Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nashville Film Festival 2009: Animated Shorts, Part 2

Picking up where I left off last night:

I Am So Proud of You
(22 min., USA; IMDB)
A young titan and cult hero in the field of modern animation, Don Hertzfeldt (interviewed here) was nonetheless a new name to me when I sat down for I Am So Proud of You, his 22-minute opus about the alternately blunt and phantasmagoric existential epiphanies of a mutely plaintive little stick-figure named Bill. Even the most cursory Googling will reveal that Bill starred in the earlier Hertzfeldt opus Everything Will Be OK, which racked up a mind-boggling number of awards in 2006 and 2007, but I Am So Proud of You was just as transfixing and giddily, outrageously, eccentrically compelling to me as an entering-blind experience as I'm guessing it is for folks in the know about its makers and pretexts. The opening anecdote recalls a day from Bill's childhood when his half-brother Randall, a stunted kid with a broken-comb mouth and aluminum meathooks where his arms should be, grew awestruck at the gulls gliding over the ocean and sprinted after them, right into the water, never to be recovered. The zany character conceits and plot incidents might suggest a more freakshow fracas than I Am So Proud of You is, but the mercury greys, the stark jolts of fright and regret, and Hertzfeldt's laconic, Crispin Glover-ish narration make this picaresque, decade-hopping fantasia more emotionally substantial than the arbitrary daisy-chain of outrageous moments that So Proud occasionally threatens to be.

Perhaps what's most invigorating about I Am So Proud of You, both because and in spite of its eerie color-flares and superimpositions, because and in spite of its mitosis-style spawning of multiple scenes of action within the same frames, is that it nonetheless holds together so potently as a sad, magnificent, jagged little life story. It's the movie I sort of wanted Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation to be, since Hertzfeldt's fleet, dangerous, electrified vision of life isn't just scapegoated onto other characters but concentrates primarily in a complexly freewheeling presentation of Bill. Hertzfeldt's seemingly trademark stick-figures share the layered and irised mise-en-scène with nature and interior location photography, Fountain-style tints and dyes, typed and handwritten text, and lime-white, red-rimmed sunspots and glares, as though the film is heating up. "Walking pneumonia" has a gloriously personified walk-on, and you meet a grandmother with lethal designs on Bill and a penchant for keeping herself young by using cat heads as facial sponges. I sometimes get a bit impatient with Unfettered Imagination™, because I often feel that imaginations can use a little bit of productive, coherent fettering, and it's hard to argue that I Am So Proud of You couldn't be just a bit tighter (and less besotted with railroad traumas). But the technical, narrative, and emotional ambition and reach of the movie are pretty irresistible, and despite a strong field of contenders, we didn't hem or haw too, too much before awarding it our Grand Jury Prize in Animation.

Sebastian's Voodoo - in full!
(4 min., USA; IMDB)
Randall in I Am So Proud of You, with the meathooks for arms, had it comparatively easy; the main character of Joaquin Baldwin's macabre little récit has one sticking into his back, as do the other, identical rough-cotton dolls that a dark, headless sorcerer is serially pricking with long, thin needles. Baldwin establishes mood and palette like a whiz: the texture of the dolls and the brutish bruisiness of the colors make a swift, punchy impression, and I was also quite impressed by the expressive physicality of our doll protagonist, who moves quickly to take the only action he can conceive to spare himself and his cohort from their barely glimpsed creator-destroyer. I wouldn't absolve the movie of a certain broody sensationalizing of voodoo and its shadowy, dark-skinner practitioners, and all of us on the jury felt the movie could have clarified its narrative logic just a bit, although I'm prepared to run with the idea that appropriating the master's tools for oneself, even the master's weapons against oneself, marks some modicum of progress from passive victimization. But Sebastian's Voodoo needs to be longer and more deft to make that dim rhetorical impression more substantial. It seems clear that the movie mostly exists to announce a new talent who has a compelling aesthetic in mind and an exciting knack for getting that aesthetic onto the screen. Baldwin certainly scores on both of those counts, and his film barely missed a prize in our Student Film category.

This Way Up
(8 min., UK; IMDB)
British animators Adam Foulkes and Alan Smith earned an Oscar nomination last season for This Way Up, losing to the Japanese fellow who thanked Mr. Roboto in his speech. I have read online respondents describing this as a miscarriage of justice, but for all the visual sheen and smart energy of This Way Up—a comic-macabre tale of two tuxedo'd undertakers and their escalating mishaps trying to bury the coffin of an old woman—I can't say I found it a very distinctive experience. The narrative logic fits snugly in line with that hijink-after-hijink template for those Ice Age trailers with the implacable, acorn-obsessed varmint, and the giddy flouting of good taste, as the woman's body winds up hanging from trees and floating in rivers, her hearse crushed by a boulder and her coffin toppling off a cliff, is rude enough to taste a little sour without being pointed enough to justify these episodes in the name of jubilant insolence. There's a fifth-act switcheroo in aesthetics, motivated by a narrative pivot, but the newly enlivened colors and the bouncing parade of odd and elongated characters feel derivative, too, of any number of 2-D and stop-motion carnivales from Dumbo's pink elephants to Jack Skellington's Halloween revue. A "good" piece of work, for sure, but Oscar stamp or no, it paled in comparison to several other submissions.

Western Spaghetti - in full!
(2 min., USA; IMDB)
The only film that gave I Am So Proud of You a serious run for its money for the top prize, Western Spaghetti is the structural obverse of Hertzfeldt's film: a flavorful, talk-free masterpiece of succinct recontextualizing of everyday objects, where So Proud offers a gamboling, gregarious spiral into the various planes of a personal history and metaphysical journey. Maybe PES, the monomial filmmaker behind Western Spaghetti, has that kind of bigger-canvas work somewhere up his magician's sleeve, but who cares, when he can offer such a piquantly concise and delightfully imaginative fantasy. In the opening moments, someone's hand lights the burner of a grubby-clay oven, but instead of a gasflame, four Halloween candy-corns leap up get cooking. What happens from there is a preparation of a simple meal made anything but simple by the conscription of julienned dollar bills, diced Rubik's cubes, boiled pickup sticks, and a grated ball of yarn as ingredients. If you had to intellectualize the spectacle, you might say something about PES' game reframing of pop-junk artifacts as nourishing; he makes them fresh, in more than one sense. But what made Western Spaghetti such an immediate sensation for all of us is its pure and somehow big-hearted embrace of visual pleasure and unexpected perspective. Who needs an idea, quite honestly, when you've got panache, creativity, and such a gift for the wordless, spontaneous, unjaded, and instantly digestible joke?

More to follow about the live-action shorts and the buffet of feature-length attractions at this year's still-unfolding Nashville Film Festival. If you live in the area, you can see several of these jewels in the "Award Winning Shorts" program that has been added at 3:00 on Thursday, including I Am So Proud of You, Western Spaghetti, and Slaves.

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Anonymous Fabrizzio said...

Western Spaghetti makes me so happy. I keep watching it over and over.

8:57 PM, April 23, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Fabrizzio: I sympathize completely. And thanks for the comment! I was starting to feel like I was talking into a crevasse. (Which happens when one posts so irregularly; but I still appreciate the response.)

9:10 PM, April 23, 2009  
Anonymous Fabrizzio said...

:) I'd really like to see all these shorts, they all sound so interesting/crazy/imaginative and it seems like the ones nominated for oscars are the more....less original ones. Or the cute ones, in the animated category. I was talking to somebody today about how the only movies with shorts before them anymore are Pixar movies. Did there used to be more shorts before movies? I guess some of them would be kind of long...but it would be fun if you got a little short before your movie.

12:26 AM, April 24, 2009  
Blogger Catherine said...

Oh, Western Spaghetti is a delight! I love how the meal is still almost appetising (despite the clearly inedible, and in some cases probably toxic or harmful, ingredients!). That's probably due to the clever use of sound - the sizzling, the dicing, the bubbling, the simmering. Yum!

I fared a little worse with Sebastian's Voodoo, however. To begin with, the title set off little warning bells in my head - it just reeked of something a teenage Tim Burton would conjure up - and the workshop atmosphere just felt like stuff I already shuddered at when it was done by Sid in the first Toy Story film. Plus, I didn't entirely buy the physicality of either the human or the dolls, they all seemed to lack weight when they moved. That's probably a little unfair and nitpicky for a student film, but it bugged me.

Ah, but Western Spaghetti! I'm off to click play again...

10:10 AM, April 28, 2009  

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