Sunday, September 07, 2008

Spout Mavens Disc #14, Part 9 of 13: Shorts! Volume 3 - Clay Pride: Being Clay in America (2001)

Director: Jonathan Watts & David Karlsberg
U.S., 5 minutes, color animated
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

At least the filmmakers admit that their project is built upon a one-joke premise.

What producer/co-director David Karlsberg doesn’t really declare, perhaps out of a humility rarely found in filmmakers, is how well-sustained that one joke turns out to be. Granted, Clay Pride: Being Clay in America, yet another film on the Shorts! Volume 3 DVD collection, only runs a mere 5 minutes. But even with one joke, once you acknowledge that delivering humor in stop-motion clay animation is a good deal harder than telling the same type of joke with live-action – timing, the mainstay of all successful humor, is even tougher to achieve when you can only film your “actors” a split second at a time, frame by laborious frame – then you will be astounded by the overall effect and feel of this film.

On the commentary, Karlsberg also admits that the animation in Clay Pride is not necessarily that ambitious either, which is true, but as always, it ain’t what you got, but how well you use it. Karlsberg and creator/co-director/writer Jonathan Watts don’t go for obvious jokes here. They let the absurdity of the situation itself carry the film. The conceit, that clay-animated characters exist in a world with the “normals” in a manner directly parallel in which those of the homosexual affiliation exist within our world, is really primarily based around childlike pun play, simply replacing a letter with another pair of letters, like someone calling me “dick” or “prick” in the manner of the brute which has followed me about for much of my life. (I usually tell them, since my name does not contain a “c,” that their rhyme-play makes little sense, except in some foreign tongue, as if ordering Thai food or categorizing tiny and adorable African antelopes.)

But by embracing this entry-level pun, Watts (who apparently created this world first in a short film made in high school) pours his simple joke into what could pass, were it filmed for real in its parallel existence, for a rather somber documentary on intolerance and societal homophobia. Most of what is said by the characters – except for a timely cameo in the shadows by a certain slanty-headed green clayboy of great renown – is pretty straightforward and not much different from that which might be said in a parallel documentary on gay bashing in our society, with all of the humor gliding slyly off the premise that we are talking about clay-animated characters instead. There are no real sight gags here – a couple of jokey name references on signs is all – mainly, the film gets by on an easy assurance by the filmmakers that the strength of their premise carries that “one joke” through satisfactorily to the end. Which it does… mostly.

Forgive me this one reflection, but there is something about the premise that confuses me a little. If being clay is roughly parallel in that imaginary world to being gay in ours, does this mean that the clay characters are actually gay? If so, are there no “straight” clay animated characters? We see them in dance clubs and at confrontational meetings, and while there is little in the way of outwardly stereotypical “gay” behavior, the overall impression is that this is so. It is a little sad that the film doesn't (or perhaps, due to budgetary reasons, is unable to) show the clays within the world of the normals outright, interacting with their oppressors. Are they tiny compared to the rest of their world, or would we see a clay figure marching in a parade while redneck buffoons of equal size spit at them from the sidewalks. And what would those rednecks do when der Golem showed up to rend them asunder?

Golem joke aside, I’m very glad that Clay Pride remains a mostly subtle exercise, and doesn’t have Davey going doggy-style on Goliath or Gumby getting some Pokey. Such antics are perhaps better suited to the likes of Robot Chicken. But the subtlety does leave me wondering about their world. And is the repression towards “clays” in that world is more of a sexual thing than the makeup of their bodies? Because of this, is it racism or sexism? Or does it matter? Aren’t they both equally vile, and if combined in an attack, even more vile?

Tolerance, my friends, tolerance is the only way, clays or otherwise. Clay Pride succeeds admirably in this message, despite the slight doubting within my briefly pondered side-trip. Would it were so that all such films were so intently fixed upon their target.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Spout Mavens Disc #14, Part 5 of 13: Shorts! Volume 3 - Seventeen (2003)

Director: Hisko Hulsing
Netherlands, 12:00, color animated
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

At what level do we begin to recognize our own failure? If we start out with imperial ambitions, is everything else short of controlling the world considered to be a failure? Since most of us will never, or should never, wish for such power, I guess we all have to just be thankful for whatever success we might achieve, and accept our fate from there.

I worked at my previous job for 22 years. I won't go into the details of the five Ws and an H of the situation -- I have discussed these matters elsewhere in bits and pieces on the Cinema 4 Pylon, and if you are actually interested, for whatever reason, I suggest you delve into it there. My need to bring up the length of my stay at that particular hovel of a business was merely to impart the message that 22 years at any one place, home or business, is far too long a span. I started young, full of piss and vinegar, but not quite enough to make me burn the place down and move onward. I despised about 90 percent of the people, employees or customers, with whom I came into contact, and there were certain sections of the business where the workers were little more than savage animals in my eyes. I always felt that anytime soon, something would happen where I would be rid of them and their brutish ways. Either I would leave them behind as I sped towards better times, or they would die the deaths that they so richly deserved for their callowness and their uncaring attitudes towards everything except for the most base forms of human endeavor.

And then, almost imperceptibly, with the faucet slowly dripping away my youth, I found myself stuck. I could not leave the job due to my own fears, my own uncertainty for the future, and I accepted a fate where even a horrid career is better than a world without a clear destination ahead. And even after the worst moments -- those times where I swore I had had enough and would rather kill them all and face the most severe prison sentence ever than work one more day in that pit of damnation -- I found myself punching the clock again. And again. And after so many years, I found myself not warming to those whom I previously despised, but becoming instead enough like them where I could no longer hold myself to a loftier ideal. Soon, I stopped resisting their idiocies and fell into line alongside them. I had become the others.

It has been said for eons that our world is largely run, in nearly every aspect, by fear. Fear can keep us running when we both shouldn't, and fear can also keep from running when we should. Its not so much about overcoming our fears, as it is about coming to an understanding with them, figuring out when they are truly justified or when they are pure shite. My own fear of the future overrode my fear of being trapped in a lifeless hell, and for a long time, I was a horrible person for it. While I won't rule out that there were outside agents that allowed me to come to grips with my fears, in the end, I was the one who had to walk away and start over. I stopped the stagnation at 22 years, and set up elsewhere. No longer do I feel like one of those others that I found so despicable.

In Hisko Hulsing's superbly creepy animated short, Seventeen -- one of 16 films on the Shorts! Volume 3 DVD collection -- we meet a young man named Harry, almost the age I was when I began my 22-year run, in a similar situation. His afternoons are marked by his labors on a roofing job, far above the streets of a village surrounded by patchwork fields. He is surrounded at his job by workers almost exactly of the Cro-Magnon set, and they booze and prank each other to the point that little work seems to actually get done. He strains to shut out the ruffians, and distracts his attention by peering at a woman in the building adjacent to the worksite, who strips slowly and coyly catches Harry's eye as he sits numbly on the edge of the building, several stories above the ground. In fact, the woman is a prostitute, and soon her madam will catch onto Harry's spying and shut the curtains on his afternoon of naive peeping. Harry doesn't see her as a whore, but merely as a target for his youthfully urgent affection, and as he spies, he is dreamy eyed and wistful, completely forgetting his co-workers.

They have not forgotten him, however, and they catch him unaware, lost in his love at first sight daydreams. One of the ruffians grabs Harry's ponytail and pretends to shove him off the roof. Soon, they are attacking some nearby laundry on a drying line, dressing the young lad up in women's clothing, and even after fitting the dress over his head, we see from Harry's point of view that he imagines one of the men, in a hirsute, sweat-laden and frightening closeup, is looking at the innocent, comparatively waiflike and pony-tailed Harry in a lustful, drooling manner. It is but a small harbinger of the horrors to come for Harry, who will now spend the remainder of the film locked in a battle with his delusions -- drunken and real -- interpreting the actions of the citizenry of the village as increasingly aggressive and conspiratorial towards himself.

Obsessed by the beautiful prostitute, Harry attempts to buy a drink for her at a local carnival, but he lingers too long in doubt, and her time is taken by some of his co-workers. Later, he will awaken in a deeply drunken state and wander into a scene where two of those men are having sex with her, and he will not recognize the fact, as she checks her watch in uncaring boredom, that she is literally on the clock. He will only hear her false moaning as screams of agony, and will imagine she is being doubly raped. He will launch himself at the attackers, but he will embarrassingly end up only in sending her sprawling backwards into a mud puddle with his crotch landing on her face, and her potential johns, a winding string of whom are seen waiting around the side of the building and onward, will not take this lightly at all. Interrupted from their pleasures, the men will, in Harry's eyes, and thus ours, transform very nearly into zombies or at least creatures of some arcane night, and shamble after the boy until he is driven from town.

From here, Harry will meet many others who will come at him first as the gentle and friendly, and through our hero's nightmare eye, will reveal themselves as nothing more than hostiles. Women who would grant him sensual release will turn into harpies, those harpies would take on the face of a co-worker, those co-workers will join the rest of the citizenry in ritual sacrifice for a secret blood cult, and good Samaritans will always wish for something craven in return. The images fly fast, and every tiny thing skews threatening to the lad. A carnival which promises joy during the day becomes a bestial thing by night -- this is no profound statement the film is granting us, as we all naturally understand the dark side of such places. But it works remarkably well here, with zigzagging angles and monstrous shadows closing on Harry as he seeks an escape from his ceaseless, mostly self-imposed travails. The film, reflecting his rampant fears, will get the better of him.

The background paintings used to achieve these affects are rough but always lush in their hue and invention. The depth achieved in some of the pieces truly astounds, and despite how savage the film may seem content-wise, it is always stunningly gorgeous and composed. I must profess that even I, one who doesn't flinch at very much initially in any film, was taken aback somewhat by the carnality of the film. Not that I couldn't handle it, but after the comparative mellowness of the previous films on the disc, I wasn't expecting such brutality and menace, let alone the nudity and sex quotient. At times, the content is so grimy that one almost wishes to wash it away with a freakishly innocent episode of The Wiggles.

But it is all for purpose -- this is no gratuitous exercise in filth, but rather a very well-turned examination into stagnation and personal inertia. Harry himself will go back to his roofing job, day after day, slowly sucking into the world he despises and interprets as hostile. He will grow sloppier and unshaven, and his dreams will fade ever deeper into the back of his head as he surrenders only to the daily pleasures, which will fatten his body and weaken his resolve. He will likely even join the line of grunting Neanderthals lined up around the building waiting for a quickie release from a bored sex worker. He will become what he hates, and he will be unrecognizable from those whom he despises.

Hopefully after 22 years of this, he will truly wake up...