Animated Characters

14th International Tournee of Animation Central Screen Animation Series at Carpenter Center Feb. 8,9,10

These two films have little in common. One is a documentary on jazz tap dancing, an esoteric film about an esoteric art. The other is a revue of animated shorts, some serious, some funny, but nearly all unique and entertaining. They are reviewed together only as good examples of the high quality of independently distributed films exhibited locally.

MANY YEARS before they committed Chuck Green, he would wander Harlem streets, listening to the city, tapping. One night, from a dingy basement cafe came an odd, whining tune: "Got no maps on my taps." Green liked the song, liked singing it to himself. During the years in the hospital, when his mind was clearly out of synch with reality, his feet kept tapping in perfect rhythm to his song. His tap dancing, which had earned him his living on the outside, now became a form of therapy on the inside.

He managed to tap himself back to sanity, sliding and kicking off the disease that had tormented him, kept him from performing. When he got out he looked up his old friend Sandman Sims. The two had not spoken in 15 years; they didn't say hello. Instead each tapped a quick step, drawing together with their feet.

George Nierenberg brought Green and Sims and Bunny Briggs together for a "competition" at Small's Paradise in Harlem, music courtesy of Lionel Hampton and his band. Nierenberg's film is a tough-paced homage to these nitty-gritty dancers, fading stars of a dying art.

Tap dancing, like jazz, is part of deep-rooted black culture. Slaves hoofed on bare dirt to silent rhythms; eventually stuck metal plates to the toe and heel of flat shoes. Tap's heyday came during the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s and 30s. Later, popularity spread when tap giants John Bubbles and Bill Robinson starred in Hollywood movies.


Tap never left Harlem for good, however. Green Sims and Briggs all learned to tap on the streets, to street rhythms, spurred by intense competition to keep pace, to create new steps, to establish an identity. The greatest old timers came from the streets, but they don't dance anymore. John Bubbles, the original Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess, lives it out in California, where he used to advise Fred Astaire. Bill Robinson, the old pro who tapped up and down stairs with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel, died a while ago. But No Maps has spectacular old footage of their sequences. Chuck Green was Bubbles' protege, and the two keep in touch. Nierenberg presents one painfully candid phone call from Green in a Harlem restaurant to Bubbles at home on the West Coast. They reminisce, anxious about the dwindling state of tap, anxious about each other.

And Bunny Briggs will never forget Bill Robinson, who came to his mother one day--"to the top floor of a cold building"--to ask her permission to take the six-year-old Bunny on the road with him. The offer thrilled Mrs. Briggs, but Bunny's aunt cautioned her against sending the boy with Robinson's troupe. Bunny stayed in Harlem. Fifty years later, he regrets his mother's decision.

At six, Bunny would attend semi-pro basketball games and dance at halftime while the fans threw coins. On a good afternoon, he might make a cool hundred, just enough to pay the rent.

SANDMAN SIMS had it different. The "ugly duckling" in a big family of tappers, he tried his hand at prizefighting. When boxing fans cheered his pre-fight dancing on the resin in the corner of the ring more than his boxing, he took up dancing seriously, incorporating into his act the sand dance that gave him his nickname. Sims steals Nierenberg's film. He loves the attention, claiming to be tap's Muhammed Ali, and in a "weighing-in" ceremony on a city street before the big night, he taunts Green and Briggs, daring them to tap it out "here and now."

Sims also displays an honesty, an awkwardness that is much more appealing than his clowning. Nierenberg beautifully captures Sims' afternoon visit with his ten-year-old son to the old Apollo Theater, where Sims had performed for 16 years before it went rock. Sandman remembers the nights he would tap himself off stage into a tall, wide brick alley where the night's dancing was just beginning. Passing on each step to his son, Sandman dances as Nierenberg backs his camera down the alley until we see the boy and his father dancing in a huge, austere cage, as if dancing were their only means of escape.

"A white tap dancer's got to say a black man taught me or I watched a black man," says Bunny Briggs. In the film's finale--the freestyle event in the competition at Small's Paradise--he, Green and Sims prove his point. These are not blonde chorus girls spinning their heels on Broadway. These are not even Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly hoofing it with lampposts on Hollywood back lots.

These are tap masters: Green slides in subtle steps, the soul dancer of the three, smooth, profound. Briggs adds a Hollywood flash. He waggles his hips as he taps, throws in a little jump, grins like a self-satisfied, grown-up L'il Rascal. Amazingly, the Sandman outsteps his friends, dancing like Ali if Ali had been a dancer, cool, hustling, full of street energy and showmen's finesse, heel to toe, over and over in a thousand combinations. Nierenberg's camera captures each one.


Satiemania is one of the longest films in the 14th International Tournee of Animation. Its creator, Yugoslavian (Zagreb) Zdenko Gasparovic, fills the screen for 15 minutes with images drawn from the music of composer Erik Satie. Beginning with a bevy of streetwalkers, the film progresses to a vibrantly red evocation of early 19th century Paris, a world seamier even than Toulouse-Lautrec's. Here prostitutes bite men's heads off, delicately remove their clothing, and loll sexily on plush pillows.

Gasparovic never ceases to change styles, using strictly charcoal in some sequences, splashing on the reds and pastels in others; now he moves the camera, now the subject. Pianos eat, and heads move independent of bodies; this strange world defies definition, adding a new dimension to Parisian impressionism: the paintings can move. The film ends with a stunning reproduction of a Van Gogh wheatfield; a flock of ravens flies to the foreground and the frame freezes.