Artist and musician Chad VanGaalen labored for two years to create a long-form improvised animation, and in the process learned, “why you should get into something with a clear idea in mind”. To the right person, this lack of clarity is actually among the short’s strengths. It’s less about a hero’s journey, and more about space-traveling aliens doing who knows what.
A girl is caught in a bloody conflict between her people and camera-wielding rabbits.
AKA Dirty Duck; Cheap (working title)
DIRECTED BY: Charles Swenson
FEATURING: Voices of , , Robert Ridgely, Cynthia Adler
PLOT: Miquetoast Willard works at an insurance company where he hopes to woo a coworker, but crossing paths with a duck leads him on a psychedelic journey of sexual awakening and New Age enlightenment.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Animated anti-establishment Yippie circlejerks are obligated to be at least a little weird, but even within that category, the Duck soars above the competition (especially Fritz the Cat). It is much more surreal than it had to be, and for that, we thank it.
COMMENTS: Duck starts with an introduction by a used-car-salesman-cum-host of the late night movie variety, complete with funny animal sidekick—a reference to 1970s TV staples such as Cal Worthington, for those of you who never lived on the left coast. The dated cultural references get harder and harder to explain from here, but considering our protagonist, a human insurance investigator named Willard, starts his day by sniffing a potted flower which morphs into a woman’s head he kisses and a set of boobs he motorboats, being misunderstood wasn’t exactly this movie’s chief phobia.
Willard has a rich fantasy life to make up for his wimpy demeanor. When brushed aside by a horny couple at the bus stop, he morphs into King Kong and strips the girl naked and hold her in his palm. Next, he turns his abusive boss into a basketball for some Harlem Globetrotters tricks. There’s a scene like this every few minutes, to the point where we lose track of what’s going on in the story and what’s just another of Willard’s flights of fancy. But anyway, we’re pretty sure the plot is that Willard has a crush on a girl at work and plans to ask her out, but will be thwarted by this cruel universe which constantly taunts him with lascivious female bodies that he cannot have.
But what was this movie about again? Oh, yes, a duck. A duck with a Ouija-board-reading owner with a gig at a tattoo parlor. Willard visits them regarding the woman’s life insurance claim (she is not, in fact, dead) and is mistaken for a wizard from a prophecy. He denies it, but doesn’t help his case when she drops dead at a harsh word from him. But this gives the insurance man and the duck a great excuse to hit the road on a voyage of sexual awakening through the psychedelic landscape of 70s Americana. The duck interrupts Willard’s guilt trip by popping out of a toilet to hand Willard his robe and wizard hat. While Willard is devoid of actual magical powers, the movie around him just gets more free-form and dreamlike. Scenery drops in from behind, new characters sprout from the ground, nonsensical conversations occur, then on to the next scene. We’re pretty sure they go to a brothel. They get stranded in the desert for a long time and encounter lesbians and a cop doing the most hilarious John Wayne impression ever filmed. And then there’s that ending, as if your head weren’t tied in enough knots already.
At some point, you have to give up trying to make sense of anything, turn off your brain, and accept that this is an extended Flo & Eddie musical with animation that hits the mark between’s photo manipulation montages and the X-rated side of “Sergeant Pepper.” Except even the animation shifts, between flowing body parts in Freudian jests that would do proud, to crude scribbles that even a preschooler would discard. Anything goes! If this movie sent just one hippie on a bad acid trip screaming naked from the theater, then it did its job and wanted for no more. We get a cute little reference to Volman’s musical roots in both The Turtles and The Mothers of Invention, which fits perfectly because Down and Dirty Duck reads mostly like an extended act break skit one might find on one of ‘s “You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore” albums. On the whole, it’s talented, funny people messing around mostly to please themselves, so sit back and enjoy the ride. If you happen to twist up a doobie to keep your mind limber enough to appreciate the trip, it’s certainly allowed.
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Down and Dirty Duck – Cinema Snob – This movie would barely be known today if the Cinema Snob hadn’t rediscovered it for Generation YouTube (not safe for work)
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Dirty Duck is memorable for many reasons, including Swenson’s surreal and abstract sequences (hand-drawn/cut animated scenes over collages), but mostly for its offensive, highly sexual, satirical and slapstick tone, which was apparently wasn’t for everyone, even in the early 70s, when people were a little more open-minded.”–Bryan Thoman, nightflight.com
DIRECTED BY: Jerry Rees
FEATURING: Voices of Deanna Oliver, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Thurl Ravenscroft
PLOT: A forgotten appliance and its fellow overlooked mechanicals set off on a journey to find their long-lost master, and encounter many perils along the way to their surprising reunion.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie has a rough charm that comes from its modern setting, fresh characters, and willingness to flirt with bleakness in its darkest moments. That distinguishes it from what we’ve come to expect from animated films ostensibly aimed at children. But it’s not much different from the purest forms of fable, where danger and derring-do culminate in an important lesson.
COMMENTS: Disney’s rejection of The Brave Little Toaster is the stuff of animation legend: an enthusiastic animator thought Hugo-winner Thomas M. Disch’s “bedtime story for appliances” would be the perfect material for the studio’s first all-CGI feature. However, the cost-conscious House of Mouse had been burned before, taking a bath on the computer-live action hybrid Tron, and the notion of inanimate objects with hope and fears was strange and off-putting to the Disney execs who were about to be overthrown by Michael Eisner. Mere minutes after the animator completed his ambitious pitch, Disney fired him. That luckless wannabe-pioneer’s name? John Lasseter. So that all worked out.
The Brave Little Toaster that did emerge (hand-drawn, produced independently but with Disney financing) is a likeable modern-day fairy tale pitting Toaster and Friends against powerful forces that could easily destroy them, including nature, mass consumerism, and jealousy. Three of the film’s four songs (composed by Van Dyke Parks, none especially catchy) feature our heroes being threatened with destruction. Appliances are broken, electrocuted, submerged in raging rapids, vivisected for their parts, and thrown into a kind of abattoir for machines. At one point, a character’s fear of being short-circuited takes the form of a nightmare vision of a sinister clown firefighter. Toaster pulls no punches, which is bracing and shocking in this day of trigger warnings and safe spaces.
The film is helped immensely by its appealing cast. Beginning with Oliver, who has a good blend of overconfidence that matures into selflessness, the casting is solid all the way through, catching Groundlings veterans Lovitz, Hartman, and Tim Stack right before they would leap into television, presenting voiceover legend Ravenscroft (he’s grrrreat!) in a wholly new context, and even crafting an appealing performance from child actor Timothy E. Day. Toaster also boasts an unusually strong roster of behind-the-scenes figures from the impending Disney renaissance: Kevin Lima (Tarzan and Enchanted), Mark Dindal (The Emperor’s New Groove and Chicken Little), Chris Buck (Tarzan and Frozen), and Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) are all on the payroll. The most important credit is undoubtedly that of screenwriter Joe Ranft, who would go on to become the soul of the early Pixar films. In fact, Lasseter’s interest in the story and Ranft’s role in shaping it point to the biggest problem in judging Toaster on its own merits, and that problem rhymes with Shmoy Shmory.
The parallels between Toaster and the adventures of Woody and Buzz accumulate quickly: the young master whom the appliances revere, the tension between old-but-functional and new-and-shiny technology, the bespectacled nerd who exploits the heroes for financial gain, the terrifying climax in a junkyard, even the protagonist’s redemption and sacrifice for friends and cohorts—the echoes are strong, and perplexing to anyone who doesn’t know which one came first.
Disney may have been terrified of talking kitchen implements then (a fear they overcame with the enchanted accoutrements of Beauty and the Beast), but audiences proved quite capable of handling that particular level of strangeness, leaving us with a small but charming film that deserves at least a little light, sitting as it does in the shadow of what-might-have-been.
Besides, if you’re looking for true off-the-wall, WTF weirdness, may I direct your attention to one of this movie’s direct-to-video sequels, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars, in which the gang journeys to the titular Red Planet to rescue a baby from the clutches of a fascist refrigerator (voiced by Alan King!) Along the way, they meet a cluster of balloons who were let go by children and now float aimlessly through space, a group of appliances purposely designed poorly to further a planned-obsolescence scheme and who now harbor visions of an anti-human jihad, and the Viking I lander (voiced by DeForest Kelley!!!), who has a codependent relationship with a Christmas tree angel. How can a mere clown firefighter even hope to compete?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a warped, weird tone and perspective that, even a quarter of a century later, doesn’t quite resemble anything else. It’s kind of like a kid’s film, except with narrative ambiguities and shading that no kid could possibly be expected to pick up; it has the usual litany of musical numbers that, in the ’80s, were the exclusive provenance of cartoons, but its songs go to some decidedly odd places in the orchestration, and utter bleakness in their staging – one number is sung by sentient cars as they’re being crushed to death.” – Nathaniel Rogers, The Film Experience (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by Jess Harnell, who said, “The film features mental illness, conspiracy theories, mutilation, suicide, murder, terrifying nightmares, desecration, fatalism and the nature of mortality, all done in a children’s film about talking appliances.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).
Worm people help out a nuclear family with a surprise home makeover.
A dark humored look into a future where water is nowhere to be found.
Content Warning: This short contains some disturbing violence.
DIRECTED BY: David Finkelstein
FEATURING: David Finkelstein, Cassie Tunick
PLOT: A montage of concrete and abstract symbols, a dialogue of nonsense sounds and philosophizing, and an ever-present labyrinth: there is no story, per se, but a series of audio-visual landscape vignettes, as a combination of words and images collide.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Suggestive Gestures clearly falls into the category of “weird”—which is to its credit. A lot of times one can be on the fence and hem and haw about weirdness. It isn’t really a movie, however, as much as a video art installation piece.
COMMENTS: Considering the nature of Suggestive Gestures, I strongly suspect that the filmmaker would be pleased to hear that I had a dream about it last night. In that dream, I fully understood the depth of its symbolism and the pertinence of every bit of wordplay. In fact, I even wrote a witty and lucid review. Alas, I woke up, and it was just a dream — here below this line I see blank chunks of “Comments” still to type. However, I am undeterred: David Finkelstein’s “movie” was a pleasure to watch, and I’ve been obliged to write about “movies” that were far otherwise.
My original write-up for the “Plot” section was the words, “not applicable,”, and I wonder if I should have stuck with that. The opening of the film was subtle enough that I thought perhaps I was watching a little production company animation before getting to the opening credits. I was mistaken. What was being shown was the canvas, as it were, on which all the subsequent events were to be painted: a stylized maze with what looked like an aloe plant at the center. Once the spinning pink glasses showed up, I realized taking plot notes was going to be a fool’s errand. At that point I just sat back and let the sights and sounds wash over me like a refreshing wave.
Combining (purposefully) low-level computer graphics with two talking heads, it suggested to me, oddly enough, what Begotten might look like as an elaborate HyperStudio project done by . The male character (David Finkelstein) comes across as a neurotic Super Ego, counter-balancing the various ravings and rants of the female (Cassie Tunick), an Id-like being. Glued at various times to a symbol-strewn backdrop (birds flying through the ground, water flowing in the sky, jagged rocks labeled “sharp” dropping on and slicing other images), they partake in a sort of meta-discourse that, as the artists’ description relates, relies as much on the words’ sounds as the words themselves. This went on (somehow enjoyably) for approximately 75 minutes before melting into the opening maze image.
I apologize if I’ve expressed myself poorly, but I’ve never reviewed such a thing as Suggestive Gestures before. To anyone with the vaguest interest in the description I’ve provided, I recommend you give it a go—as something new and intriguing, it hits the mark nicely. I mean the following in no way as dismissive, but I think its best placement might be on a loop in your hotel room. Puttering around, getting ready to go out, you can absorb the images, fuse them with the words, and find yourself contemplating the various sounds and branches of a word like “glorious” as you go through your busy day.
An afternoon of dog sitting gets off to a bad start.
The Giant (2017) is an eerie fable about a giant’s discovery of music. The short was originally intended to be live-action, but the script was discarded until the idea of capturing it through CGI and 360 video came up.
“I will not let the non-knitters of the world decide how normal I am.”–Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, “At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much”
DIRECTED BY: Mai Tominaga
FEATURING: , Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Ayu Kitaura
PLOT: A pair of packrat sisters have their perfectly dis-ordered world turned upside-down by the arrival of a mysterious girl. Dubbed “Knit-Again” by the sisters, she is caught in an obsessive cycle of wrecking their home, knitting a large collection of red yarn into a massive shroud, and unraveling her creation and beginning anew. Their attempts to rid themselves of Knit-Again lead the sisters to reconsider an event from their shared past.
- Wool 100% is director Tominaga’s first feature. Her previous works were animated short films.
- Kyôko Kishida is probably best known for portraying the title role in Woman in the Dunes. This was her final film; she died the same year as the film’s release in Japan.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Waves of knitted red yarn, filling the screen and undulating like blood, as two young women try to knit a romance (and a baby) into being.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: “I have to knit again!”; living scrapbook; rooftop dollhouse fire
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wool 100% is the purest kind of fairy tale: unsettling and unforgettable images of characters caught in fantastically unusual circumstances. You might knock it for ultimately following a retroactively logical progression, but the journey there is perplexing, and the final explanation is just as surprising as the quixotic tale that precedes it.
Original Japanese trailer for Wool 100%
COMMENTS: I’ve called Wool 100% a fairy tale, and I stand by that. Continue reading 289. WOOL 100% (2006)