A pair of surrealistic modern animations this week on Midnight Screenings.
A Town Called Panic
Gifting galvanic motion to the Art Brut movement – literally “raw art”, or “rough art” – the Belgian film A Town Called Panic is nearly outsider art, or at least, it bears the casual fibers of a work that dismisses rationality with an outsider spirit. The film is gifted a name that lovingly reintroduces old Western tropes (who couldn’t imagine Clint Eastwood sauntering into A Town Called Panic, eyes frazzled and mouth as closed and parsimonious as ever) but also suggests the ethos of the film: panic, pandemonium, bedlam, and beauty all rolled up into one terrifyingly tactile witch’s brew that applies not only logic but physical objects in the most fascinatingly tenuous of ways imaginable. A lose flash-bang grenade of a story about two minimalist plastic-base action figures – “Cowboy” and “Indian” – who react in a flurry of rushed stream-of-consciousness thought when a birthday present for their friend “Horse” goes horribly awry, A Town Called Panic is stop-motion with an emphasis on stop – stopping to renounce the rationalist norms of cinema – and motion – gallantly flying past any such notions, or any breaks at all, on the back of its own demented whimsy.
Defiant in its refusal to cater to norms of representation, each figurine is jostled around by childlike voices and in jerky, barely-motile movements that suggest a child’s imagination space more than a proper feature film with all its assumptions about causality and logic. “Cowboy” and “Indian” are representational ideas laden with historical memory and mental baggage primed for unpacking, and yet the film blows said baggage to smithereens, rather than say cautiously refusing to deal with the imagery in a bid for safety. Words are at their most spectacularly relative in A Town Called Panic, with “Cowboy” a physical figurine almost devoid of physical features – barely carrying a visage, for instance, and being rather hastily scrawled out in crayon-colored plastic blotches – whose persona is not only not cowboy-like but not especially classifiable in the realm of human representation at all.
Very little about this deranged motion picture is safe, but the most disarming element is its rejection of mental signifiers almost wholeheartedly. “Cowboy” is a spiked minefield of a term that the film dances all over, shooting from mine to mine and riding the explosions to propel it to delirious heights of capital-H Hysteria. With a hyper-surrealistic flow of sound and imagery, objects and utterances parade across the screen with nary an interest in the logical mind’s categorization for them; “Cowboy” and “Indian”, as terms, are not only types but the building blocks of childhood tactility – literally their toys – that presuppose certain archetypes for children to girder their sentience and sanity around (coercing them to conform to society’s crystallized expectations about people). By tearing the ideas down to their representational fibers, words like “cowboy” become an almost abstract slurry of inlaid, compartmentalized signifiers– “hat”, “belt”, “gun” – rather than constructs to be taken for granted as normative or innate. With film characters so prey to their directors and writers and actors, the film peruses the halls of the idea that Eastwood’s Man With No Name really wasn’t any less of a representational totem, an action figure, or a toy all along.
As identities, these constructs tend to figure into cinema as symbols for anything that crosses the mind of the filmmaker; in Panic, however, the hasty, harried sketch of personal identity – constantly fluctuating and reinterrogating what “identity” might mean by the moment – is so unstable and ever-warping that it can never be stagnant enough to be anybody’s symbol. The film dynamites the artifice of certain representational issues, proposing outlets for the childlike id to precede them and warp them into putty for the imagination. “Cowboys” and “Indians”, as we envision them, are primarily racialized imaginative constructs with dormant real-world progenitors. If children exhibit – even flaunt – a volition to upend the normative status of these types by infusing different personalities onto the physical signifiers, what does it say that adult society is content to rein-in said childhood mind? Obviously, the ability to preempt or bend imaginative rulesets – to melt solidified definitions of cowboy and Indian by free-associatively infusing new characteristics into them – is a threat to the oppressive social structures these mental constructs reinforce. A Town Called Panic is not only a challenge in this sense, but heretical in this act of not only melting, but outright boiling and even evaporating the mental categories, and in this case the physical materials, by which the world materializes.
Of course, “Indian” is a racially-barbed term with real-world implications, so warping it beyond recollection completely negates the tempestuous reality of representation in the world and forces us down the middlebrow-clogged major artery to color-blindness. But Panic, rather than throttling us through one major artery, operates from a mantra of slashing cords and pathways altogether. In doing so, it admits that imaginative representation – that the way we imaginatively tether “Indian” to visions of red men in Peter Pan gallantly singing about nature and animism – is a penitentiary all the more dangerous because it seems so open-air and uncoerced.
Anyway, that’s perhaps a bit off the beaten path for A Town Called Panic, but then the film defies paths as a clarifying principle. Even the visual craft threatens presuppositions about life, from the, as mentioned, bare-bones recollections of humans in the figures, to the blistering cuts on action between locations that disrupt the causal flow from one action to the next, to the deep-seated ambivalence about motion in the film’s refusal to cater to the assumptions of grace and quasi-fluid movement that more respectable stop-motion films do. Rather than smoothing over the innate gifts of a style that necessitates filming one frame at a time, A Town Called Panic metastasizes those gifts, barely allotting a movement every handful of frames and breaking the holding-pattern of stop-motion cinema that strives for the image, the simulacrum, of human movement. Instead, it strives to disturb our kinesthetic senses at a most elemental level.
The perpetual-motion machine of the narrative is fascinatingly undercut by these forced resting points inlaid between every movement, functioning like brief gasps for air – not so much full respites – in a bracing treatise on the need not only to reimagine the flow of the world but to stop and breathe for a few frames, in this case, when you are resigned to the understanding that you cannot. Together, the two contrasts – and Panic is nothing if not a work that thrives on contradiction – girder an oddly touching parable about communal openness as a fount for collective restructuring on both physical and mental levels. Humanity and togetherness erupt from the pores of chaos as the friends – and the characters are, if nothing else, undying friends – disentangle their kinship from notions of identity and collectively ignite new possibilities with each other by the minute, relying on other physical toys, themselves freed from representational limits, to rebuild and reconsider the demolition that their chaos wrings forth in the first place.
The elemental disruption of the style – space, movement, and human form negated – not only corrodes normative perspectives but serves as a wellspring for a certain newness, a recalibrated reality that is not merely one set of mental structures replaced with another but a visualization of contested mental space, a battleground with expected reality as a casualty and mental blockades buoyantly cracked wide open. The film’s caliber as cinema – its visuals, its pace – is its window into possibility. Beautifully and blissfully, not only the film’s mentality but its physicality – its understanding that these nebulous ideas have weight and take material forms in toys that the film can also tango with and disrupt – is its calling card, buttressing a work that is not primarily a philosophical monolith or treatise but a drug-crazed formal exercise in cinema craft.
Another element here? Comedy, with the film grasping onto the guiding principle of the genre, or a guiding principle at least – unexpected comparison and contrast and the slide from normality to a more grotesque version of the same – setting that principle on fire and placing a fan to draw the fumes right into the film’s nose. It’s not congenial or cordial, but this rag-tag malformation is an unrepentant claptrap of a gnarly cinematic beast, an id-geyser of alchemic comedy and an avalanche of delicious chemical impurities all culled from the marginalia of the world and christened anew. Not quite war-mongering or even boundary-pushing, the film bears the childlike insouciance of a work that pre-empts boundaries, not acknowledging them, rather a work that willfully considers normative boundaries with disdain. Even at the level of dialogue, malapropism penetrates syntax and punctures our assumptions about the legality of word-flow. Like some telekinetic devil, A Town Called Panic not only interrogates but weaponizes the very fabric of the mind.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
Not the least bit amiable and certainly never amicable, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters does not take the road less traveled, although I cannot begin to presume how Robert Frost would have felt about it. In fact, I don’t even know that the foggy haze of space in this film – surrealistically floated-upon by characters who would be conforming to the normative world if they actually thought to walk – qualifies as a road. Based on an Adult Swim show that kindles the inherent surrealism of the television format into nebulous, indecipherable chunks of psychotic minutiae and ephemera, this film is not so much written and directed as sliced, diced, and charbroiled into gloriously disreputable heights of lunacy. Or non-lunacy. It quickly becomes hard to tell.
Most television adaptations run rampant with distended running times that ruin the tried-and-true slippery spryness of 22 minute television chunks. Colon Movie Film turns the wonderfully disfigured lengths of these films into a hedonistic, irritable syndrome of a film that is more or less aware of its stretch marks and relies on this knowledge as the underwire of its abuse of them. Whereas shows like Family Guy are desperately sensible and more or less linearly drawn from moment to moment in their probationary faux-nonsense, Aqua Teen is whole-hog in its rudderless renunciation of the status quo. Intentionally difficult – or so bizarre that it is incapable of intentionality at all – the film is among the precious (or deviant) few films with the spine to ignite the realm of surrealism into a genuinely abrasive consideration of not only reality but the audience’s will to bend themselves to the mental state of cinema.
The placid, oppressively simple 2D drawing style – sketch-work more than vicious scrawl or nuanced, textured capital-A Art – carries the straightforward, ostensibly well-meaning countenance of classical cartoon animation. Yet, rather than sabotaging the film’s disarmament of our sanities, the simplicity of the style actually buttresses its slide into chaos; the even-keeled look of the picture suggests the very 11-minute slices of old-school Hanna-Barbera ephemera that the film recants and upends, slyly relying on our assumptions about certain kinds of animated styles to deviously pervert them and turn insouciant charmers into bedeviling gargoyles.
The main gargoyles here are Master Shake, Frylock, and Meat Wad, three animated – not only in that they are drawn but alive – fairground food products who generally lounge around their suburban confines only to occasionally schlep out to save the day in conflicts surrounded by a mood of cheerful disorder rather than self-conscious epic-ness. It’s difficult to defend and nigh impossible to clarify as “funny” for any particular set of reasons, although its humor is uniquely structural (which is categorically a plus) in comparison to most comedies where the “humor” is rooted not in the fundamentals of the cinema but in jokes simply appended to the narrative or the characters. Even as a work begging to be analyzed, it is relentlessly inscrutable, although the sheer disruptive bravado is exotically enlivening for those “in on the joke”, so to speak. The laconic “just another day” relaxation with which the film dolls out entropy and treats cherished, normally iron-clad notions of causality as mere conditionalities is sublime, even if it commits a cardinal sin of film in that its introductory five minutes is by a country mile its blithe apex. Still, this is one post-modern Prometheus (to quote a much more even-keeled TV show) that feels like essential cinema on an academic level, even if it isn’t always easy to intake in the moment.