Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Day or a Lifetime - Charlie Calls #3 (and Peeling Wallpaper #2)

Charlie: Ah, you'll lick this picture business, believe me.  You've got a head on your shoulders, and what is it they say?  Where there's a head, there's hope?

Barton: Where there's life, there's hope.

Charlie: See, that proves you really are a writer!

It's evident during Charlie's third visit to Room 621 just how much better-disposed toward him Barton has become since their initial meeting.  Whereas Barton was previously standoffish or at the very least generally rather condescending toward Charlie, and had always tried to maintain a safe distance by remaining at his desk throughout his visits, here he quite willingly sits beside him on the bed as the two of them put on the correct pair of shoes and enjoy a round of liquor together.  With all that he's experienced in Hollywood, Barton's appreciation for Charlie's cordial, down-to-earth demeanour is greatly increasing, and Charlie's intermittent visits have become a vital source of moral support to him.  So much so that the bombshell that Charlie delivers on this particular occasion threatens to leave Barton in rather a difficult position - Charlie will be leaving the Hotel Earle in just a few days.

When Charlie enters the room with Barton's shoes in hand he appears in lower spirits than usual.  He attributes this to having had a difficult and wearying day on the insurance-selling front, reportedly having failed to sell any polices and having endured his share of verbal abuse from some of the housewives he encountered.  Charlie indicates that he is particularly sensitive when it comes to being teased about his weight, which he describes as being his "cross to bear".  A peculiar choice of expression, perhaps, for a character who is commonly perceived as being the literal Devil, but then Charlie's language has always indicated a curious Christ fixation alongside his more obvious interests in heads and damnation, which ties in neatly with the duality of his character.  Charlie sees himself as a benevolent protector who provides people with a much needed service, so much so that when Barton (who, for once, does not cut Charlie off or condescend him at any point during this meeting) suggests that the housewives might have teased him as a defence mechanism, Charlie finds the notion that anyone might perceive him as threatening to be incomprehensible.  At the same time, his motto, "a little peace of mind", provides a clue as to his darker practices.  When Barton later runs into Mastrionatti and Deustch, they inform him that Charlie/Karl's murder spree started in Kansas City with a couple of housewives who presumably got on the wrong side of him.  Based on what they also disclose, it's safe to assume that the next character that Charlie goes on to describe, a physician who failed to offer any help or insight into his ear infection, wound up becoming his latest victim - here Charlie refers, more ambiguously, to their interactions having "led to an argument".

Charlie then shifts the topic of conversation to Barton's recent struggles with the life of the mind.  At this point, Barton is beginning to show awareness of his own limitations, suggesting that perhaps he already exhausted all of his potential as a writer when he wrote Bare Ruined Choirs.  A valuable insight, although one which only grasps about half the picture - Barton does, it seems, only have one idea within him, although this is a self-imposed limitation which arises from just how firmly entrenched he is inside his own head.  Charlie decides to cut to the chase by hitting at what he deems to be the mutual source of their respective frustrations - namely, a lack of sexual satisfaction.  He asks Barton if the love-making couple in the room next to his are a problem, making it plain just how tantalising their activities are to his own intense feelings of sexual starvation and evoking a connection, suggested elsewhere in the film, between sexual and creative energies.  Barton is taken back by Charlie's observation, questioning how he would even know about the couple when they are not located next to him.  Charlie states that he sometimes feels as if he hears everything that goes on inside the Earle; when he refers to the "pipes or something" this is actually a call-back to a scene that was removed from the theatrical cut, in which Barton discovers that his sink has become clogged with the wad of cotton wool from Charlie's infected ear.  Even shorn of this context, it remains an important line, as the implication that Charlie can hear everything that goes on in Barton's room through the pipes (whether this is achieved by bugging the sink with supernatural cotton wool or a more general uncanny connection with the hotel as a whole) will surface again when Barton persuades Audrey to spend the night with him.  The original script also contains an additional statement from Charlie not present in the film itself - "I'm just glad I don't have to ply my trade in the wee, wee hours" - a double entendre which also foreshadows the overnight horrors that will shortly be calling at Room 621.

Charlie assures Barton that he will finish his screenplay, citing an expression coined by Roman comedy writer Terence, "Where there's life, there's hope", but giving it his own personalised twist: "where there's a head, there's hope" (Barton will later discover this to be entirely true, when Charlie leaves a mysterious package in his care).  Barton returns the moral support by telling Charlie that he is confident he will sell many polices tomorrow, prompting Charlie to deliver the bad news that he will shortly be leaving the Earle.  Presumably, it is in Charlie's interests to flee and lay low for a while following the outcome of his doctor's appointment earlier today; no doubt he anticipates the arrival of Mastrionatti and Deustch or their ilk, but he allows Barton to think that he is going away purely for business purposes.  He tells him that "things have gotten all balled up at the Head Office," a statement that potentially references his own inability to keep his murderous urges in check, but could just as easily refer to Barton's writer's block and his increasingly fraught mental state - a hint that Charlie's activities may be emblematic of the darker recesses of Barton's mind that are being unleashed by the frustrations of his mental blockage.  Barton expresses his sorrow that Charlie will be leaving, confessing that he will miss him, but Charlie assures him that he will be back at the Earle sooner or later - the Earle is, after all, the type of place in which one tends to find themselves lost for a lifetime.

Having learned that Charlie will be heading to New York, Barton supplies him with details as to where to find his parents and his uncle, with the intention of enabling Charlie to enjoy a home-cooked meal while he is out there.  This is by far the kindest and most thoughtful gesture that Barton has made to Charlie since the two of them first met.  It is also one of the greatest mistakes that Barton has made so far (shy only of invoking Charlie's attentions in the first place or, one might argue, agreeing to the job in Hollywood at all), for, by offering his family up in this manner, Barton may be satisfying a much more gruesome appetite of Charlie's.  It is particularly eerie, then, that a strip of wallpaper should happen to peel as soon as Barton has passed the details onto Charlie, as if in direct reaction to Barton's gesture.  Wallpaper is a significant motif in Barton Fink, and the last time that Barton had to contend with peeling paper, it seemed emblematic of the wrath of Charlie; a sign that the Beast had truly been awakened and intended to keep a tight hold upon him.  Here, it happens in Charlie's presence, and appears to induce feelings of shame in Charlie, who describes the Earle as a "dump" and asks Barton if he finds it pathetic.  The purpose of wallpaper, as we know, is to cover things up; here, peeling wallpaper functions as an exposure of the sticky, feverish ugliness that lies below the surface, a hint that Charlie's ostensibly very amiable demeanour conceals a more grotesque reality, which Barton has now fated himself to discover in due course.  The complete unraveling of everything that Barton thinks he knows will truly begin from this point onward.

As Charlie makes his way out of Room 621, Barton asks him not to leave without first saying goodbye.  Charlie assures him that he will see him again, a statement in which there lurks yet another of his implicit threats.  For indeed, as far as Barton's relations with Charlie are going, things are only just getting started.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Paradise Regained (A Sweet Disaster)

Good news - Paradise Regained (ie: the one Sweet Disaster film that I could never track down, either online or as part of any commercial video release) eludes me no more.  I happened to be in London recently, so I took the opportunity to secure a viewing session in the BFI viewing room with the copy that they had in their archives.  A beautifully-preserved copy it was too - crisp, clean and with all of the surrounding Channel 4 idents intact.  And maybe it was just the excitement of the experience or the sheer novelty of finally getting to see the film after all this time, but this might just have been my favourite of the lot, making it a perfectly satisfying instalment to have ended my four-year Sweet Disaster quest upon.  Irony is, for as long as this one has eluded me, I didn't even finish reviewing the four Sweet Disaster shorts that I had seen up until that point.  As it's turned out, I've wound up leaving both films by Andrew Franks (the only director to helm multiple instalments of the Sweet Disaster series) until last.  My review of Conversations by a Californian Swimming Pool is presently on the back-burner, but I thought that I should get my commentary upon Paradise Regained down while the film is still relatively fresh on my mind.

The title "Paradise Regained" is an obvious nod to the John Milton poem originally published in 1671 (the sequel to his earlier epic, "Paradise Lost"), dealing with Jesus's encounters with Satan out in the Wilderness and his triumph over Satan's efforts to have him succumb to temptation (as depicted in the Gospel of Luke).  Franks' film takes place in a wilderness that remains where human civilisation has long since fallen, the victim of nuclear attack, and in which a potential new Eden is apparently enduring, albeit with a sinister undercurrent afoot.  Having now seen all five films in the Sweet Disaster series, I feel confident in categorising Paradise Regained as the strangest of the pentad, in part for the curious juxtaposition it creates between various incongruous elements and imagery - between nature and machinery, life and death, beauty and horror.  Whereas Milton's poem dealt with the redemption of life through the forbearance of Jesus, Franks' film centres on the tension between renewal and oblivion, showing us a world of great visual splendor in which ugliness is also rife; a "paradise regained" not through peaceful resistance but through appalling atrocities, the remnants of which are still visible, and in which the forces of destruction still linger (albeit in rather an unexpected form), the war between elimination and endurance having yet to be completely settled.

For the most part, the film takes place in a forest, against a backdrop of lush, tropical greenery and a soundscape of clicking insects and lively birdsong, although a handful of establishing shots indicate that this ostensibly unspoiled Eden is actually a small pocket of life in a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland spanning the world beyond.  The only remnant of the lost human civilisation (and hint of what may have occupied the wasteland prior to the blast) is a single shopping trolley bearing the sign "must be returned to the store or designated trolley parks".  The forest animation (courtesy of Aardman's Richard "Golly" Golieszowski) is beautiful and richly detailed, so that each shot showing water dripping from the leaves, flowers erupting with bursts of pollen, mist rising through the trees and flashes of overhead lightning conveys a robust and intricate network of life.  Yet mixed in with this sublimity are momentary glimpses of unspeakable horror, notably the remains of a human rib cage seen entrenched in a bubbling bog (the bubbling effect, evidently the result of someone blowing into liquid through a straw, does lend an oddly charming quirkiness to the otherwise bleak implications of this particular image).  The continued survival of the forest amid the remnants of disaster might be read as a testament to the resilience of the natural world, haunting in its indifference toward human suffering, but also inspiring in its ability to endure and keep the cycle of life active.  Unfortunately, there are other forces at work within the forest and, right from the start of the film, a distinctly alien, technological presence is felt, one which seems disturbingly at odds with the natural ambience and suggests the extent to which human activity continues to pervade this world long after humanity's supposed fall.  The opening shots show the fuzzy, colourless perspective of a surveillance camera peering through the trees; as it turns out, this is just one of multiple cameras concealed within the forest, jerkily swiveling in all directions.  The denizens of this world, be they merely shrubs and animals, are being observed with paranoid eyes.

There is another threatening element which pervades the film for its entirety, and that is The Voice.  A loud, bellowing voice (vocal performance by Philip Manikum) is heard ringing out from deep within the forest, announcing, in the manner of a religious sermon, that the Earth, having been cleansed of the contaminating evils of flesh and desire, has been restored to its former state of paradise.  The source of The Voice is not immediately clear, but it transpires that multiple loudspeakers have been affixed to trees, in order to deliver this sermon across the forest.  Destruction, we are told, is faith, death is charity, and the nuclear warfare which has laid waste to the world beyond was the glorious embodiment of divine judgement.  In The Voice's own words, "The armies of God have triumphed, thundering against the sinners, scorching the Earth!  No flesh, sin is extinguished, there is no desire!"  In order to eradicate sin, life too must be completely obliterated.  According to The Voice, "God's solution is the triumph of God over life", for is "life from which comes all madness and treachery, all sin and desire, all pain and anxiety, all lust."  Through these proclamations, The Voice establishes itself as being in opposition to the renewal and endurance of life as embodied by the forest, and it becomes apparent that the unseen forces behind the surveillance cameras have none too good intentions for the inhabitants of this Eden.  One of the cameras suddenly becomes very active and spins around as if detecting some kind of disturbance.  The source of this is eventually revealed to be a tiger lurking in the bushes nearby, seemingly curious as to what the raucous is all about.  At this point, the camera's sinister secret is revealed; it is not merely an instrument of observation, but also a deadly weapon and, having honed in upon its target, it proceeds to open fire (but apparently fails to kill the tiger, which is seen alive in a later shot).

The owner of The Voice is finally introduced through the sudden appearance of a saucer, upon which we see a human hand place a tea cup.  The lack of any corporeal human presence up until now means that this reveal comes of as starting, all the more so for being accompanied by an activity as benignly mundane as drinking tea.  The forces pulling the strings are revealed to be a lone individual, a white-haired man who watches the local environs via multiple surveillance screens.  Behind him sits a tape recorder, its spools turning, for the sermon we hear being broadcast live throughout the forest is actually a recording.  At this stage, the film becomes reminiscent of  Death of a Speechwriter, which also takes place in the aftermath of nuclear attack and which also centres around the juxtaposition of an audio recording with a starkly sinister reality.  Much as the slew of soundbites heard throughout the latter film ultimately accumulate to little more than a slew of meaningless chaos, here there is a definite ridiculousness in the bombast of this white-haired character, as reflected in the reaction of the tiger, who finally slinks away in total indifference.

Ultimately, the white-haired man is rather an absurd figure, exemplified in the entirely one-sided nature of his war on life.  The audience to whom he broadcasts his sermon have no use for or comprehension of any of his words and respond only with their heedlessness, carrying on much as they have always done.  Nevertheless, the manner in which he embraces and positively revels in the destruction which has befallen the world around him do still mark him out as rather a horrifying figure.  In a sly subversion of the Milton poem with which the film shares its name, Christ is worked in here not as a bringer of redemption, but as a signifier of the very heights of this man's lust for annihilation.  He proclaims that "Paradise is regained", and refers not to the continued survival of the forest that surrounds him, but to the devastated wasteland that lies beyond it - as he states, "emptiness is virtue!", and it is through this emptiness, and the perceived cleansing brought about by nuclear warfare, that he anticipates the second coming of Christ.  If the survival of the forest represents an opportunity for regrowth and renewal, then the lust for destruction that he exhibits, along with the religious reverence with which he regards the nuclear annihilation of past, are the serpents of this particular Eden.  When, finally, we see the white-haired man switch off his tape recorder and speak directly into his microphone for the first time, he merely continues the same cycle of phrases which could be heard on the tape recording - "Destruction is faith!  Death is charity!  Paradise is regained!" - with a chilling monotony that causes him to appear as little more than an extension of the machinery with which he has allied himself; a fanatical, eerily mechanical figure acting out an endless tirade against a largely disinterested world.

Paradise Regained closes with a pause from the white-haired man, against which a peaceful ambience of jungle noises is heard, only for the film to cut to a sudden, startling burst of static (much like that frequently seen through the view of the surveillance cameras); a mock-signalling failure that once again evokes the tension between life and oblivion, plunging this "paradise" into total nothingness.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Morph in "Re-cycle" (1993)

Today is Saturday 19th March, aka the date of Earth Hour 2016, so do remember to turn your lights off for no less than one hour at 20:30 local time.  In order to mark the occasion, I'm going to spotlight another environmental short, this time from Connoisseur Video's 1993 VHS release EcoToons, the sequel to the previous year's Green Animation.

EcoToons follows a similar format to its predecessor, only with less emphasis upon student films and more upon Italian imports, including multiple shorts from Italian animators Guido Manuli and Bruno Bozzetto, and Japanese animator Fusako Yusaki, who worked extensively in Italy.  As a result, the films in this collection are generally more polished and professional than the ones featured in Green Animation, with Yusaki's work being particularly luscious (we'll talk about her at a later date).  Tony Robinson once again shows up to provide commentary upon the shorts, and while Peter Lord doesn't share presenting duties with him this time, he does show up elsewhere on the cassette, as part of a featurette which forms the centrepiece of this release.

Unlike Green Animations, EcoToons has the luxury of being able to boast an appearance from one of the all-time stars of the UK animation industry - that cheeky little plasticine chappie Morph, who at the time was still the most famous of Aardman's creations (although not for much longer - it was 1993, and The Wrong Trousers was all poised to come out later that year and elevate Wallace and Gromit to a super-stardom that Morph could only dream of).  Morph stars here in a short film called Re-cycle, which was actually the end-product of a competition hosted by the BBC Saturday morning children's programme Going Live in January 1993.  Viewers were invited to submit a six panel storyboard for an environmentally-themed Morph adventure, with the promise that the winner would have the thrill of seeing their idea brought to life in an official Aardman production.  That winning storyboard was submitted by 12 year-old Ruth Dancer from Gloucestershire, who came up with a pro-recycling scenario in which Morph is one-upped by his cream-coloured companion Chas for failing to see the hidden potential of the clutter in his life.  Included in this featurette is coverage of the competition with Going Live presenters Sarah Greene and Phillip Schofield, and footage of Ruth's visit to the Aardman Animation studio in Bristol, where she got to meet Peter Lord and some of the team assigned to working on her short.

Being a Morph short, and thus containing no dialogue that the audience can discern, the plot of Re-cycle is naturally entirely straightforward.  Morph realises that he has too much apparently useless junk stored inside his wooden box living quarters and resolves to trash it, only for Chas to request that it be passed onto him.  Morph enjoys a laugh at Chas's expense because he thinks that he's crazy, but Chas promptly rides by on a swanky tricycle assembled from Morph's discarded items (a bicycle in Ruth's original storyboard, but Lord admits that he changed it to a tricycle in order to make the animation process easier), much to the chagrin of Morph, who realises that he could be riding said vehicle right now if he had only been more inventive and resourceful.  As with any Morph short, the humour derives from the characters' quirky, high-pitched gibberish, the simple expressiveness of their movements and mannerisms, and their witty, ingenuous interaction with the most banal of desktop items.  In the surrounding featurette, Lord explains that he favoured Ruth's idea because of the triple punchline, which offered ample comic potential - the appearance of Chas's bike, Morph's reaction to the bike, and finally the titular "re-cycle" pun.  He also admits that the production process for Morph is a prime example of recycling, since he regularly slices off Morph's eyes, squishes him down into a blob and builds him up again from scratch whenever the models get too worn out or dirty.

Admittedly, the environmental aspect is rather subdued in Re-cycle, which doesn't really illustrate why recycling is so important (beyond the possibility of you missing out on a swanky homemade tricycle) or the potential negative impact of discarded waste, but whatever.  It provides a delightful opportunity for some characteristic mischief from Morph and Chas, and that titular pun is undeniably darling.

Side-note: as a kid I was totally square and had ballroom dancing lessons on a Saturday morning, so I very seldom watched Going Live.  Kind of peeved with hindsight as I would have really loved to have taken a crack at this competition.  I doubt that I would have been much of a threat to Ruth Dancer but still, given that I now don't remember a single one of those dancing moves it couldn't have been any less constructive a use of my time.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

A Day or a Lifetime - Early morning traffic is audible, as is the cry of fishmongers

Before we get on to the details of Charlie's third visit, I wanted to backtrack and talk a bit more about the opening scenario of Barton's screenplay for The Burlyman, something that I only vaguely touched upon in my last post on Hotel Earle.  I noted there that Barton has a blatant fixation with fishmongers which seems to dominate just about everything we get to see him write (which, admittedly, isn't much, but it does nonetheless provide us with a crucial glimpse into his world view and creative approach).  We know that Barton's play, Bare Ruined Choirs, was about a family of fishmongers working at the Fulton Fish Market, and his need to refer to the cries said fishmongers (aka the titular "choir" of his previous work) in his opening set-up for The Burlyman is frequently interpreted as a sign of his limited creativity.  Barton himself invites such an interpretation when he confides in Charlie his fear that he only ever had one idea in him, and that once his play was written he was left with nothing else to say.  Based on the small snippet of dialogue we hear from his finished script for The Burlyman via Mastrionatti and Deutsch (which distinctly mirrors the closing dialogue of Bare Ruined Choirs) it appears that he could have been onto something all along.

What is certainly curious (and something that I've honestly never seen mentioned in other analyses of the film) is that Barton's fishmonger obsession appears to be precisely what summons Charlie into being in the first place, and thus sets everything else into motion.  In the build-up to Charlie's initial visit, when Barton has begun work upon his screenplay, his inclusion of fishmongers in the initial setting is clearly shown to be an afterthought.  Barton sets the opening in a tenement building in Manhattan's Lower East Side, which already threatens to take us right back into the world of Bare Ruined Choirs.  Barton initially adds a full stop after the specification that "Early morning traffic is audible" but pauses and decides to go back and override that full stop with a comma, so that he can tack on that extra, seemingly arbitrary detail about the fishmongers.  It is immediately after this that he suddenly gains an awareness of the sounds coming from the room next door, and finds himself no longer able to focus upon his work.  It is not clear whether the noises Charlie is making are the sounds of crying or laughter, but his disturbance can be interpreted as a reaction to Barton's amendment either way -  if he is laughing, it is in derision of the naive young writer who has just sealed his fate with his foolishness, and if he is crying, it is in pained anticipation of the horrors to come.  Or perhaps the indistinctness of Charlie's reaction indicates that he feels a mixture of both.  I would even be so bold as to propose that this ostensibly minor action on Barton's part is one of the key defining moments of the film, and certainly the most important prior to Barton inviting Audrey into the Earle.  The moment seems so small and subdued that it is easy to overlook it altogether, but it is here that Barton is essentially setting himself up for failure - his inability to hear past the cries of the fishmongers are what doom him to keep on repeating the cycle of entrapment and self-absorption that prevent him from escaping from himself.  They are the filter through which he insists upon seeing the world, and which ensures that he stays firmly locked within his own head.  Barton denies himself the opportunity to grow, either as a person or as a writer.  He might indeed be correct when he suggests that he may have only ever had one story inside of him, but he unwittingly betrays the source of his limitations in the process - it never occurs to him that other people might have stories that could inform and enrich his own; in fact, Barton seems to be entirely averse to the idea, reflexively cutting off Charlie whenever he attempts to recount any of his own anecdotes.

Barton's increasingly estranged connection to the "real world" (a term I must use very loosely in the context of this film) is reflected in the minor but nevertheless very telling modifications he makes to his initial opening.  Later (before Charlie's third visit), we see a revised version in which the setting has now been moved to a tenement hotel on the Lower East Side (better reflecting Barton's current environs), and which states that it is too early for the sounds of traffic to be audible (hinting at the increasing extent of Barton's isolation, while the reference to it being "early" recalls one of the closing statements from Bare Ruined Choirs), although the fishmongers will still not be silenced.  The bare ruined choir threatens to haunt Barton for all eternity.

As it turns out, the fishmongers of Barton's world are indeed eternal and have existed since the beginning of time, something later confirmed when, in the post-murder stages of the film, he discovers a Gideons Bible in his hotel desk drawer and flips it open to see that the opening words of his screenplay have replaced the opening verses of Genesis (something else of great significance happens here, but we can save that particular detail for later).  This is one of the film's most overtly surreal moments, which many interpret as the ultimate indication of Barton's hubris, although it comes as a nightmarish blow to Barton, arriving as it does during a time of immense shock, fear and desperation. He looks to the Bible, presumably for some form of hope or enlightenment, only to find his own solipsism staring him right in the face.  He is essentially being mocked by his own self-absorption in this scene, which speaks volumes about the sense of self-loathing that accompanies his self-obsession.  It is also indicative of the true nature of the Hotel Earle - not quite a literal Hell, as is commonly assumed, but representative of the inner workings of Barton's own mind, where everything is murky and univiting, the outside world is heavily shut out, and the Universe literally does begin and end with the distant cries of fishmongers.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Fred and the Apple World (1992)

A cautionary tale about the dangers of wastefulness, over-consumption and the misuse of resources, Fred and the Apple World was directed and animated by Dagmar Jordan at Kingston University and appears on the Connoisseur Video VHS title Green Animation.  Released in 1992 in collaboration with the World Wide Fund for Nature, Green Animation is a collection of short animations, predominantly student films from the UK and MTV-commissioned promos from the US, made with the intention of promoting awareness for environmental issues.  Most of these are very short, with few running longer than a couple of minutes.  The compilation is presented by Tony Robinson (our friend from two Sweet Disaster shorts, although best known for playing Baldrick in the BBC sitcom Blackadder) and Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord, fresh from making his Academy Award-nominated short Adam (1991).  A companion video, EcoToons, was released in 1993.

Fred and the Apple World, a claymation short without dialogue, has long been one of my picks for the stand-outs of this collection.  The central metaphor is a relatively simple one, but effective - the Earth is represented as a giant apple, which the ravenous, absent-minded Fred (who represents the very worst of human excesses) keeps munching away at, until the globe is reduced to a core, and Fred's weight becomes so immense that the weakened Earth is unable to support him, and finally gives way.  Hurtled off into an ominous black void, Fred's appetite remains insatiable even after the shock of the fall, and he eats away at the remains of the broken Earth until he is seemingly the only thing left in existence.  The short could easily have ended here, but a horrifying additional sting in the tail comes when Fred is granted a second chance - a new seed of hope literally materialises before him - only for his hunger to fatally overwhelm him yet again.  Fred holds the seed in his fingers, as if contemplating its significance and potential, but, unable to control himself, he devours it on the spot, before destroying himself in a fit of despair and desperation upon realising that he has squandered his only hope for renewal and continued survival.

Being a student film, the aesthetics of Fred and the Apple World are not especially polished, and if the film has one particularly notable weakness, it's in the occasional moments of motionless which are meant to signify pauses but are not entirely convincing - at the end of the short, when Fred is examining the apple seed, it looks merely as if the animation has come to a total standstill; as if someone has hit the pause button rather than Fred being convincingly alive.  Nevertheless, the film is still charming to look at, with the papery green leaves of the apple tree that Fred initially shares his Earth with (before it too becomes a victim of his hunger) having a lush, pleasingly handmade quality, and Fred's facial expressions, while always very simplified, successfully conveying the character's crippling obliviousness to his increasingly dire situation.  We can buy Fred as being more careless and lacking in long-term vision than he is a true villain (at his most bloated, he is always recognisiably a human figure, and never portrayed as outright monstrous), his apparent inability to keep his primal urges in check rendering him an unsympathetic but still painfully ill-fated character to watch.

Where the film really excels is in the ambiance it creates.  The film's use of sound, credited to Peter Barnfather, Emma Knight-barnard and Miles Tranter, is wonderfully understated, giving us a sense of the Earth as it exists at various stages of Fred's reign terror - from the tranquil birdsong of the opening sequence to the subdued murmurings of a human civilisation as Fred, having devoured his apple tree companion, starts tearing away at the Earth's continents, to the chilling winds conveying the final emptiness of the depleted Earth.  It's effective but subdued enough to make the film's most crucial sounds - the successive chomping noises Fred makes as he bites his way through the apple in the opening sequence - appear startlingly ominous.  The dissolve that accompanies each bite, showing a notably larger Fred as he grows in size and eventually comes to dwarf the tree by his side, while an obvious means of overcoming the animation's limited motion, is effective nevertheless.

In the end there isn't a whole lot to Fred and the Apple World, but it works and, despite the crudeness of the animation techniques therein, remains a hidden gem in the field of UK claymation.  Both colourful and haunting, the film takes on on a progressively nightmarish but consistently understated quality at a perfect rate, and if anything, its message, concerning the need to be mindful about our use of the world's resources, has only gotten all the more resonant nearly two and a half decades on.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Candyjam (1988)

Candyjam (1988) is a short film dedicated to the hypnotic allure of candy, directed and produced by Joanna Priestley and Joan Gratz and comprised of several bite-sized skits from ten different animators - in addition to Priestley and Gratz, there are contributions from David Anderson (director of the Sweet Disaster short Dreamless Sleep), Elizabeth Buttler, Tom Gasek, Karen Aqua, Paul Driessen, Christine Panushka, Craig Bartlett and Marv Newland.  These are all non-dialogue, save for the Priestley skit, which uses monologue and self-caricature in a style obviously reminiscent of her earlier short Voices (1985).  Each animation uses stop-motion techniques, in which candy features as a key material.  Anderson fashions human faces out of caramel wrappers and chocolate beans (which, in a typical note of Anderson surrealism, vomit up a beach of candy pebbles, providing the perfect environment for a metal clockwork lobster to scuttle across, devouring candy as it goes), Panushka has a trio of jelly rats and a swarm of jelly worms wriggle across screen before summoning a fruit drop rainfall, Driessen follows two hand-drawn characters interacting with a gummy fish they have managed to hook, and so on.  The entire film is accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack, courtesy of Dave Storrs, which emphasises the "jam" portion of the title.

The fetishisation of sugar addiction is a recurring theme, with multiple skits examining the seductive pleasures of all things sweet and calorie-laden - notably the Aqua piece, in which a Ken-style plastic doll engages in a spot of bondage with some frisky liquorice allsorts, at the expense of his well-toned figure.  Mostly, the skits are concerned simply with exploring candy as a visual medium, creating a giddy, non-stop whirl of shapes and colours as confectionery of every ilk is paraded onscreen in a dazzling collage of Sesame Street-esque playfulness.  The result is a film dedicated exclusively to recreating the visual stimulation and pure Pavlovian excitement one gets from having a candy bar wrapper dangled in front of them - the guilty pleasures and childlike joy that accompanies exposure to sugary snacks.

There are shades of Gratz's Acamdemy Award-winning claymation short Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (1992), in which imagery of various cultural icons (including the Mona Lisa, George Washington, Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse) are seen morphing into one another, ingesting and interacting with pieces of candy as they go.  Of particularly demented delight is the Bartlett skit, where candy bars are depicted as ravenously bestial beings, devouring one another in a continuous food chain - a Butterfinger eats a Snickers bar and then excretes a trail of M&Ms.  This is followed by a shot of a singular M&M being stomped on, Monty Python style, by a giant human foot, only for an entire swarm of M&Ms to set upon the foot like army ants and strip it right down the bone.

Candyjam displays a fascination with junk food culture that is by turns witty, weird and exhilarating, making the case that, whatever those empty calories might lack in nutritional value, their potential as visual art is truly out of this world.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

A Day or a Lifetime - Mosquito Encounter #3 (and another man's shoes)

Barton's been grappling with the opening to his wrestling picture screenplay for long enough now and the pressure is beginning to intensify.  Since his last meeting with Charlie he's had the opportunity to become better acquainted with Mayhew and Audrey, and witnessed first-hand the extent of the former's alcoholism and what a sorry, washed-up wreck his experiences in Hollywood have made of him.  Audrey hints that Barton's unwillingness to put himself in another individual's shoes may be his shortcoming, a suggestion which only serves to deepen Barton's confusion.

Right before Charlie calls on Barton for the third time (and the last before it all really goes to hell for Barton) he is visited by another of his old acquaintances at the Earle - the mosquito, who disturbs Barton as he lies, apparently sleeping, on his hotel bed.  Once again, we close in upon Barton from the mosquito's perspective, reinforcing the sensation that Barton is not only being watched but also being stalked by some unseen predatory presence.  With the camera nearly upon him, Barton wakes with a sudden start and reflexively slaps himself in the face, only to find that the phantom ectoparasite has vanished mysteriously into thin air.  Worth noting is that this is the first point in the film in which we actually see Barton sleeping - at most, previously, we had seen him lying motionless on his bed during his first night at the Earle, visibly unsettled by the disembodied whines of the mosquito.  As we've acknowledged multiple times, there are numerous interpretations of Barton Fink which have it that not all of Barton's Hollywood experiences are objectively "real" within the context of the film, and that he spends at least a portion of the film deep in troubled fantasy (a reading potentially supported by the film's opening sequence, in which the protagonist of Bare Ruined Choirs insists that he's awake for the first time in years), but distinguishing exactly where the dreaming ends and reality begins is a tricky business.  Barton's literal awakening in this scene might prompt speculation that the scene which immediately preceded it - the unpleasant picnic with Mayhew and Audrey - was merely a dream, although this immediately raises the question as to whereabouts in the film we're expected to interpret Barton as having fallen asleep in the first place.

Once again, I'm compelled to view the Earle and its Hollywood exterior as two oppositional spaces, each as feverish and as surreal as the other, as opposed to one representing "reality" and the other pure fantasy.  The picture of the sun-bathing beauty that hangs above Barton's desk is the obvious anomaly within the environs of the Earle, as it provides a window into a another world altogether (albeit a false one).  As I've discussed previously, Charlie appears to have a (one-sided?) rivalry with this picture, so much so that whenever Barton becomes particularly transfixed with the image, the rest of the Earle (which seems to have an uncanny connection with Charlie) reacts in protest.  But what of Audrey, the more corporeal object of Barton's desires?  Is it that the mosquito, in waking Barton, has forcibly removed him from Audrey's domain and dragged him back safely into the barren walls of the Earle, where he can longer look upon her?  Such a reading would suggest that the mosquito is allied with Charlie (much as the peeling wallpaper and the hotel pipes seem to be), and certainly, its bloodsucking tendencies could be interpreted as mirroring Charlie's own predatory habits, although a case could equally be made for the mosquito having a connection to Audrey (when Barton finally sees the mosquito in its physical form, it follows on from his successful sexual seduction of Audrey, and his vanquishing of the creature once and for all comes just before the revelation that Audrey has been brutally murdered).  Mostly, the mosquito seems to be a threatening force all of its own - something that, according to Geisler, should not exist in this world and yet has found its way in regardless.  The mosquito is an indication that something is deeply amiss in this world, an intrusion into Barton's psyche that persistently haunts him but that he is unable to pinpoint and expel.

Unsettled by the mosquito, Barton decides to take another stab at getting his wrestling scenario off the ground.  The screenplay has barely progressed beyond his description of the initial setting, although it has been altered slightly - whereas Barton originally opened the film in a "tenement building in Manhattan's Lower East Side", where early morning traffic and the cry of fishmongers are both audible, it now takes place in a "tenement hotel on the Lower East Side".  Those fishmongers can still be heard (Barton will forever have fishmongers, the ultimate signing of his own solipsism, on the brain), although the traffic has notably been silenced, an indication of Barton's deepening isolation.  A sudden spark of inspiration appears to strike, for Barton begins to type and, as he does so, the camera pans downwards to show his feet sliding into the shoes beneath the desk - as it turns out, he has somehow ended up with Charlie's shoes (due to an accidental mix-up on Chet's part, or part of Charlie's scheme all along?), which are several sizes too big for him.

Some, such as Eddie Robson in the Virgin Film publication Coen Brothers, argue that Barton's feet being too small for Charlie's shoes is an illustration of how severely out of his depth he is in the world of the Common Man.  Others might point to the obvious metaphor of putting oneself in someone else's shoes and interpret the scene as an indication of just how alien and confusing the whole process is to Barton, particularly in light of Audrey's earlier statement about the nature of empathy.  Nevertheless, John Turturro's performance (the quizzical, uneasy smile) suggests that the experience, while clearly overwhelming for Barton, is not an altogether unpleasant one.  He moves his feet back and forth through Charlie's shoes as if finally having the opportunity to survey another individual's personal space is of genuine, if somewhat inexplicable fascination to him.  Putting his feet into Charlie's shoes is, both literally and figuratively, a liberating experience for Barton, who savours the additional foot-room.  We may have garnered from the closing dialogue to Bare Ruined Choirs that Barton, above all, yearns for an escape, being as constrained by his own ego as he is enamoured and reassured by it.  If Barton put himself and his own perspective at the centre when he was writing Bare Ruined Choirs, it is through his unconscious fascination with Charlie that he begins to find a window into the world of The Burlyman - we see that he has finally had enough of a breakthrough to have introduced his protagonist as "a large man in tights".  To make the connection totally complete, the phrase itself appears to summon Charlie into the room, for he immediately appears at Barton's door with the correct pair of shoes in hand.