Taylor Jessen reviews three short films -- I Met the Walrus by Josh Raskin, Shut-Eye Hotel by Bill Plympton and t.o.m. by Tom Brown and Daniel Gray.
Within the world of animation, most experimentation occurs within short-format productions, whether they are high-budgeted commercials, low-budgeted independent shorts or something in-between. The growing number of short film festivals around the world attests to the vitality of these works, but there are few other venues for exhibition of them, nor are they often reviewed. As a result, distribution tends to be difficult and irregular. On a regular basis, Animation World Magazine will highlight some of the most interesting of these films.
Shut-Eye Hotel (2007), 7:00, by Bill Plympton (U.S.). Contact: Bill Plympton, 153 W. 27th St., #1005, New York, NY 10001 [T] 212.741.0322 [E] firstname.lastname@example.org
t.o.m. (2006), 2:57, by Tom Brown and Daniel Gray (U.K.). Contact: Tom Brown, Holbrook's Films, 1 Robbins Lane, Newport, NP20 1EZ, UK [T] +44 (0) 7787802015 [E] email@example.com, [W] www.tdotodotm.com
I Met the Walrus
In 1969, Beatle John and his soulmate Yoko were in Toronto, Canada, bedding for peace. Fourteen-year-old Jerry Levitan was a local Beatles super-fan with a whole lotta chutzpah, and he snuck into the hotel that he thought that Lennon and company were most likely to have booked, carrying a portable tape recorder and intent on getting an interview. He knocked on every door on the top floor before a friendly maid told him which room the Beatle was in. Having found his walrus, Jerry brashly insisted that he sit for an interview, and John was in a mood to say yes. So it was that the pair chatted for 40 minutes about Beatles vs. Bee Gees, how John was having trouble getting into the United States, what all those lyrics really meant, and how young Jerry was one day going to be the Establishment, man.
Jerry kept the tape, and now Josh Raskin of the Play Airways creative team at Electric Company studios in Toronto has directed a visual accompaniment to the best five minutes of that interview. "Piss for peace, smile for peace, go to school for peace, don't go to school for peace" suggests the always surrealistically minded Lennon, and the visuals bear him out; illustrator James Braithwaite's pen drawings morph from a dog relieving himself, to a smile, to a school, to a boot smashing the school to bits. Speaking of revolution, John says, "Take Russia, France, anywhere they're at it" and the film does, spinning a globe that stops on amorphous island continents conveniently labeled "Russia," "France," and "Anywhere." Everything turns into everything else at lightning speed, just like when you dream: a building representing the machinery of the establishment becomes transparent so you can see the machinery John's suggesting, and when the phone rings in John's hotel room, the whole building becomes the base for that telephone -- out of which a hand bursts, pointing a finger in the shape of a gun, which shoots out filigree, et cetera.
The style and technique of I Met the Walrus is of a piece with the Play Airwaves team's MTV bumpers and "Flash in the Can" award show bumpers. (You can see all their work at The Electric Company's website.) Josh and company are basically in the business of creating photo-illustrated mnemonics, sarcastic yet helpful graphs and tables and icons, all built from found objects and bold pointing vectors of color. Documentary audio of natural environments or people in conversation are smashed up against ironically composed cultural icons, most of which are taken from clip art hacked in blissful ways the original artists never intended. They're fast, droll, surreal, and very funny. In I Met the Walrus the team's usual visual dynamism is there in spades, although the color palette is limited only to creams and browns, with occasional pink highlights.
The vocabulary of their style comes quite solidly from the 1970s, and I could be wrong but I think the members of this team were the ones running the filmstrip projectors in fourth grade -- the ones with the cassette player attached, where the narrator talked about the Louisiana Purchase and a loud BEEP sounded when it was time to advance the film one frame. At my school, whatever kids were behind the projector always seemed to miss one and get behind. At least now we know why they got distracted -- they were watching those horrible government-issue production values go by and thinking Man, someday I'm totally gonna rock this format. I don't know about the former A/V club of Monroe Elementary School, but the boys and girls of Play Airwaves totally rock.
Bill Plympton's latest is a short called Shut-Eye Hotel, and it's his first (last?) foray into a digital world of virtual 3D objects. The hotel of the title is a tall and crooked thing on a deserted plain. Something odd is happening in the room at the top of the stairs. One night a man checks in alone, and no sooner does he turn out the light and tuck into bed than his bloodcurdling scream fills the night air. All the hotel's lights go on; police sirens approach; a male and female officer examine the scene. The corpse is missing a head. Later a couple check into the same room for an evening's fun, they retire to bed, they scream, and two headless corpses are gurneyed out the front door. Law enforcement can't let this situation deteriorate any further; so the female cop checks into the hotel as a guest while her male counterpart sits in the hallway and waits. She goes to sleep... her head tucks into the pillow... the pillow sprouts teeth...
Shut-Eye Hotel is the latest in a series of digital shorts for Plympton, who's more than happy to have left film behind. More so, though, this is the first of his shorts ever to include a completely digitally rendered object: the hotel itself, complete with ghostly glowing sign whose letters attract and then kill various bugs out of the night air. But even though it makes possible some dynamic camera movements, don't count on a repeat performance. Plympton says the CGI work pushed the film "way over budget and behind schedule -- I'll never do CG again." It's a dialogue-free, lugubriously scored short in a dark horror-thriller mood, and should prove very effective for warming up Bill's fans for his upcoming feature Idiots and Angels, which he promises will be "Kafkaesque."
Every line of dialogue in the animated short t.o.m. is a killer. However, my favorite is this: "It is free from centrifugal and centripetal forces." The character who's speaking, a boy named Tom, is referring to a pile of his clothes. At the time that he says the line, Tom, who's British and under 10 years of age, is in the middle of describing his morning walk to school. He narrates his trip over several minutes as we watch various shots of him waking, dressing, eating, walking down the street, dallying. His face is a blank; his vocal delivery is dry to the point of autism. To him this is very dry stuff. What's unusual is that apparently his daily walk ends with him arriving at school buck naked.
Tom is obsessed by much the same trivia as other kids his age: what side of the road people drive on in other countries, why the more liquid bits of jam are infinitely better than the clumpy bits with the strawberries. The one big difference between Tom and his classmates is that Tom likes discarding his school uniform piece by piece until he's completely starkers by the time he hits the schoolyard. His morning's journey starts innocently enough with toast and a teeth cleaning, but after leaving home he passes one city landmark after another that, to his mind at least, simply demands the submission of an article of clothing. He puts his shoes in a gap between two bushes. He leaves his socks in a mailbox. He hangs his trousers on a rack in a shop where the saleslady is sawing logs in the corner. ("The shop attendant looks dead, but she doesn't smell bad.")
Each sentence the boy speaks is a great core sample from a personality whose geological strata are more than slightly warped. The "centrifugal and centripetal forces" line is actually his way of describing his sweater vest, shirt, and tie, which he's removed and carefully folded into a pile before sticking it under the playground spinner in the park. That's under the spinner, not on: hence the absence of the aforementioned forces. No Keplerian or Newtonian action for these babies, thank you. That's for little kids.
t.o.m. (that's "tee oh em," as Tom helpfully spells it out for us in the practiced manner of one who has spent much time being called to the blackboard) is a story that, to its protagonist, is completely mundane. Every other aspect of the short follows suit -- there's no music to point the way, and no one else speaks a word (if the boy is explaining his behavior to a guidance counselor, the adult is nowhere in sight). It's just you, the boy, the sound effects, and some lyrical traditional animation. The backgrounds are rather impressionistic; the color values are all true-to-life, but reality has been creased, smudged, and blurred.
It's animated, naturally, because the creators are animators -- co-directors Tom Brown and Daniel Gray did the project for their thesis at the University of Wales -- but it would also be frankly impossible to do this film in live action. By being animated, t.o.m. can depict things that had to be carefully elided in, say, Jonathan Glazer's circumspect 2004 film Birth. Kid gets nekkid, and that's all there is to it; whether it's simple exhibitionism, or a reaction to weirdness at home, this is a phase that Tom will one day have to leave behind, but which in the meantime he's describing with utility and patience, as he would explain an iPod to a great-grandparent. Is kid's world. Is unexplainable. You want map, you draw. t.o.m. is actually a great metaphor for the human condition in an era of Stone Age brains in Post-Stone Age society -- here is exactly what I am doing, which I am explaining completely rationally, and it involves primal urges of some sort, and perhaps, sir, you could help me list those urges. Sometimes it's easier to diagram our trajectories than to explain why we've been shot out of the evolutionary cannon in the first place.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. This is his 1,000,000th tagline.
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