By Tom Platt. Ah yes, the film festival. A few years ago the most anyone ever knew about these strange week-long queues were those little twin palms that appeared on a DVD cover or movie poster. (You know, the ones that guaranteed a certain level of quality?) These days the film festival circuit is no longer just a hidden reserve of micro-budget indies hoping to jumpstart a newcomers career. The stakes are higher than ever, and the public eye is that much more watchful (what with the inclusion of major studios and celebrity appearances, seen as both a blessing and a curse). Because of this there is no doubt that the term “film festival” is, at the very least, a bit more pedestrian.
So in lieu of standing in line for 2 hours on a Wednesday afternoon in that disgusting shopping mall we call the Hollywood strip, I have for all you fine readers a short snippet of notable appearances from AFI Fest, most of which have (or at least deserve) a good chance of making their way to a theater or streaming service (le sigh) near you!
The Lobster. Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps) directs Colin Farrell (sporting some wonderfully in-character weight gain) in a disturbingly relatable world of the future. The film is a painful satire on what it feels like to search for a mate as you grow older, only turned even further on its ear: with their “biological clocks” ticking, any single person is sent to an institute where they are given 45 days to find a partner or else they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. The film loosely follows Colin Farrell’s character as he enters the institute after his wife of 12 years has suddenly passed away. Entering with his brother (who is currently a dog), Farrell is asked a list of coldly invasive questions that force him vocalize his decision to, if he should fail, be turned into a lobster.
Lanthimos creates a thematically deep world with a hand just heavy enough so as to show the intent of each minor action without becoming showboaty or painfully obvious. The film does take a monotonous tone reminiscent of Lanthimos’ other works that, in spite of fantastic comedic timing and a brilliant concept, does begin to wear on the viewer near the end of the second hour.
There’s a bit of brilliance in its simplistic approach to the muddy emotions at play here. Placing humans in such an extreme circumstance leaves them stiffly robotic, focusing on their individual flaws to such an extent that the only real requirement of a partner is that they share that common fault. (For how could I truly love a man or woman who cannot understand what it is to be nearsighted, or have a limp, or suffer from frequent nosebleeds.) The common denominator of heartbreak isn’t enough to drive anyone towards real progress, instead it polarizes individual ideals to an aggressive extent on the search for acceptance.
The Lobster has been picked up by the relatively small company, Alchemy, for theatrical distribution in the United States, with a litany of other companies picking up bits and pieces of its global release. Alchemy will all but guarantee that The Lobster will make it to the arthouse theaters we all know and love, and based on initial ticket sales potentially onto the screens of some of the bigger theater giants. Time can only tell.
Anomalisa. First-time feature director, Duke Johnson & the undeniably brilliant Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) co-direct from Kaufman’s latest screenplay (which first made its mark as a sound play), portraying those fleeting moments of love we know so well by way of puppets.
The film presents a man who is small-time-famous for having written a book on the finesse of customer service. However, in spite of his knowledge and understanding of others, at some point he lost himself and now trudges through life in a world where every single person is the same. And I don’t mean that metaphorically: Anomalisa literally has 3 voice actors for a cast of dozens, in which Tom Noonan is credited as voicing “Everyone Else”. Oh, and of course, being puppets allows for that group of “everyone else” to have the exact same face as well, which somehow isn’t confusing at all (or, any more than it should be).
With sympathetic frustration we laugh off the awkward moments in front of us that seem all too recognizable. It’s a level of humanity that puts the audience off its guard with a protagonist who is going about his problems in all the wrong ways, because we ourselves have experienced these moments. As with Johnson’s brief work on Moral Orel, these puppets carry a very human burden upon their shoulders that makes every step they take seem palpable. With glass eyes that reflect the desires and fears of these lifeless hunks of material, Johnson and Kaufman have left us open to accept what these characters have to say because being puppets creates the distance necessary for introspection.
Anomalisa was already picked up by Paramount for distribution across the United States, Germany, and France at the time of this screening, garnering private security at every door ready to swiftly escort anyone on their phone out of the theater for invasive questioning. It’s a well-deserved accomplishment for a film that received a large part of its funding from a Kickstarter campaign back in 2013. With the help of Paramount, Anomalisa will likely hit larger multiplexes in the next several months that offer mainstream attractions, but have the extra space for this sort of unique accomplishment.
ANIMATED SHORTS. AFI Fest offered 5 Shorts programs, each of which consisted of a collection of short films screened back to back. The festival also paired many other shorts with a feature film that was deemed comparative in some way or another. I chose to go to the animated shorts collection, partially because it fit into my (in retrospect really poorly planned) schedule, and partly because they looked to be the strangest collection of goofy things.
Program 4 screened 10 animated short films running just under an hour and a half, and, despite its lumps, ended up being the best part of my festival experience. Perhaps it was knowing the extreme unlikelihood that any short will become profitable that added to the mystique surrounding these filmmakers, who were simply expressing themselves freely, or perhaps it was my only experience at the festival where I looked upon works that were entirely passion based, independent messes and masterpieces.
A complete list of films in the program can be found here. Here are a few notables that conveyed the right level of purpose, originality, and commitment.
Teeth. (Tom Brown & Daniel Gray) “That which is neglected, is lost.” Teeth is a visceral narrated short about a man who loves his tongue but carries nothing but disdain for his teeth. From a baby through to an old man, our protagonist does all he can to remove this obstacle from his otherwise perfect mouth. A trailer and synopsis can be found at the Holbrooks website but online viewing seems as if it will remain unavailable until the festival circuit is complete.
ManOMan. (Simon Cartwright) “Beware what lies within.” With live action rod puppets alongside clever animations and sets, ManOMan depicts a timid character who literally vomits up his manhood into a DeVito sized maniac with massive testicles. Together, abandoning the primal therapy group session, the timid man and his manhood go on a rampage across the city, burning cars, attacking people, and drinking to oblivion. As the montage of night ends and day begins to break, only the strongest will survive in this parody of machismo, where sympathy is an exploitable weakness. There’s a trailer on Simon Cartwright’s page that implores you to simply email him if you’d like to see the full film. I highly recommend doing so.
World of Tomorrow. (Don Hertzfeldt) “A little girl is taken on a mind-bending tour of the distant future…” A standout compilation of simplicity that is guaranteed to leave you curled in a ball of emotions feeling all the things. In the film a little girl is contacted by her cloned, future self, and is offered a look at all the dismal beauty the future has to hold. Carrying Hertzfeldt’s signature style (Rejected, It’s Such a Beautiful Day), World of Tomorrow will crush you with the honesty of its questions while leaving you giggling with its innocence. For all 16 of its magical minutes. World of Tomorrow is available for rent on Vimeo, allowing 30 day streaming access for only $4. I can’t encourage it enough.
With the increased availability of paid new media services, many of these shorts will find home online across various means of low cost streaming. A few may find their way onto digital compilations, featuring talented artists of similar styles to a larger audience. But in reality, a short film remains the beguiling sibling of the feature. Struggling to find its place amongst a calculated business model, it remains a safe haven for independent, artistic anomalies in the overly accessible medium of visual storytelling.