The Animation Pimp: Banana Skins and Cigarette Butts
"Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness."
- Blaise Pascal
"Insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage."
- Ray Bradbury
"People often confuse me, but I try not to let them worry me."
- Mary and Max
Adam Elliot’s claymation films polarize me. On one hand, I occasionally cringe, and tense up while tasting his sentimental narratives with their, at times, cloying, pathos-drenched narration and sad, big-eyed and doomed misfit characters. The cynic in me thinks of Faulkner’s iffy relationship with race and questions the authenticity behind Elliot’s sentiments. Is Elliot really seeking to ‘normalize’ his afflicted characters by shaking up our stale, stigmatized perceptions of those with mental health issues or is he a cinematic snake oil salesman putting his Aardman-esque ‘wonders’ on display at a pity party carnival beckoning one and all to “Step right up and get your ticket to see these marvelous wonders of humanity!
On the other hand, I find Elliot’s detached and unassuming portraits refreshing and illuminating in their simplicity (even as it agrees with ‘first hand’ that the ham narration of the short films verges on the burlesque). Elliot deftly takes an animation technique that has largely been associated with the slapstick feathery silliness of Gumby, Californian Raisins, Celebrity Deathmatch, and a daft old British wanker and his dog – and uses it to construct thoughtful personal and poetic portraits of normal people with somewhat unusual traits or interests.
All of Elliot’s protagonists have some sort of affliction (e.g. cerebral palsy, Tourette’s syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, Asthma, OCD, Testicular cancer, alcoholism, mood ‘disorders’ - an unfortunate term) but it does not define them, it is simply one of their many ingredients. There’s an uncle who enjoy crumpets, tea and urinating on a lemon tree; a young cousin wears a superhero outfit, has lots of pets, collects things and has enormous strength despite a paralyzed arm; an older brother has asthma, an eye problem and a slew of adventures. Harvie Krumpet likes to touch people with his index finger. Harvie works at a dump. Lives life through tv. Gets punched out. Metal plate in his head. Fired from many jobs. Gets struck by lightning. Heavy smoker. Gets ball cancer. Keeps on…keeps surviving… falls in love, joins nudist colony, adopts a flipper girl who adores him. Wife dies. Harvey ends up in a home. Befriends another guy, Hamish. They bond and behave like teen shits. Then he dies. Is Harvie’s existence really so pitiful or is it a life like any other? He had love. He loved. He was touched. He touched. Seems to me that Harvie lives the shit out of his life. We should be so lucky.
Then comes beautiful dear ol’ Max, Elliot’s finest achievement. Society says that Max is mentally ill and has Asperger’s Syndrome among other things. Max, though, doesn’t give a shit what he’s called. As he bluntly tells Mary after reading her book on Asperger’s, “I do not feel disabled, defective or that I need to be cured. I like being an Aspie. It would be like trying to change the colour of my eyes.” Max is not more or less content with life than the rest of us. Okay, he freaks out when he gets stressed and stands in a corner. Stressed people frequently turn to drink, drugs, or any number of escapes. Max’s reaction is not better, no worse.
Max eventually forgives Mary with wise, tender and surprising insight: “You are imperfect, and so am l. All humans are imperfect.”
Elliot does not judge, mock or humiliate. He simply offers us people as they are with all their wonderfully unique diverse eccentricities. Elliot is asking us, “What’s the big deal? We all know people with unusual quirks and traits. Hell, we ARE those people. That's kinda the point me thinks. How can there even be other when we are they?
What does it even mean to be different, defective, to be mad insane afflicted eccentric odd unique unusual or ‘quite the character’? Aren’t we just attacking what being human is all about? And who decides, defines what is normal? Is it those with an already fragile sense of self? If we designate other and difference we can maintain the fantasy that we are somehow whole. Cognitive apartheid.