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The Animation Pimp: Kaspar Jancis and his Motel of Fools

Can we ever realistically connect with the world around us for extended periods or are these moments of connection and small joys just fleeting, fading as fast as they appear?

Image courtesy of Andreas Hykade.

"How unbearable at times are people who are happy, people for whom everything works out."      

Anton Chekhov

"The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing."

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Okay, calling the characters in the films of Estonian animator Kaspar Jancis ‘fools’ might be a tad harsh. In truth, the frequently misguided protagonists of these understated, absurdist, comic-melodramas aren’t much different than you me us. They’re people trying to figure out their way through this strange fleeting existence.

While Jancis’ list of influences include Jacques Tati, Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre, Lenigrad Cowboys Go America), Roy Anderson (Songs from The Second Floor) and the “simple” people of Chekov’s stories (Jancis admits that few animators influence his work),  I tend to see similarities between his films and a couple of contemporary American TV comedies: Louie and Review with Forrest MacNeil. Both series follow the earnest but frequently painful missteps of two protagonists: Louie is a dour, divorced and struggling professional comedian with two daughters; Forrest MacNeil is.. well… how to describe this poor fellow… an innocent, bright-eyed and hyper-dedicated host of a TV show wherein each week he enthusiastically reviews real experiences (e.g. addiction, being buried alive, stealing, getting divorced) even as they slowly destroy his life.

Both shows are billed as comedies but in truth they are frequently melancholic as we sit helplessly observing the protagonists (especially poor Forrest MacNeil) make one foolish decision after another. The joy, such as it is, comes from those rare, fleeting moments when something actually (often accidentally) goes somewhat right for the character.

Jancis’ works are kinda like that: funny on the surface but somewhat tragic at their core. The tragedy, like with Review and Louie, stems from the struggle Jancis’ distracted characters have trying to connect with their fellow humans. They seem to fear genuine, intimate connection yet desperately crave it.

In the Hitchcock - influenced Weitzenberg Street (2002), the man performs an assortnment of inane magic tricks to get his lover’s attention. Bored, she finds erotic solace in the touch of a mosquito. Touch is all she craves, not tricks. The man finally gets bored of trying to impress her and turns his eyes to another object of desire (a neighbour’s fish) – which then leads to a secondary storyline about a paranoid neighbour. The woman, now ignored, suddenly craves the man’s attention again. Only when the fish and mosquito are eliminated are the couple able to see each other again. Fittingly, the film ends before we see them come together. We are left to wonder if something else will come between them before they reach each other.

We see it again at the end of Marathon (2006), when a flirting, deceitful (she’s part of a gang that is drugging marathon runners, stealing their shoes and then selling them back to them) mother, having forgotten her daughter, races to a playground to find her. As they make eye contact and wave, a train passes between them and leads into the end credits.  In the Cartoon d’Or-winning Crocodile (2009), a one-time Opera star turned boozy, crocodile-costumed kid’s entertainer would rather suffer and remain alone than accept an imperfect love (from a woman who owns, for some reason, a pet crocodile).

Even in the more obviously political,Villa Antoropov (2012, co-directed by Vladimir Leschiov), disconnect is prominent at a trashy wedding party. When the African refugee arrives at the abandonded party (the groom has, literally, blown up from overdosing on cocaine), he assumes the groom’s empty suit and quickly begins chasing the same worthless materialist shit the others were devouring. And what happens? It all blows up. The ending is the beginning is the end for the refugee. All that remains of him and his desire for freedom is a used condom washed-up on the same African shore where he began his futile journey.

Jancis’ most recent film, Piano (2015) is arguably the only time we get some semblance of a happy ending when the gaggle of disconnected and lonely characters briefly rise above their self-induced miseries when a piano begins playing (triggered only when a tightrope walker apparently plummets to her death and lands in the piano!). For one brief moment, the characters (two of them dead) are aware and truly alive. In unison they gently smile and quietly embrace unfiltered, harmonic joy.

Maybe this is the best we can expect. It’s pretty challenging to be constantly self-aware and compassionate day in and day out. Can we ever realistically connect with the world around us for extended periods or are these moments of connection and small joys just fleeting, fading as fast as they appear? Perhaps the best we can do is to be conscious and always ready to recognize those moments of human connection and savour them when they visit.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.