erroneously regarded as the first feature-length animated movie, Lotte Reiniger made The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a 50-minute film adapted from The Arabian Nights. Meant for children but inspired by Reiniger's own pioneering imagination, 1926's Prince Achmed uses meticulous, and often fantastic, silhouette cutouts, interspersed with abstract scenes comprised of sliced wax and sand on backlit glass. (Reiniger's techniques later became a great influence on the visual efforts of musical archivist/alchemist Harry Smith.) To make the movie, Reiniger had to build a "multiplane" camera, with which she was able to layer foregrounds on top of backgrounds, and while such genius drew to her project the greatest experimental filmmakers Germany had to offer, the movie was 100 percent Reiniger. Graceful, playful, and enchanting, Prince Achmed and the consequent shorts Reiniger based on other fairy tales remain some of the most beautiful pieces of animation ever created. A tribute to Lotte Reiniger will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 18, featuring six short films, and on Thursday, Nov. 20, featuring The Adventures of Prince Achmed and a short documentary at the Goethe-Institut (530 Bush at Grant) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5; call 263-8760.

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Silke Tudor


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