Lily and Generoso Fierro at AFI Fest 2016

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Even though this was our second year attending, it is still sometimes difficult to believe that the American Film Institute Festival transpires in the seamless way that it does each year. An event that is entirely free for all who wish to attend, AFI Fest features films from around the world, which are usually accompanied by stars and directors galore who stay after screenings to discuss their work and to answer audience questions. The event is administered by an endless team of happy volunteers and staff who even make the process of waiting in line an efficient one by handing out numeric placeholder tickets so that you can exit the line to eat for thirty minutes or so; and, those numbered tickets also work well in quelling the usual social dilemma of endless morons in line in front of you who decide to let in twenty or so of their friends who show up a few minutes before doors open to go in ahead of you. This version of line organization is no small feat of administration, we’ll have you know, as we have seen such line-cutting indiscretions in the Northeast lead to countless screaming matches and even odd public displays of the pugilistic arts. Not sure if folks in Los Angeles would go toe to toe over a spot in line, but we find that these things are best left as a mystery.

We had a wonderful time during the 2015 festival because, even though we ended up reviewing the event, we mostly spent our time running from screenings into more screenings armed with a bag of free tickets for U.S. premieres of films from directors we greatly admire such as Jacques Audiard, Arnaud Desplechin, Hong Sang-soo, and Hirokazu Koreeda, and in terms of directing talent, AFI Fest 2016 was shaping up to be another fine year, especially considering that they were able to screen this year’s Palme d’Or winning film at Cannes, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion winner,The Woman Who Left, from Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. This year’s AFI Fest was also able to acquire the most recent effort from the always entertainingly self-destructive talents of Hong Sang-soo, whose film Yourself and Yours had the love and frenzy you expect from him, and Paul Verhoeven, who presented his much heralded and controversial new film, Elle.

In total, we saw twenty new features (and one amazing retro screening of David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster with the director himself and star, Lily Tomlin, in attendance) at this year’s AFI Fest, which surpassed last year’s total watching by seven films. This ability to see such a staggering amount of films was partially made possible by the wonderful pre-festival press screenings at the AFI main campus, which allowed us to preview many of the films participating in the “New Auteurs” section this time around. These New Auteur screenings outside of the festival allowed us extra time in our festival schedule, which we filled up by conducting interviews with the directors of a few of the films that we enjoyed (links to the interviews are contained in the short reviews below) and attending the documentary panel and even the gala screening and after party for Elle, where we chatted with Paul Verhoeven and his wife, Martine, and where Generoso blew his one and only chance to speak with one of his all time favorite actresses, Isabelle Huppert. Believe us, he has regretted this every day since.

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Lily Fierro with director Paul Verhoeven at the Elle screening after party

We’ll get deeper into other extracurricular activities such as the award ceremony later in this article, but let’s get to the films that we were lucky enough to have seen this year.

The film reviews below are presented in order based on their rating score (that we define on a scale of one to ten stars). The highest rated films stand at the top of the list, and the lowest rated films sit at the bottom.

In first place for our AFI Fest 2016 film list, and high on our Best Of list for the year, is the aforementioned Golden Lion winning film from Lav Diaz, The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humayo). Inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, God Sees the Truth, But Waits, this exceptionally realized, nearly four-hour long drama (a short one for Lav Diaz, actually) is set in the director’s native Philippines during a kidnapping epidemic that took place in the year of 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China. The Woman Who Left follows the story of Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio), a self-educated, forceful, and righteous woman who is released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime that she did not commit. Upon leaving prison, she seeks revenge on the man who framed her, an ex-lover and a wealthy crime kingpin who hides in his home in fear of being kidnapped himself. Diaz’s film slowly and meaningfully unfolds into a complex final statement on fate and forgiveness in the face of corruption that is led by the government and the Catholic Church, who together appear in league against the basic needs of the common people.

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Still from Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left

Issues of hypocrisy within the Catholic Church and the devastation that it causes are also the subject of another one of our favorites from AFI Fest 2016, Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of Philippe Djian’s controversial 2012 novel, Oh…. Isabelle Huppert delivers her usually brilliant performance as Michèle LeBlanc, the CEO of a videogame company who bears the shame of being the daughter of one of France’s most infamous mass murderers, a Catholic zealot who, during a crisis of faith, decides to brutally slaughter a neighborhood of parents and children. Early in Elle, Michèle is brutally raped but refuses to report the crime and allows for further transgressions against her as part of a self-imposed penance brought on by Catholic guilt. As the violent atonement proceeds, the identity of the rapist and his relationship with Michèle emerge as an allegory for the unholy alliance between the traditionally vilified Semitic participation in banking and the pious and benevolent public appearance of the Roman Catholic Church. More volatile than anything released in this decade so far, Elle, has been selected as France’s entry into the 2017 Academy Awards and rises as one of the finest films of Paul Verhoeven’s long, turbulent career.  

One of the biggest surprises of this year’s AFI Fest came via the New Auteurs programming section with Buster’s Mal Heart, the second feature by Sarah Adina Smith, who directed the unique and regrettably overlooked 2014 film, The Midnight Swim. Much will be made of the layered performance of Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) as Jonah in Buster’s Mal Heart, and this praise is indeed deserved, but much credit has to be given to Smith for making an exceptional drama that, although is set in and around the Y2K panic of 1999, presents an excellent allegory for disenfranchised people today who find themselves economically and racially out of sync with the current version of a successful society. Smith deftly balances the present and past through memories and dream logic to create an antihero who in appearance seems insane but in reality may have the key to survival. Generoso sat down with Sarah Adina Smith during AFI Fest to discuss her film in depth. You can read the interview here.

Cristian Mungiu, who along with Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, represents the leading force behind the Romanian New Wave of the last decade. Both Puiu and Porumboiu have released features over the last few years to varying levels of acclaim, but Mungiu has been oddly silent since his 2012 film, Beyond The Hills, which earned the Best Screenplay prize that year at Cannes. Arguably the most revered of his Romanian peers, Mungiu returned to AFI this year with his Palme d’Or nominated and Best Director at Cannes winning family drama, Graduation (Bacalaureat). Adrian Titieni portrays philandering surgeon, Romeo Aldea, who is trying to balance relations between his wife, his mistress, and the one person he truly loves, his college-aged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus). Even though Romeo is a ranking surgeon at the local hospital, his distinguished career doesn’t pay him enough to afford to send Eliza abroad to Cambridge University, a dream that he desires for her seemingly more than she does for herself. When Eliza is violently attacked on the street the day before her state exams, she performs poorly on the first of the exam series, which puts her scholarship in jeopardy. Left with few options, Romeo must engage in unethical favor peddling in order to secure his daughter a high grade on the second and final exam. Cristian Mungiu’s talents in encapsulating larger issues within his country into a small personal drama are in full display in Graduation, a film that does not strive for the sense of frenetic tragedy of his previous film, Beyond The Hills, yet it is no less gripping due to the moral struggles behind the decisions that his characters need to make.

The fractured state of society was a consistent theme throughout many of the strongest films in this year’s festival, and one of the finest examples came from the brutally honest storytelling of veteran director Ken Loach in his Palme d’Or winning tale, I, Daniel Blake. For the entirety of his fifty-plus year career, Ken Loach has called out the woes of society, whether it is the racism that falls upon the schoolteacher in 2004’s Ae Fond Kiss…, the dangers of privatizing British Rail in his 2001 film,The Navigators, and everything in between that befalls the working-class protagonists in the episodes of his own BBC series that aired back in the 1960s, The Wednesday Play. In I, Daniel Blake, veteran BBC actor, Dave Johns plays the titular character, Daniel, a middle-aged carpenter who has suffered a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctor to remain unemployed to heal. After a poorly performed physical incorrectly classifies him as being fit for work, Daniel is forced to systematically hunt for a job so that he can be become eligible for unemployment insurance. One day while asking for assistance at the unemployment office, Daniel meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother of two children who is also getting the bureaucratic runaround. These two marginalized people soon become platonic friends who try and help each other survive while the broken system that is supposed to assist them begins to miserably fail. There is no silver lining here, as Loach clearly lays  on all of the tragedy stemming from globalization combined with a government that is woefully inadequate in compensating for the failing economy. Our packed screening of I, Daniel Blake was eerily silent with the only exception being the sound of crying from the audience, which was most likely composed of many people who, given the Monday early afternoon time slot, had a lot in common with our film’s heroes.

On a lighter but no less contemporarily-relevant front is the Finnish film based on a real-life event, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies), the second feature from director, Juho Kuosmanen. Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) is about to become the 1962 World Featherweight Boxing Champion, a title predicted and desired by everyone in Finland except for Olli Mäki himself. Olli has just met Raija (Oona Airola), the love of his life, so the fact that the current champion from the United States, Davey Moore, is flying in for a title fight, which will be seen by thousands of his countrymen at the stadium in Helsinki, now seems of lesser importance. Are his love for Raija and the manager-mandated absence of her causing this doubt in Olli? Is his doubt about fighting against a proven champion or the non-stop commercial hype machine around him that makes the whole event seem like a long con making him nihilistic about winning? Expertly shot in glorious black and white by cinematographer, J.P. Passi, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a cynical, albeit sweet retelling of this small moment in Finnish sports history that meant more to the actual people involved away from the ring than those inside of it. We met up with director Juho Kuosmanen and cinematographer J.P. Passi at the Roosevelt Hotel right after the AFI Fest wrapped up to find out more about their inspiration and production methods for the film. You can read their thoughts in that conversation here.

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The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki Q&A

Hong Sang-soo has built a body of work based on a formula that relies on his main character’s self-destruction. In most of Hong’s films, we see a relationship fall apart; sometimes we see it begin; sometimes we see it repair, and all of these activities occur in a warped sense of time where the present is never the present, and the past is not the only past. Yourself and Yours is true to the purest of this signature Hong form. In this most recent film, Youngsoo (Kim Joohyuck) struggles to trust his beautiful girlfriend Minjung (Lee Youyoung), and as a result, the two part ways. As he attempts to recover from the breakup, we, as the audience, see Minjung take on multiple personas as she spends time with various men. We gradually get a sense that these personas represent all of the ways that Youngsoo and his meddling friends look at her, and quickly, we realize that in all of these different versions of Minjung, we have lost the true Minjung, or we may have never known her at all because she might have never existed. This confusion surrounding the truest form of Minjung amplifies because all of the men who show affection for Minjung in her different states are creators who may also look at her in some idealized form. Youngsoo himself is an artist. One man (Hong favorite Kwon Haehyo) is a writer. Another (Yu Junsang) is a director. So, we must ask: is Minjung just a muse that cannot be reached for all of these men? Is the real Minjung not Minjung at all because “Minjung” is just the name of a heightened representation of a woman of another name who exists in reality? Hong does not provide a direct answer to the identity of Minjung, for what is most important in the film is the shedding of all of the perceptions of Minjung (or not Minjung) in order to allow Youngsoo to love unconditionally. Yourself and Yours could have benefitted from a more cinematically expansive visual style (it looks more like 2010’s Oki’s Movie than 2015’s Right Now, Wrong Then or 2011’s The Day He Arrives), but its small screen look does help the film feel like a derailed soap opera romance that is steering wildly onto no clear path into a place where no soap opera has gone before.

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Still from Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours

Winner of the American Independents Audience Award at AFI Fest 2016, Donald Cried exemplifies the strengths of American Independent cinema: simple premises with sharp execution, solid dialog, impeccable acting, and characters and energy that remind you, sometimes too much, of moments in real life. Director Kris Avedisian stars as the title character, Donald, the metalhead who never quite grew up but has a humble sweetness to him that always reminds you of being a teenager, and in contrast to Avedisian, Jesse Wakeman portrays Pete Latang, an uptight stockbroker who left his former life in Warwick, Rhode Island behind for a more serious Manhattan city life. Set in the dreadful, gray, slushy New England winter, Donald Cried focuses entirely on Pete’s return home to tie up various affairs in the wake of his grandmother’s death. When Pete arrives back to Warwick, he hopes to quietly return and leave without notice; however, fate wants something else, and Pete loses his wallet in transit, and his only transportation, a car frozen in the driveway of his grandmother’s house, fails, so he must cross the street and ask for the help of his neighbor and childhood friend, Donald. As Pete and Donald spend time together, we constantly feel uncomfortable about how little Pete wants the reunion and how much Donald does, and, sometimes, we do not know what to do but laugh to try to release the discomfort. Donald Cried plays with Pete’s guilt and how it manifests in his own demeanor and Donald’s actions, and by the end, regardless of who you identify more with, you empathize with both, even if you are neither a cold stockbroker nor a loveable metalhead, because both men are acutely aware of their past and current worlds, which simultaneously unite them while guaranteeing that their futures will be apart from each other. Avedisian overwhelmingly succeeds with his debut feature; his scope, humor, pacing, and setting for Donald Cried are all just right, and together they create a film that reminds us of why we really cannot go home again—especially if we try to do so on purpose or by accident.

One of the finest debut feature films from this year’s AFI Fest is the highly stylized satire on upper middle class apathetic Brazilian youth from director Anita Rocha da Silveira, Kill Me Please (Mate-me por favor). Our often grotesque social commentary film begins with a murder of a call girl that leads to more and more bodies turning up in the fields of the West Side Zone neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, where a group of teenaged girls led by Bia (Valentina Herszage), Michele (Julia Roliz), Mariana (Mariana Oliveira) and Renata (Dora Freind) sort of go to high school, text constantly, perform dance routines for imaginary cameras, and gossip their way through the bloodbath, with the growing carnage providing our pack of teens the necessary faux concern needed to balance their lives against unlimited opportunities of banal, ill-advised sexual adventures. Kill Me Please is a riveting and fast-paced critique of apathetic youth that goes out of its way to avoid exploitation while consistently playing with you in a visually inventive way, compelling you to watch it all unfold into a kind of sick glee.

In his debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Dash Shaw takes all of his best techniques from his comics and pushes them into the time-based medium of animation to create a visually alluring whir of moving painted backgrounds and shifting colors, patterns, and textures paired with a story about redemption, love, and friendship. Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) are writing partners. Dash has a flair for the fantastic, and Assaf has a preference for journalistic integrity; and together, they write stories for their DIY paper. When the editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph), convinces Assaf that the pair should write separately, Dash lashes out at them with libel and ends up alone, leading him to the discovery that his high school is not up to building code, so the heralded new rooftop addition will cause the school to plunge into the nearby sea the moment the earth trembles, which it does. Though My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea shares its foundation with any classic coming-of-age tale, it has Shaw’s characteristic whimsy, humor, and awkwardness, which makes the film far funnier and more engaging than most John Hughes-esque films about teenage angst and paths to maturity. The film fuels itself on the absurdity of teenagers’ myopic perspectives on their own world, even in times of crisis, and as a result, even though the film does structure itself around Dash and Assaf’s reconciliation, the major hero of the film is the wise Lunch Lady Lorrain (wonderfully voiced by Susan Sarandon), the burly lady who looks at her job as a responsibility to the wellness of the students and who, in turn, saves many in the wreckage by strapping them onto her body and carrying them as she navigates through the disaster. For the animation style, Shaw and lead animator Jane Samborski take visual cues from American Pop, Spider-Man, and Yellow Submarine, so My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea has wonderfully psychedelic imagery that mesmerizes, which compensates for the moments where some of the voice acting from Schwartzman and Watts fail or the moments where the plot gets a little too clumsy. We had a chance to speak with Dash Shaw about the labor-intensive process behind the making of his film; you can read the conversion here.  

Inspired by her own pregnancy, Alice Lowe wrote, directed, and starred in Prevenge. Always enchanting, Lowe has been an actress for Ben Wheatley and Simon Pegg, and if you love Snuff Box as much as we do, you also may remember her excellent take on David Bowie. In Prevenge, Lowe plays Ruth, a pregnant young woman who has recently lost her partner in a climbing accident. Ruth’s baby seems to have more than a touch of evil in her, and she speaks to Ruth and encourages her to murder people. As the bodies pile up, we begin to see that the victims may have played a role in the death of Ruth’s partner, but Ruth’s motivation for vengeance may not actually come from her apparently sinister baby. The first half of Prevenge struggles to find its identity, tripping in between a slapstick comedy and a visceral slasher, so some of the early killings have too much of an awkward campy feel to them, but by the end Lowe focuses the tone into one of direness, and Prevenge becomes a well-crafted, introspective work of psychological horror. Throughout the film, Lowe is excellent, playing Ruth sympathetically while slowly conveying her broken psyche, and as a result Prevenge is a fun little flick that will be perfect for midnight screenings at your favorite arthouse theater.

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Prevenge Q&A with director Alice Lowe

Charlie Lyne’s engrossing second feature, Fear Itself, is a sometimes effective cinematic essay on the artistic method of creating fear within the horror genre. The entirety of Lyne’s film utilizes horror clips from the well known to the rare, which range in era from classic works like Murnau’s 1922 film, Nosferatu, to David Robert Mitchell’s critically praised 2014 scarefest, It Follows, in order to illustrate how the genre uses the calm, the buildup, and in some cases the actual delivery of terror to draw your fear. Using a similar method to Mark Rappaport’s video experiments, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, Lyne differentiates himself from Rappaport by only using over-narration, which is provided by actress Fairuza Balk, whose unemotional delivery of the film’s core thesis begins to drone on about thirty minutes into the watch, as her voice eventually gets superseded by the thoroughly intense imagery onscreen. The final result of Fear Itself is a piece of cinephiliac porn that is more entertainment than it is essay.

One of the most exciting parts of AFI Fest is the opportunity to see award-winning features from international filmmakers, and we were looking forward to seeing Ralitza Petrova’s Golden Leopard winning, debut feature Godless (Bezbog). The film is already being compared to Barbara Loden’s Wanda, but it lacks something essential to that seminal film that starred the director and writer herself: minimalism that unrelentingly commits to its central character. Though uncompromised in its severe mood and tone, Godless fails to place complete focus on the fascinating protagonist of the film, Gana (Irena Ivanova), a morphine-addicted nurse who sells her elderly patients’ ID cards to people who use them to open up fraudulent credit accounts. Gana is unfazed by most things; the blatant corruption of the police officer and judge that she works for does not bother her. Her complicitness in the accidental murder of one of her patients does not shake her. However, Yoan, a former prisoner under Bulgaria’s communist rule, finally begins to change her, but only too late, and Gana will need to find her own way to pay for her sins. Over the course of Godless, moments with Gana are meditative and intimate, so much so that you never want Irena Ivanova to leave the screen. Consequently, when we see scenes such as the corrupt judge and police chief chatting before entering an orgy or the close up of a funeral wake in an ornate church, they add contextual drama to the film and underscore the direness of the society Gana lives in, but they interrupt our study of Gana and the nuances of her transformation, which are the strength of the film. As a debut feature, Godless has promise in it, although it falls short of any of the careful studies of a person attempting to navigate a crumbling societal structure seen in Cristian Mungiu’s films, including the aforementioned Graduation.

Drawing an editing style from Stan Brakhage, Dean Fleischer-Camp’s 52 minute spastic ode to the evils of consumerism, Fraud, shows us a family in credit freefall. The film begins with our family of four going on a teenaged spending spree at the local mall before coming to the shocking realization that the bills will soon be coming due. As the debt mounts, mom and dad torch the home and take the kids on a trip with their ill gotten insurance funds. All of this is captured by the dad-child who never lets go of the camera—he even goes so far as to film the arson (yes, I thought that was a bit much as well). Even though they know that the law is in hot pursuit of them, our band of plastic card wielding villains still stop a few times to take in the sights, pick up survivalist-grade firearms, and eventually make it over the Canadian border for some more shopping with the bonus of an even higher sales tax rate. Fraud ends with Fleischer-Camp’s essential cautionary tale about globalization and consumerism, which is delivered loud and clear and at about the right length.  

The most disappointing aspect of Joshua Locy’s debut feature, Hunter Gatherer, is the waste of an excellent performance by the film’s star, Andre Royo, who most audiences know from The Wire and more recently Empire. Andre Royo plays Ashley, a neurotic, recently released from prison, middle-aged man who must live with his mother while figuring out his next move. One day, while trying to sell a ladder, Ashley befriends a simple man named Jeremy (in a fine performance from George Sample III), who Ashley cons into helping him with his refrigerator disposal business. Not satisfied with just having a good friend and business partner, Ashley heartlessly hooks up with Jeremy’s aunt, Nat (Kellee Stewart), while still relentlessly hounding his ex-girlfriend Linda to pick up where they left off. Royo is the shining star of Locy’s debut film, which sadly borrows too much of its style, both visually and in offbeat character construction, from the early films of his colleague, David Gordon Green. Locy, having worked as an art director on previous Green efforts, Prince Avalanche and Manglehorn, should have infused the film with more of his own style as Hunter Gatherer, despite a few fine performances, comes off as just a pale imitation of Green’s best early work.

It has been a dozen years since Yang Chao won Special Mention at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for his film Passages, where a young couple go on a planes, trains, and a slow boat escapade through Mainland China in the search for a special wild mushroom that becomes a metaphor for dissatisfied Chinese youth. Yang was immediately lumped into the “Sixth Generation” movement of Chinese cinema, but Passages, though promising, offered a commentary that was nowhere near the level of scathing social critique that Jia Zhangke, a true member of the movement, had displayed with The World, which was released in the same year. After twelve years, Yang has returned with master cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood for Love, Café Lumière), to deliver Crosscurrent (Chang jiang tu), a meticulously shot, pretentious bore of a feature that works more like a picturesque National Geographic triptych up the Yangtze River for Western audiences than an acute cultural statement of present day China. A writer travels by boat and makes love Wong Kar-wai style with the same woman at each stop. Literary references abound, and the whole film exists as a metaphor between humanity and art and the eternal with absolutely no desire to establish a link between the characters and the changing landscape in order to draw you into the allegory.  

When Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska took the stage before the screening of her debut feature, the musical mermaid film, The Lure (Córki dancingu), she proudly announced that she comes from the country of Krzysztof Kieślowski, but as he hated musicals, her country never makes them. Well, if Krzysztof were alive, I doubt that he would sway from his position as The Lure does nothing to advance the genre, and it even fails to just simply entertain you. The Lure is the story of a pair of entrancing mermaid sisters who find a home in a tawdry cabaret. One of the sisters enjoys the humans and demands love from them, while the other sister views the humans as a food source. Smoczynska throws “shocking” sexuality and campy tunes your way in the hopes that you will be happy with telling your friends that you have seen a sexy Polish mermaid musical.

Sadly, the film that received more than a few awards at this year’s AFI Fest was one of the most feeble attempts at a crime-drama, coming-of-age film that we have seen in some time. Houda Benyamina’s Divines is a wretched blending of high-gloss Hollywood style (with a bit of cellphone video for that “edgy” touch) and a dizzying collection of cinematic clichés, most of which were borderline infuriating to watch. It is as though Benyamina thought that she was doing something unique in giving a contemporary update to a thirties gangster film, or if she was actually trying to be hard-hitting, you must wonder if she has ever seen a Jacques Audiard film before making Divines, the story of Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), a teenaged girl who grows up in a Roma camp and dreams of becoming a drug dealer to get out of her predicament. As clichés abound, Dounia must have the good hearted friend who goes along for the ride, only to end up caught in the crossfire, and the love interest, a dancer who our budding crime kingpin spends days watching from the rafters of a local theater. I assume that most of the credit goes to Divines for switching the gender of the protagonist, but this is a paltry nuance for a genre that has already been done to exhaustion.  

What in the world has happened to Kim Ki-duk? The once promising director of Bad Guy, 3-Iron, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring has degenerated into a sloppy, melodramatic mess as of late, and no film typifies his recent downfall more than The Net. With his new film, Kim reduces the ideological struggle between North and South Korea into what appears like a Lifetime Channel family drama that uses the ethos of both nations as convenient plot devices to further a thin narrative about a North Korean fisherman whose net gets caught in his motor, which forces him to drift into South Korea where he is arrested and detained as a spy. Kim clumsily presents South Korea as a hypocritical state that boasts of peace while under the rule of rampant, soulless consumerism where decent women are forced into prostitution, and brutal cops offer no semblance of fair treatment. These may very well be true critiques, but the manner by which they are handled here leaves these claims as unfounded as names called across a school yard. The performances are quite poor overall, as is the film’s visual aesthetic that looks more like a student project than the 21st feature film of a veteran director.  

We were massively underwhelmed by Maren Ade’s previous directorial effort, 2009’s Everyone Else, a toothless romantic drama that was utterly flat in its concept and execution. Since then, Ade has thankfully stayed away from directing, concentrating her efforts on production, which have resulted in two of our favorite films of this decade, both by Miguel Gomes—2012’s Tabu, and our favorite film of this year, the three-part masterpiece that is Arabian Nights. Given these production successes with Gomes combined with unparalleled positive reviews, we were indeed excited to see Ade’s nearly three-hour father-daughter comedy, Toni Erdmann, that unfortunately we will now refer to as the biggest disappointment of this year’s AFI Fest. Inspired by Andy Kaufman’s audacious alter-ego Tony Clifton, Toni Erdmann is just a slightly ruder Capra-esque father-daughter story about an uptight, cutthroat businesswoman named Ines (Sandra Hüller), who is brought back to humanity by her wild and crazy dad Toni, who poses as a “consultant and coach” for the chief executive of Ines’s company in an attempt to teach his child a lesson. I suppose that brandishing Austin Powers-styled fake teeth qualifies as great German comedy these days, which in and of itself is quite sad, but Toni Erdmann’s ham-handed attempts at social commentary are even more clichéd and painful to watch than its attempts at humor.

On the last day of AFI we were invited to the Awards Brunch, a lovely event which was held in the same grandiose room that a few nights earlier had housed the Elle gala after party. There were a few surprises in the awards that were announced that morning, and AFI has been kind enough to list those winners here. We must note that we were thrilled that one of the more impressive short films that we saw, The Send Off, a heartfelt look at the prom preparations and festivities of students in a depressed rural American town, was honored. Directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan, the short film was presented with a Live Action Short Special Mention for Documentary. The brunch also gave us the opportunity to talk with other critics about this year’s strong programming at AFI, and to give a special thanks to a few of our favorite volunteers and AFI Staffer, Johanna Calderón-Dakin, whose assistance was invaluable in helping to set up interviews and press screenings. See you all next year!

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Generoso with legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple

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Interview With Cartoonist and My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea Director Dash Shaw

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Director Dash Shaw speaking with Lily Fierro

We have long praised the comics of Dash Shaw. After our introduction to Shaw’s intriguing, layered visual style through Three New Stories, we have always kept an eye out for any of his creations. Consequently, when we heard that his debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, would screen at AFI Fest 2016, we were excited to see it, and we were even more excited to get the opportunity to sit down and speak with him about his approach to image-making. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is lighter in tone than books such as Doctors or Bottomless Belly Button, but it condenses all of Shaw’s clever, innovative visual techniques into a hypnotic array of animated sequences, conveying Shaw’s and lead animator Jane Samborski’s abilities to create and experiment within a time-based visual medium.

LF: For those who are familiar with your comics work, could you explain where the development of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea falls into the course of your career? Did you start working on it at the same time as New School?

DS: Well, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea originated as a comic short story that I had written around 2008, and the initial impetus for it was that when I was a teenager in the 90s, the main kind of opposing schools of comics were the alternative comics that were mostly autobiographical and the mainstream, boys’ adventure, superhero comics, and I liked both of them, so the joke of the story was that I combined the two. It had a character named Dash, but it was clearly showing his warped fantasy view, so it engaged and combined both of those schools. I tried to make another animated movie, a different one for many years, starting around 2007, and I did an IFC series in 2009, but I was thinking about making an independent movie as soon as I saw that the tools to do so were easily accessible using a scanner instead of a camera and using Photoshop to make traditional animation with a computer. Up until that time, all of the computer animation that I had seen looked too “computery,” so when I figured out that I could scan a painted background, and it could look the way I really wanted it to, I was encouraged, and then I was off and running, but the discovery of the creation process I wanted, overall, took a long time.

I did the Sundance Labs in 2010 on a different project, which ultimately didn’t get made, but during that same year, I wrote the script for My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. Bodyworld had just come out at the time, and I was working on New School and Cosplayers while I was making this movie, which took many years to finish. I picked this story because it felt the most doable; even though a lot of other great artists worked on the project and painted backgrounds, I initially didn’t know that they would come onboard to help finish the film. This story all takes place in a school, and I thought that it was completely feasible to paint all these backgrounds myself because I was not sure if, in the long run, I would be able to communicate what I truly wanted to other artists who may work on the project. I kind of thought of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea like Sam Rami’s Evil Dead—we see that he had a cabin locked in for the setting and very limited means, but the film gets by on energy and enthusiasm. So with my film, it felt doable with what I had and what I thought I could do by shooting as much energy into the movie; even though it’s only composed with drawings, I felt the film could succeed based on how energetic those drawings could be. We only had the actors come to the project in 2014, and by then, I already had a majority of the movie drawn. And then, I re-drew things based on what the actors provided and had them come back to record more, creating this cycle of my drawing updates based on their recordings, which repeated until the film was completed. I hope the next one will be faster.

LF: With the total creation process spanning over such a long time, did the story change over time, or did you have fixed storyboards in place?

DS: The good thing about my animation process is that everything is malleable. If I needed a shot, I could paint it and stick it in, and there was a lot of that. It was boarded around 2011; the boards were made in color markers, so there were indications of how the film would look, but My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea changed like a collage made over time. I would have one background in place, and a year later, Andrew Lorenzi, a great artist, would re-paint that background and make it better, and then a year after that, I would think, “Oh, this figure could go there,” so I would draw it and plug it in. The whole creation process was very collage-like.

LF: In terms of the acting, which eventually influenced your drawing calibrations for the film, we understand that you met Jason Schwartzman through your comics work. Given the character of Dash and the plot of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, was Max Fischer from Rushmore in your mind when you approached him for the voice of your character?

DS: Strangely, I didn’t. Another reason why I felt the movie was doable was that I didn’t think I would get major actors for the parts. I thought I would be able to just record it with friends, so I tried to write a script that was basically like an action movie in its simplicity, but with the joke that even though the movie is centered on a disaster, the characters continue to speak mostly about high school stuff, their writing, and books. With that script, I thought that I could do it with people I know, and it would be interesting in an experimental theater way where there’s this dissonance between how people are reacting and what is going on around them.

Then, I realized I had Jason’s email, and Jason, Lena Dunham, and John Cameron Mitchell, who I work with often, understood the sensibility of the movie because of their familiarity with my work, and when we went to people we didn’t know, they thankfully understood that sensibility as well. In approaching the actors who would suit the part, I thought to myself, “Would this actor have hung out with me eight years ago? Would this actor be drawn to the material?”

Jason, who would have played all of these writers and had that sensibility that we know from these other movies, also is the kind of person who would hang out with a comic book artist. And so, when he came on board, I was absolutely delighted because I think he is great, and the reason why he’s played a lot of writers and why we recognize these other characters he’s played in those roles is that there’s something genuinely writerly about him. He would want to hang out with me from having made books, and in the recording sessions, he was very good at altering words in sentences because he’s a writer himself, so he was the perfect person for the role of Dash.

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Dash Shaw and AFI Programmer Lane Kneedler

GF: I had not realized that you have worked with John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Itch). What are the works that you have collaborated on outside of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea?

DS: I made the comic book seen in Rabbit Hole, the movie he directed. I also did all of the artwork in his adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” which is coming out next year. A character in that film makes zines, and I made those. We also co-wrote the video for Sigur Rós’ “Seraph.” And, he was the producer of that project that went through Sundance Labs, so I hung out with him at least once a week for years.

LF: Some of the most beautiful sequences in the film are the advances between the school floors and the corresponding grade levels, where each journey seems closer to some state of enlightenment and/or maturity symbolically and to rescue literally. Could you speak about how you mixed in your own reflections of high school in creating the floors and the journey that Dash and Assaf experience as they ascend the floors?

DS: Well, I wanted the high school structure to have many purposes in the film. When I thought of each floor being a different grade, that became an organizing structure for the script. For example, we know that cafeterias in school are where students divide themselves in the middle of the day, so in the middle of the movie, there should be this scene where students are dividing themselves but instead in a disaster relief ward. And so much of the movie is about making literal feelings; there are these scenes in movies that we’ve also seen in real life such as the bully that goes into the restroom, and so we’re just heightening these familiar moments and feelings by making them fantastical or tragic inside of this setting in the school.

Also, the floors gave the film a videogame-like structure. I never played a ton of videogames, but I grew up watching other people play them. There’s a joke in games and in the film where it seems like society is telling us that we get better, so we move up through floors or grades—that seniors are smarter than juniors, and you’re somehow working to some kind of success, which in my mind, is not true. When Dash says, “We’ll move up to the Senior floor and graduate to the roof,” I ask myself, “What does it mean to be on a roof?” It’s silly. It’s a parody of how people think about getting better or moving up through society or school, and also, it is a parody of movies that have rising levels of tension to some kind of party at the end, so the high school structure did all of this at once in a very simple way.

Speaking of the influence of videogames on the movie, when characters move into a different room, there’s a zooming through door shot that comes from the Resident Evil games. When I first saw that technique, it seemed like a graceful way to solve the issue of how to draw someone moving into another room because it is very complicated to draw someone getting smaller as they move through space. It’s a really hard problem, and that game solved it, and the zooming through door technique also gave the room movements an experimental movie quality; it looks like a shot in a film you would expect to see at the Anthology Film Archives where there is this single door that is opening for you. Also, a lot of the conversations are action sequence based: “We have to climb through that bus to trigger this thing,” and that, to me, is very much like action movie and videogame logic. I liked that movies, videogames, and experimental films could meet in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, and those moments where they do are the most visually exciting ones for me.

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Still from My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea

LF: With your film, you use collage techniques seen in your comics, and you use many shifts in textures as well. Particularly, some of the most interesting shifts occur with the characters themselves, who we see represented in flat, realistic color or in one solid color or in varying brushstrokes. Could you speak about how you decided when to use the flatter, more traditional comics representation of the characters as compared to the more painterly representations?

DS: When I was a teenager, I loved anime. I particularly loved a period when they were trying to animate more illustrative techniques. Fist of the North Star is a good example. This animation period looked at comics drawn in a densely illustrated, hatched style, and when you try to animate that, it’s hard. So, when someone punches another person, the hatch marks of the arm are flickering and changing; that inconsistency, that wrongness to the animation was something I found super awesome. It felt like not only is there this story about this guy punching another guy but also there’s a formal story about lines changing and colors changing. The more wrong that the cartoons got, where one frame could be completely off from another frame, the more it felt like I was watching some crazy alive drawing—that there were these two tracks of what’s happening and how it’s being presented that are changing. This was exciting, and it was also produced a kind of stonery effect too. It’s well known that stoners like to watch cartoons and zone out and see the changes in airbrush textures, and I wanted the animation to work in that way where the film could be a light show for people.

GF: And the swimming scenes also reminded me of Ralph Bakshi’s psychedelic backgrounds for ‘67 Spiderman.

DS: Definitely. Ralph Bakshi was a big influence. When you draw comic books, you are drawing the same thing over and over, and the inconsistencies can be maddening, where you look at one page and say, “Man, this character’s head is drawn this way here, and six panels later it is drawn differently. I messed up.” Some cartoonists embrace the inconsistencies; every cartoonist has a different way to execute repetition in panels, but in animation, I liked it better when things were changing because the images are flying past you in time, so they are not frozen in a way that allows you to see them next to each other in one single moment, which would make it easier for you to see where something is incorrect. Instead, what that character looks like is always morphing in animation. In figure drawing, someone will take one pose, and you’ll draw it one way, and then they’ll turn their head, and the light will change, so you’ll pick up a conté crayon to capture how it is different in that moment, and the drawings don’t have to be read. We understand it is the same person; it’s just that different sides of this person are being drawn, and so, these changes for each character flying past in time, I thought, would look super cool.

GF: Given the consistency concern in comics, do you think that having My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea set in one place in one fixed period of time made it easier or harder to create?

DS: That helped make the project doable. The characters don’t change clothes, so that helps make the process easier. You’re working on this whole thing over many years, and you’re working on different parts at different times, so we know that a character will always be recognizable if they are always wearing glasses.

LF: This film is visually beautiful, which is always indicative of your work. What’s fun about My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is that it is an exploration into codes of nobility regarding love and friendship. Your comics always understand the complexities of human relationships well; are there any specific relationships you want to explore further or revisit in the future, whether in comics or in animation?

DS: Hmm…I have to think about it. I’ve been drawing comics for many more years, so I feel much more skilled as a comic book artist. I learned so much making this movie that I feel that for the second movie, I can be more ambitious with the complexities of the characters and what’s happening. Part of the fun of this movie is that it is very broad and videogame-like, but I have made all of these comics, and they are very different from My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. I think that I can now use some of those things from those other comics and apply them to animation with more confidence. Something that was really amazing about animation is that actors can project anything through any line—that a character can be talking about one thing but somehow because of the actor’s ability we can understand that what they’re really talking about is something else. In comics, that is very difficult to convey. The reader can look at how something is drawn, but they are hearing the words with their own interior voice. So, actors provide a voice, which creates a new arena of subtlety for me, especially in terms of how characters interact with each other. Now that I made this and amazingly figured out how to get all of these great actors, I know I can enter the next one foolishly assuming that I can get great actors who can contribute a lot to those characters. I can then try to write something that provides richer material. I hope to just do better overall.

LF: Lastly, there have been rumblings that Doctors will be made into a live action film. Is that still happening? How involved will you be in the process?

DS: I’m not very involved. Mike Cahill (The Path, Another Earth) will work on it. I know they have a screenplay written and that everyone is psyched about the script. I hope that it goes through to the finish line, but I’m working on my own stuff. I hope they make it, and I hope it goes well.

GF: Is it tough to let go of?

No, because that book was a whole long haul for me, so I’m done with it.
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Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso Fierro on Tuesday November 15th at The Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.

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To Live or Die: Dash Shaw’s Doctors

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I promise that this is my last Dash Shaw review for a while. I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Doctors, and alas, I have it and have been unable to maintain my patience to reasonably space out my reviews of Shaw’s books.

Of the Shaw works I’ve read so far, Doctors has an unsettling cynicism and darkness about it. Bottomless Belly Button and 3 New Stories contained some comments alluding to the occasionally malevolent and duplicitous nature of people but not to the degree of Doctors. Perhaps this change in tone is the product of the topic discussed in Doctors: death.

Cover of Doctors

Despite the general existential tone of Doctors, the overall narrative still has the absurd and occasionally comically strange moments characteristic of Shaw’s style. Doctor Cho and his daughter, Tammy, run a laboratory where they test the Doctor’s invention, the Charon. For a hefty fee, the Cho lab can bring a loved one back from the dead when they are in an intermittent afterlife between death and the final end known as “the fade to black.” When we enter the world of the Cho family business, they are in the midst of bringing back Miss Bell, a wealthy widow who died suddenly and whose daughter, Laura, would like back in the world.

Even though the Charon and its capabilities suggest that Doctors is a science fiction work, the device itself is hardly the subject of the narrative. The short novel contains short fragments from multiple narrators, ranging from Tammy to Will, the lab assistant, to Miss Bell, with each story describing the history of the character and building up to their current intersecting point in the revival of Miss Bell. And to add an additional layer of cleverness to the book, each fragment in the book is drawn above a different color to remind the reader of each different perspective and the changes over the course of each page.

From Tammy and Will’s perspective, we understand the severity and seriousness of their work: They are defying the rules of nature and do not quite understand how to tackle the consequences. What does not help is the callousness of Doctor Cho, a naturally distant man made more insensitive and cold by the murder of his wife. Unlike Tammy and Will, Doctor Cho looks at the Charon as purely a lucrative business, a way to make a lot of money with technology without considering any emotional disturbances experienced by the revival process of his invention. The Charon is simply a solution to a scientific question for Doctor Cho. Could he bring someone back to life from the dead? Yes, and that yes is all that matters to him.

On the opposite side of the Charon experience, we see Miss Bell’s attempt to re-integrate into her life after her revival. Unfortunately, her return to life is not quite what she had hoped. After her death, Miss Bell, in the intermittent state between death and nothingness, created an afterlife where she was in love and no longer alone; for the first time since her husband’s death, she felt joy and youthfulness again. Upon being ripped out of this pleasant state, Miss Bell is thrust in front of her attorney by her daughter to settle the details of her estate, which is a beyond disappointing welcome back message.

Gradually, Miss Bell’s psychological state degrades as she realizes the bleakness of her reality as compared to her afterlife. Rather than returning to warmth and love from her daughter, Miss Bell returns to her life as a lonely widow pent up in her house. Laura is not around and only seems to appear when money is involved, and Miss Bell longs for her previous afterlife, trying to seek elements to re-create it in her current reality.

At the heart of all of the trajectories of each character in Doctors is the question: If you bring back a loved one, is that going to be better for the individual than death? The Charon, in concept is a nice idea, but in execution it is not because those brought back to life already have death programmed to occur again, and conflicting decisions to dodge or face that second death lead to crippling mental instability, making the revival useless except for having the revived sign paperwork. Consequently, what is the value for the creators and the users of the Charon?

In addition, with the examination of Charon patients such as Miss Bell, a major philosophical question for scientists emerges: even if you can create or access a device that defies nature, should you use it?  Inherent in the answer to that question is hubris. Doctors is somewhat of a tragedy, for Doctor Cho and Miss Bell’s daughter Laura exhibit the greatest amount of hubris, and they are met with tragic ends that damage their loved ones. They both believe they can overcome death to get what they desire without realizing that perhaps what nature intended was the correct course in the first place, and in turn, endure the most severe consequences of the Charon.

By the end of Doctors, you are left asking yourself who is more evil in this scenario, the scientists who create the nature defying device or the people who pay exorbitant amounts of money to use it for selfish purposes? I’m not entirely sure, but there is definitely some shared responsibility for the ill-fated consequences of toying with forces one does not understand. Doctors, on an initial read, feels like a naturalist piece of writing, but by the end, everything bad seems to fade away and life for the more accountable Will and Tammy seem okay but pretty directionless and meaningless in general, making the story much more of an existential one. Thus, if everything most likely means nothing, who is the most evil in the story? Who is the most irresponsible? Who is the most selfish? Who is the most myopic in their actions? What is the afterlife? What is death? Would you want another moment with a loved one who has passed on if achieving that moment could harm them? Those questions are much harder to answer in an existential world, and Doctors definitely will not point you in any direction, but it will make you think more carefully when you do attempt to answer them.

Doctors is now available via Fantagraphics Books.

Changes Forced by the Loony Family Reunion in Bottomless Belly Button

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A little over two months ago, I ranted and raved about Dash Shaw’s 3 New Stories. Excited by his experimental approach to graphic novel/comic book illustration and storytelling techniques, I have looked forward to the opportunity to explore more of the Shaw catalog.

Bottomless Belly Button back cover, spine, and front cover

On the surface, Bottomless Belly Button, a novel conceived from 2005 to 2007, looks like a conventional family drama. Upon the decision to divorce after forty years of marriage, the elders of the Loony family, David and Maggie, call their children and their respective families to the Loony headquarters (a beach house on a mysteriously desolate strip of sand) to break the news to everyone. As expected with any sort of major change, each member of the Loony family reacts in distinctive ways based on individual age and experience.

Dennis, the eldest brother, launches into a full adult tantrum and hysteria, determined to get an answer to why his parents decided to split. As the next-in-line head patriarch, Dennis feels a responsibility to understand his parents split and to try his best to keep the Loony family somewhat together by getting a reasonable answer. Accompanied on this trip by his wife, Aki, and son, Alex, Dennis unfortunately abandons them more and more as he delves deeper and deeper into his investigation of his parents’ relationship history and trajectory from the beginning up to the present.

On the other hand, Claire, the middle sister, remains unflinched. As a divorcee herself, marriage dissolution does not phase her; however, this indifference may stem from her current difficulty in returning to a romantic life and inability to release some residual feelings for her artist ex-husband. In addition, Claire must raise her awkward adolescent daughter, Jill, who also arrived with her mother for the family reunion before family disbanding. On the Loony beach, Claire and Jill both attempt to better understand themselves and escape their current situations, steering their focus away from Grandpa and Grandma Loony’s divorce.

Peter, the youngest of the Loony children, displays the least amount of distress of all. As the youngest and the outcast of the family (with his isolation exacerbated by Shaw’s illustration of Peter as a young man with a frog head), Peter has never felt any serious emotional connection to his family. His distance is further highlighted by the blueprints of the Loony beach house, showing how Peter’s room stands as the only room on the fourth floor of the house, far away from the rooms of his family and any communal rooms. As a failing filmmaker at the age of 26 whose inability to relate to his family transferred to a general inability to interact with other people with any modicum of social grace, Peter reacts to the divorce of his parents like a stranger invited to a family dinner where the uncomfortable news is released.

Consequently, Peter wanders, as usual, on his own course. Peter walks the beach with his kid niece Jill and eventually meets Kat, a girl who Jill bullies him to speak to. As his parents’ marriage ends, Peter begins a flourishing new relationship with Kat, a beach camp counselor who may be far younger than he is. Peter and Kat’s relationship has some truly awkward moments because of Peter’s inexperience, but their growth towards each other serves as a strong foil against the disintegration of David and Maggie Loony’s marriage.

Again, from what has been described, Bottomless Belly Button seems like a standard relationship drama for a white, middle to upper-middle class family. What I have yet to mention, though, is the presence of some undescribed, unidentified supernatural force that carries through the narrative, gradually smoothing away tensions, fears, and hatred. As Bottomless Belly Button progresses, every member of the Loony family reaches a level of acceptance of their situation; the Loony parents’ break up galvanizes a period of growth for all members of the family, and this mysterious force of nature or force of calm, be it from a deity or from elsewhere, pushes each Loony member onto a track that forces each person to experience something new and also reflect on past actions, allowing each member by the end of the book to have the resolution to return to their separate lives with a new perspective and a better ability to care and support the people in their lives.

Beyond the strength of the core narrative, what really makes Bottomless Belly Button special is its ability to weave in artifacts of each character into the story, ranging from childhood pictures to love letters between David and Maggie to even a review of Peter’s failed film. By entangling these seemingly trivial pieces of memories, Shaw immerses the reader into the characters, allowing us to understand the motivations and the full perspective of each person at the beginning of the visit, which then allows us to compare the shifts in demeanor and viewpoints by the end. Further supported by some brilliantly expressive, yet simple illustrations, Bottomless Belly Button sets a consistent tone and mood that pulls the reader into the full world of the Loony’s, making the reading of the somewhat intimidating 720 pages feel like a drive where the end is unknown, but there is a general synchrony with the surroundings that forces you to pull your eyes away from the clock and speedometer, causing you to release your thoughts and engross yourself in the small microcosm currently existing around you.

Loony Family Pictures found in Dennis’s search for answers

Bottomless Belly Button, despite its many quirks, is overall a serene and meditative work. It reminds the readers of the different stages of life in which we can attain further development and how that growth impacts the people in our lives. Though not a read for children (as the spine of the novel warns), Bottomless Belly Button is a graphic novel that should be handed to any person currently approaching a major shift in their lifestyle or in their perspective of the world.

Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw is available via Fantagraphics Books.

Experimenting and Challenging the Form: “3 New Stories” by Dash Shaw

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There’s always something alluring and overwhelming when you look at the consignment comics section at your local comic book shop. There’s always so much to pick from. There’s a horror comic in one section and a comic about a local coffee shop in another. There’s a plethora of comics about various incidents, supernatural or natural, that we may encounter in life. And, to make my decision more complicated, there are often books with covers and artwork that are almost too interesting to pass up.

The last time I was at my local comic book shop (Hub Comics in Somerville), there was plenty to pick from. After opening and browsing through many of the shelves, I stumbled upon 3 New Stories, a small book with a stunning cover and early pages that motivated me to pick it up.

Back and Front Cover of 3 New Stories

3 New Stories, as the casual title suggests, contains a collection of three stories in three separate realities. All of the stories take place in a surrealistic, absurd America oddly reminiscent of the Springfield of The Simpsons in the 90s and frighteningly not too far away from our current reality. The first story, Object Lesson, introduces us to an anachronistic private investigator who loses his job and finds himself back in high school to finish his diploma, which he possibly did not complete due to a technicality. The second story, Acting is Reacting, briefly introduces us to the depressing, decaying world of Girls Gone Wild. Lastly, the final story, Bronx Children’s Prison, follows the life and the attempted escape of the prisoners in the Bronx Children’s Prison.

3 New Stories is really quite difficult to review. From a text based narrative perspective, Object Lesson is by far the most successful. It’s clever, funny, and surprisingly absurd. It also makes an interesting statement about how American businesses and con men prey on people through nostalgia when they get older. It also makes an implicit statement about how the American economy is very coldly and inhumanely throwing out its older workforce. Most impressively, both of these large statements are made in a matter of a few pages. In contrast to the strong text narrative of the opening story, the next two were a little disappointing and lackluster by comparison. Acting is Reacting from a pure narrative perspective falls pretty flat, and Bronx Children’s Prison is a pretty basic prison story, despite the young age of the prisoners and an element of fantasy.

However, there is a separate layer to address with 3 New Stories: its artwork as its major storyteller.

3 New Stories has some of the most daring and innovative artwork to appear in the comic book/graphic novel arena. It pays homage to the traditional flat black and white style of most comics while adding layers of exceptional texture from watercolor and paint. And from the interesting art techniques, 3 New Stories emerges as almost, dare I say it, an experimental comic book.

Given the strength of solely the text narrative of Object Lesson, the artwork is used to enrich the tone of the narrative. There are streaks of sickly olive green and rust in the backgrounds, enhancing the misery and the direness of the older students in the high school and conveying the sinister nature of the people who are running the high school. There are disjointed panels and floating images that emphasize the disorienting world the private investigator is experiencing. Here, the combination of non-traditional artwork and basic text narrative construction is at its best, demonstrating the epitome of what the medium of graphic novels and comic books can be as a storytelling form.

For Acting is Reacting, which probably is the most bizarre of the bunch, the artwork takes the stage in front of the story. While the panels of the narrative show how a Finnish girl ends up in a Girls Gone Wild video, the background artwork of maps of parts of Texas seems to be suggesting the endless roads traveled by the Girls crew to film their clips. The endlessly branching roads and the numerous letters of towns give us a sense of the monotony of the whole Girls enterprise. The Finnish girl on the panels is no more than one girl one town on a map of thousands of cities, towns, and roads. In this second narrative, the background artwork far overpowers the narrative in the panels in its ability to add layers to the storytelling, but the two nevertheless interact and project onto each other in order to form a richer and certainly more interesting story with very few words and interpretive liberty for the reader/watcher.

As for Bronx Children’s Prison, the artwork overpowers the narrative given by the text in a way that almost feels like a successful experimental film montage. In a story about children taking over and escaping a prison, there are elements of clear fantasy, and these moments are separated visually with overwhelming dots of color, evoking the feelings of a dream or hallucination. However, in the story there are moments of realistic consequences, and here, the dots are absent, leaving the reader with only sparse black and white forms. While this last story is probably my least favorite of the collection, the use of the oversaturated, overwhelming images to demarcate states of fantasy versus reality adds a layer of complexity to the narrative that had me motivated to finish the story.

3 New Stories, though flawed, is an excellent representation of how the comic book and graphic novel world can expand and challenge its boundaries. As a passionate fan of both literature and visual art, I have always felt that graphic novels have the advantage of an enormous range of visual, non-verbal techniques to tell a story. Consequently, graphic novels and comic books have more opportunities to create richer settings, to convey complexities in mood and tone, and most of all, to communicate nuances in a character, all of which Dash Shaw attempts to do in 3 New Stories.

Of everything I have written about, please do check out 3 New Stories. While it may not be the epitome of the full fruition and realization of the comic book and graphic novel media form, it is much closer than many (if not most) of its peers. And even though I admit that the text based narrative composition is lacking, I must commend its willingness to experiment with the combination of verbal and non-verbal storytelling. As much as I love more traditional forms of comics and graphic novels, I was excited and thrilled to see and read something that is trying to reach far beyond its own expectations as a storytelling form.

3 New Stories was created by Dash Shaw and is available via Fantagraphics Books