Chris Robinson digs up It Pains Me to Say This by George Griffin for close inspection in this months Animators Unearthed.
In 1990, I was a student in Media Arts at Sheridan College. This was the time of Gulf War 1. A friend and I went to a protest in downtown Oakville (Ontario). We had a sign that said, Fuck War. My friend was a John Lennon fan and I guess it was some sort of reference to the ex-Beatles peace activism. Anyway, a group of women approached us to express anger over our sign. When I asked them why this word was suddenly more reprehensible than the apparent atrocity we were protesting, the only answer they had was the one we always hear: the children.
George Griffins latest film It Pains Me to Say This is, among other things, an exploration our fragile and often contradictory relationship with language.
It Pains Me to Say This opens with a film within a film featuring Ken and Celeste seated a table during a social function. As they discuss Kens apparent bad behavior at a reunion the previous year, their civility quickly collapses into acts of lewdness and violence. The film within a film then abruptly ends. The films audience is angry over this apparent pointless display of filth.
Following the screening, Bob Authority of the Federal Cartoon Commission asks a panel of experts for their take on the film. The panelists include an angry right wing professor, a gun-toting redneck; a hyper-feminist speech therapist and a spiritual, hippy chick. Finally, Ken is briefly introduced. When he learns that he is simply a surrogate for the creator, a frustrated Ken goes to see his shrink. The shrink examines the design of the film in an attempt to comprehend what it really says about Ken.
After Kens film has been examined from all the perspectives, his wife, Rachel, interrupts the scene to give her take on things. Rachel, of course, wonders if the film is conveying Kens real feelings about their relationship. She also takes the opportunity to point out the insecure, fraudulent Ken.
Finally, after being condemned to hell, Ken is saved by Rachel. The final shot shows Ken now looking increasingly like his creator, Griffin, safely back in bed with Rachel, books, cats and hairy armpits.
It Pains Me to Say This, as one would expect from Griffin, a complex, talky film that explores the nature of art, language and identity. It is also Griffins first film since 1994s A Little Routine. Thats a long time even for an independent animator. The reasons, as one might expect, with a complex, articulate and intense person like Griffin are multiple. It would be a combination of depression, writers block, doing other stuff like making others peoples films and earning money, selling out, guilt, withdrawal, dabbling in projections for downtown experimental theater, teaching and getting drained by the experience. Factor in Griffins struggle to adjust to digital technology and, okay, its easy to understand why theres been a long gap between films.
The idea for It Pains Me To Say This emerged in late 2003. I immediately drew a thumbnail, says Griffin, of two simple characters dwarfed by a huge speech balloon with the word cunt. I then wrote a short circular narrative of remorse, confession, guilt and aggression, which folded in the distracting idea of an unreliable narrator.
Griffin then created an animatic of the work and showed it to his students at the Pratt Institute to illustrate how to develop a storyboard into an animatic with a scratch track. Griffin then showed the film to his wife Karen. She was aghast, remembers Griffin, and thought I needed to rethink the misogynistic tone. She thought I was making a statement about our marriage.
Regardless, Griffin was happy with his 1 1/2- minute film. I liked the story's simple symmetrical structure, play with words, dramatic reversal and was keenly aware of its regressive, transgressive impact.
Among the weapons in Griffins arsenal of linguistic violence is the word, cunt. The Anglo-Saxon c-word, says Griffin, still retains a taboo aura in polite discourse, particularly in classrooms with speech codes, if not in literary novels and theatre. So, because I pretend to be a gentleman I was probably attracted to the linguistic gutter as a diversion, but, let's face it, words DO matter, no matter if I take delight in pillorying that opinion. It was a return to the genitalian point of view, a theme I last used in The Club.
Feeling that his little film was emotionally incomplete, Griffin decided to add his panel of nattering nabobs, who would attempt to explain the short film-within-a-film. The completed film runs about 10 minutes.
Linguistic exploration aside, Pains Me also examines the notion of identity. In many of his films, Griffin has inserted himself directly into the film as a main character (usually as the so-called squareman). Naturally, there is a tendency for the viewer to assume that the character is really just a surrogate for Griffin. However, like the work of, for example, writer Philip Roth who often writes in first person through his alter ego, Nathan Zukerman or, as in Operation Shylock, actually has a character named Philip Roth Griffin often blurs the lines between character and creator. Identity, as Griffin shows through Ken, is a constantly shifting and contradictory motion. It is fluid, not fixed.
Every character animator, says Griffin, is a frustrated actor and uses his own body as a model for facial and figural gestures. Acting out with a pencil, comes naturally. It wasn't until I saw Frank Film in 1972 that I could imagine speaking directly through film in a stylized, confessional mode. In a sense animation protects me because we know it's a synthetic construction, not a truthful document.
Griffin also cautions me when I ask him if he uses his characters as a way of discovering himself. It would be a mistake to assume that the author is either free, totally truthful or that he just wants to find himself. When I draw the squareman, no matter what I call him, Im acting; the stage gives me complete, irresponsible license to lie, cheat, kill, die, perform all manner of depravity or even discuss the deeper issues of my own psyche.
Despite his success at festivals, Griffin isnt confident that his new film will be received well by the animation world. I think our little community may reject It Pains Me primarily because it's so full of talking not enough visual stimulation. It may work best for an audience of psychotherapists, or Christian fundamentalists to confirm their conviction that our society is going to hell in a handbag.
Unfortunately, Griffin might be right. It is a film filled with yappy, annoying characters. The main character, Ken, is a wimp and everyone else is, Griffin admits, pretty creepy. Unlike many animation films, theres nothing firm to grab hold of. For the films shifting designs and techniques, Griffin uses a mix of techniques ranging from crayon to computer. Again, this is nothing new to those familiar with Griffins work. He has never felt the need to use a single technique.
While the approach serves as an apt extension of the notion that identity is always changing, Griffins use of multiple techniques and designs is also an acknowledgement of the history of animation. (He even uses a clip from an old Harmon and Ising film called Sunshine Makers.) There's a lot of historical baggage we bring to making art and living, adds Griffin. You can either deny the flavors and odors of this stuff or weave them into the work. I'm not too compelled to help the viewer by obeying all the rules of consistency and logic.
Its too early to gauge the accuracy of Griffins dour predictions about reactions to It Pains Me To Say This, but, for his part, hes ready for the critics. I say bring it on. Multiple interpretations are more than welcome and the excitement of debate is what I do wish would happen more at festivals.
Griffin is right too. Animation festivals have routinely failed as forums for meaningful discussions and debates about animation. Perhaps It Pains Me To Say This will finally get them talking.
Chris Robinson has been with the Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1991. A noted animation critic, curator and historian, he has become a leading expert on Canadian and international independent animation. His acclaimed OIAF programming has been regarded as both thoughtful and provocative. In May 2004, Robinson was the recipient of the Presidents Award given by the New York chapter of animators for contributions to the promotion of independent animation.
His books include
Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation, Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHLs First Dynasty, Unsung Heroes of Animation, Great Left Wingers and Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze.
An anthology of Robinsons Animation Pimp columns will be published in 2006. He is working on Fathers of Night, a novel about angels, devils and everything in-between. Robinson lives in Ottawa with his wife, Kelly, and son, Jarvis.