January 24, 2007

Park City Dispatch. 5.

Before ceding the floor to Brian Darr and his terrific takes on a slew of animated shorts at Sundance, a reminder: you can watch all sorts of shorts right now. Online. Free. Take a break from news of acquisitions and crowded restaurants and all that and watch some films. Updated through 1/29.

Everything Will Be OK So far, after five days at my first-ever Sundance Film Festival and no out-and-out duds, my very favorite film so far is an animated short. Everything Will Be OK (not to be confused with the global warming documentary Everything's Cool or Crispin Glover's new It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE., neither of which I've had a chance to see here yet) was the jaw-dropping capper on a very respectable selection of animated short films put together under the easy-to-remember title: Animation Spotlight. The spotlight began with Alex Weil's One Rat Short [site], an effectively anthropomorphic sci-fi vignette that suffered slightly in its narrative clarity in a few moments but more than made up for it in technological accomplishment. Suitably dazzled by this opening, the audience was ready to absorb animations which focus less effort on photorealistic visuals and more on humor and/or intensely personal or political visions.

Several of the films engage directly with the history of illustration and animation, and their broader influence in the public sphere. Martha Colburn's cut-out and paint piece Destiny Manifesto emphasizes ghoulish parallels between America's bizarrely persistent romanticized image of the conquering frontiersman with images used to sell modern warfare to our populace. Yong-Jin Park's Duct Tape and Cover restates the ludicrousness of governmental attempts to simultaneously frighten and reassure an infantilized public, by wedding the soundtrack of the 1951 Civil Defense animation Duck and Cover - perhaps you remember "Bert the Turtle" - to sequences presented in the manner of a Homeland Security safety pamphlet, only animated by computer.

Mortimer Koon Somewhat less elegant but even more packed with darkly subversive humor is Aaron Augenblick's Golden Age [site]. This set of ten Comedy Central-produced shorts exposes the embarrassing underbelly of cartoon history in punchline-packed two-minute "documentary" segments chronicling the rise and fall of a famous cartoon character - or rather a transparent stand-in like Mortimer Koon (which plays off of Mickey Mouse's roots in blackface) or Antsy & the Bugaboos (think chipmunk). There are far too many references for an animation buff to catch on a first viewing, and seeing all ten episodes in rapid succession felt like some kind of overdose, but if in some ways a festival setting didn't seem quite right for Golden Age, it was a kick to be in a room with hundreds of other people unable to control their laughter.

But Everything Will Be OK was most definitely in its natural environment projected on the large Prospector Square Theatre screen. Hilarious, touching, frightening, and wildly cinematic, Don Hertzfeldt's latest short continues down the same fourth-wall-breaking path he set himself on with Rejected and the trilogy from the first Animation Show. But this time the non-sequiturs and meta-cinematic effects are not used to reveal and expand the filmmaking apparatus so much as they serve to simulate an everyman named Bill's mental collapse. This is Hertzfeldt's first time using split-screen techniques (that I'm aware of; a couple of his films have eluded me), and he uses them a lot, and quite well. Sometimes with up to eight or nine separate screens in action on the frame at the same time, reminiscent of Sid Laverents's Multiple SIDosis. He also introduces photography of objects and scenery which help show Bill's increasing alienation from the rest of the world.

Hertzfeldt's stick-figure drawing style may be propelling him into experimentation outside of the animator's traditional realms, but it's also the secret weapon that makes his films as widely relatable as they are. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud expresses the ideas that human beings naturally find faces everywhere we look, and that the less specific the face we find, the more suitable it is to be a stand-in for ourselves. The barebones character constructions in Lily and Jim or Everything Will Be OK are consequently more universal and understandable than those in, to use a handy example from the same program, Joanna Quinn's wonderfully clever and superbly penciled, but oddly unfunny Dreams and Desires - Family Ties. Which means that anyone who's ever felt a bit out-of-sync or depressed is likely to see themselves in Bill, and become appropriately unnerved when the representation of his anxiety begins to overwhelm even the narrative conventions Hertzfeldt had previously established.

Related: As you may have noticed, clicking on a few of those names, the Reeler interviews Alex Weil (One Rat Short), Martha Colburn (Destiny Manifesto and Meet Me in Wichita) and Aaron Augenblick (Golden Age).

Update, 1/29: "Where Rejected stands as a wonderfully entertaining piece about just what happens when commercialism meets art, Everything Will Be OK goes for a more general sensibility," writes Dan Eisenberg. "It's Hertzfeldt's best film to date, and I desperately hope he continues in this direction."

Coverage of the coverage: The Park City Index.

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Posted by dwhudson at January 24, 2007 6:25 AM


Fantastic dispatch, Brian! I'm thrilled that you decided to focus on these short films, about which I'd heard nothing to date.

Alas, I can't find anything you've written about here at the Sundance Shorts page. Does anyone know if they'll be adding more titles later, or is this a select group of films that is already complete?

Posted by: Andy Horbal at January 24, 2007 7:59 AM

I noticed that, too. I'd guess that if they're going to be made available at all, they'd be online now. On the other hand, work, in some form or another, by most of these animators can be found out there, it seems.

Posted by: David Hudson at January 24, 2007 8:48 AM

Thanks, Andy. I'm having a blast just experiencing the festival but it feels good to get some of my thoughts down on some films too; I'm glad you felt the ones I picked to write about this time were under-covered.

I haven't fiddled around with the website shorts yet, but from the program guide it looks like the animations that should be available online through the festival are Duct Tape and Cover, Destiny Manifesto and one I didn't mention (because I'd seen it at last year's SFIFF and written a bit about it before on my own site; I'd link but blogger's down right now), Stacey Steers's Phantom Canyon. I don't have a clue why the program guide might be incorrect.

Posted by: Brian at January 24, 2007 12:21 PM

Great write-up, Brian!

Posted by: Michael Guillen at January 24, 2007 12:28 PM

Lots of fun reading you have lots of fun, Brian. I have a question that's probably been answered before in many other write-ups from Sundance, but since it's not a festival I follow much, I'll be redundant and ask it now. I'm curious how the Sundance folks themselves defines "Independent" film now, since the one short you mention is produced by Comedy Central. Is it just that the films have to start out Independent and if they acquire funding enroute to the festival that doesn't 'disqualify' them? This isn't meant as judgemental and in a DIY-or-DIE attitude, I'm just curious how this ever-expanding festival is positioning itself now that it's pretty much THE festival in the U.S., that's all (in short animation tradition, i feel like I should add a 'folks' to that pre-parenthetical close to this comment).

Posted by: Adam Hartzell at January 24, 2007 3:42 PM

Great dispatch, Brian! Such fun reading...

Posted by: girish at January 25, 2007 2:39 AM

Excellent coverage, Brian. Especially for all of us with an appetite for those under-covered animation shorts. Well done!

Posted by: Thom at January 25, 2007 1:29 PM

Bomb diggity. We'll drink coffee and watch David Lynch one of these days, right?

Posted by: Ryland at January 26, 2007 6:52 PM

I know it's still on my agenda, Ryland.

Thanks all for the comment-support! Adam, I'm certainly no festival spokesman so I don't feel I can really do your question justice. But being up here, having some of the mystique taken out of the Sundance brand, my impression is basically that the festival is approximately no more or less DIY/Indie than the higher-profile festivals we're familiar with in San Francisco.

The specific case of Golden Age may not be particularly illustrative, but it's worth commenting on. This article calls it the "first adult animated series to be produced by a major television network for broadband." Apparently it was not shown on Comedy Central itself, but streamed through its website. This was the first time the set of shorts had been programmed in a film festival setting.

Posted by: Brian at January 28, 2007 10:33 AM

Is there a link online anywhere to see Everything Will Be OK? I was hoping it might be on iTunes in the sundance shorts selections, but it doesn't look like it. I absolutely love Rejected.

Posted by: Wiley Wiggins at January 28, 2007 4:12 PM

Wiley, the good news is it's part of the roving Animation Show now making it's way across the country.
Looks like it's due in your neck of the woods on March 4.


(There's also a preview of it on the Bitter Films compilation DVD that came out recently...)

Everyone should check the Anim Show and the above DVD out. Don's work is a cure for what ails any of us.


Posted by: Craig P at January 30, 2007 3:26 PM

FYI, "Everything" is now playing with The Animation Show in theaters across America, it's sort of a slow roll-out sort of festival tour as far as I can tell.

For the rest of us hoping for an "Everything" DVD release, I'd say keep your eyes peeled on Hertzfeldt's homepage, http://www.bitterfilms.com

Posted by: Judy at January 31, 2007 9:29 PM