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