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‘Anima Mundi’: A Little Movie With a Big Plan

There’s something sweetly ironic about a writer-director like Godfrey Reggio showing up in Los Angeles Monday night to show the Hollywood swells his new movie. It was one of those ever-so-correct receptions and screenings that are a way of life here, this one at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The purpose: to sell a cause with a non-Hollywood type of film.

Put another way, can a little movie make it in the big time?

Reggio, who years ago gave up the monastic life of the Christian Brothers for the street life of political and social activism in Santa Fe, N.M., has a 28-minute, 30-second movie he hopes the schmoozers and the shakers might take a break from their big December box-office reports to see.

He liltingly puts it this way: This town is “the media mecca of the global village.”

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Right.

Sell L.A. and you sell the world.

Sell the world and you have a chance to save the world, and that’s what Reggio is all about . . . saving the world’s diverse living things. Winning an Academy Award next March wouldn’t bruise the cause.

Reggio’s movie, “Anima Mundi,” while clearly short, is deep of pocket. Its entire financial support comes from the big international jewelry company Bulgari, which has turned the movie over to the World Wildlife Fund for the purposes of raising public awareness about endangered life forms.

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“Anima Mundi” has become an interesting study in the potentially high-stakes cross-pollination of artists, business figures and the not-for-profit global cause-fighters of our times.

The Monday-night meeting at the museum with Bulgari and the World Wildlife Fund footing the bill was a significant move to accomplish several objectives:

* It was designed to catch the attention of entertainment leaders to the WWF’s concerns about the preservation of threatened life forms and environments throughout the world.

* It was designed to develop interest in the distribution and viewing of the movie.

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* It was designed to influence friends and win Oscar voters.

* And it was designed to gain additional financial support for other media and entertainment-based activities of the World Wildlife Fund.

The movie, now being considered for a nomination in the Academy Award short films category, may not be different from most of its fellow species, but when it comes to traditional movie forms, it’s totally on its own.

Among other things, “Anima Mundi” (Latin for soul world , inspired by Plato’s “this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence . . . ") has no stars, no spoken lines, no traditional story line. Its 70-plus stars include mountain lion, aardvark, pink cheko, barracuda, reticulated giraffes and wildebeest, plus a human embryo. Clearly, its title would never have survived a market analyst or a focus group.

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The movie is largely a series of animal images that a Noah would have lusted after with a score by American composer Philip Glass that serves as both a form of dialogue as well as a musical environment.

What you get is what you see. Images of life that might fade, that might just endure. The meaning is in the viewing.

Forget the old thought that a picture is worth a thousand words. For Reggio, “one thousand pictures are worth the power of one word. Language has lost its original charge. Here we fuse images and music. We use no language in this film because language has been stripped from us. We’ve lost how to use words.”

Obviously, this filmmaker has not.

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Reggio has been making sensitive, nonverbal, non-traditional music and image films like this for almost 10 years, raising money through grants and gifts and through the New Mexico-based Institute for Regional Education. His first film with Glass, “Koyaanisqatsi,” proved there was an interest in a movie that mixed image and music and left the thinking to us. That and its successor, “Powaqqatsi,” both titles based on Hopi words and philosophies, continue to sell in repertory houses, college theaters and in video versions. A total of 300,000 people have bought tickets to live versions of the movies--Glass conducting an orchestra with the movie shown on a large screen.

Reggio is a true independent, a director with full creative control, a nonprofit Spielberg, a bottom-line-less Scorsese able to make his movies his way.

“Anima Mundi” is Reggio’s first film without a money chase. It and the Bulgari company found him. He spent close to $1 million in an intense six months from December of last year to June 15, 1991. It might have cost more but the World Wildlife people were able to drive hard bargains when it came to acquiring full rights for footage. Eighty percent of the film is from naturalist sources, archives and collections. The rest was shot by Reggio and his cinematographer Graham Barry, much of that at the animal preserve maintained by Brian McMillan of Canyon Country and in various rain forests of the world.

WWF has shown “Animal Mundi” on the film festival circuit, at Venice, Telluride, Oslo, Sao Paolo. Now it’s ready for commercial exhibition. At 28 minutes it’s no one’s idea of a high-concept billing. But short subjects, popular once, may be coming back. There is an agreement to show the film commercially at one of the Laemmle theaters. Other exhibitors are considering it. Then there’s that happy possibility called Oscar.

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The academy process is going on now at the Motion Picture Academy screening rooms in Beverly Hills. Four Oscars are given for short films and documentaries: documentary short subjects, features more than 30 minutes, animations and live-action pictures under 30 minutes. Since Oct. 31, the nomination committee has been gathering Tuesday and Thursday nights to evaluate entries. Each film is judged numerically. A 10 is just that. Tops. A 6 is the lowest evaluation. By the end of January the screenings will be completed. Price Waterhouse, the academy’s accountants, will then take over and by Feb. 19 the five highest scores will produce the five nominees in each of the four classifications.

Then it’s up to the Academy membership. Voters have to see all of the nominated films and that’s done on two different days at the academy offices in special marathon screenings. Then the process goes back to the accountants and eventually to the handing out of the Oscars at next March’s ceremonies.

For these categories there will be a special significance of sorts attached to the awards. It’s the 50th anniversary of documentary academy recognition and a number of filmmakers will try to make a big deal out of the Year of the Documentary with festivals and special screenings.

Shorts and docs have been getting more attention on television with PBS, Discovery Channel, Turner, Arts and Entertainment and HBO programming them somewhat regularly.

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Movie houses occasionally schedule short subjects. In a way they have become endangered themselves.

That’s part of the irony of Reggio’s visit to Hollywood. Maybe the World Wildlife Fund and “Anima Mundi” will next do something for wildlife on, off and of the screen.


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