by Jaime Grijalba.
Once again I part from my literature endeavours to talk about something that you must watch and take under consideration as one of the best movies or audiovisual projects of the year. The biggest problem this time, in comparison to my earlier ‘installment’ is that this work is from 2010, and that year has just passed, we are in 2011, a new year, a year we look at with optimism and joy, expecting it to be a better year than that dreadful (for me) 2010. But I don’t care, if this is a work from 2010, you still can see it and make a last minute ammendment to your top 10-20-25-30-50-100 movies of 2010, it even counts if you put it as a special or honorable mention, even better if you’re like me and do your top 10 around February, but I think that’s just me and my attempt to make a list as complete as possible, complete meaning after seeing every movie I was interested in seeing at the start of the year.
Ah, but there’s another thing to be worried about. This is a short film, almost 6 minutes long, and sometimes people don’t consider short films in their lists, yet they don’t have trouble considering ‘L’Àge D’Or’ one of the best films on 1930, even if it’s 60 minutes long, same thing goes to the other Buñuel short ‘Un chien andalou’. On this site we had not so long ago an overload of short films in the splendid animation countdown, and nobody complained (I was the happiest with this selections, specially with ‘Destino’), so I think that if you see a short film of the year you are in (well… kinda), it should have a shot at being in your list as much as the latest european religious drama, an english minimalist BBC miniseries or the usual big budget action Hollywood movie. At least, that’s what I do.
Oh, but I still have something to say before we dwelve into subject (what subject? Oh, right, you already watched the video up there, right?). Regarding, again, the animation countdown, whose 50 splendid essays are must read for any animation buff, all penned by Stephen Russell-Gebbett, I was dissapointed to see that no work from this american animation master was included, and of course I’m talking about the director of the short I’m going to talk about: Don Hertzfeldt. Among his work, I’ve been celebrating ‘Billy’s Balloon’ (1998), ‘Welcome to the Show/Intermission in the Third Dimension/The End of the Show’ (2003), ‘The Meaning of Life’ (2005) and the one we’re going to look at today: ‘Wisdom Teeth’ (2010). The best of all this, is that this animator genius is only 34 years old, and I think we may be looking at one of the most promising young directors of this era in which we live in.
The six minute short ‘Wisdom Teeth’ is among his best work to date, and rates between the best films of 2010, and while it may not be the best animated movie of the past year (that would be a prize awarded to the tearful ‘Toy Story 3′), it still ranks between the top 10, moving aside the other animated short that was able to win a place in my personal list: ‘Day & Night’, the memorable short by Pixar that was featured before the last movie in the Toy Story saga. But, what’s so special about it? While Don Hertzfeldt’s style is simple and his animation may not be called a work of art by experts, it’s surely more about the themes that are behind that make it so special.
The short starts as many humoristic sketches have started since the dawn of human civilization (maybe not that old, but comedy has gone through a really long story), two friends meet, one of them has gone through something recently that is usually phisical and visible/aproachable through the senses (an object in his hands, a new piece of clothing, some wounds, paint, maybe even a unusual smell, the possibilities are endless). Maybe for some people that’s where this short will start and end: as a comical sketch, even just as dismissable as a saturday morning cartoon, but this can compare itself with the great works of short animations, from the trilogy of Duck Season/Rabbit Season to ‘Destino’, going through ‘Cat Concerto’ and the greatest Hannah-Barbera shorts. Why is that? Because the reaction to it goes beyond the laugh, and it’s that phenomenon I’m trying to talk about here.
So two friends meet, at least we think they’re friends, as they say hello to each other. Nigel has just had a “big wisdom teeth operation”, and we see him with his face a bit swollen and the tips of his stitches out of his mouth. The friend of Nigel asks about how it went, not really being interested about what he has to say, that it went Ok and that his face is a bit swollen (at first I thought he still had cotton inside, and probably that’s it). Nigel’s friend as he talks and asks and then listens never sees Nigel, as if his condition wasn’t really interesting: everyday someone has their wisdom teeth taken out, the result of the operation is never important, as the risks are minimal, he just asks in a condescending way, almost as if he didn’t really want to, as if he was just asking about the obvious, just because that’s how social rules function these days (but he’s really interested, but he’s just hiding away his true feelings).
As Nigel speaks, his mouth is open and closed at different intervals, showing the end of his stitches (near his lower ‘lip’) and his upper teeth, which also dissapear at some times, a thing that’s common in animation yet it’s truly confusing to me at times (even if it’s a necessary thing for the animation continuity, you can still see the teeth of the person you’re talking to, at all times, no matter how ugly are they). It is in those moments, when Nigel’s mouth is widely open, explaining how his face is still swollen, that Nigel’s friend is suddenly interested in him, he starts looking at him and after a sort of a ‘hum’, he approaches his face to Nigel’s and looks at it for a few seconds without saying a thing, Nigel himself doesn’t say a thing and keeps his mouth half-open with the stitches out. It is at this time where the friend’s real intention is discovered, he is intelligent, he knows about wisdom teeth operations, he knows that Nigel will have stitches and he just waited for the moment to look at them closely and see them for himself, making sure they are there, like when you look for car keys, you know where they are, but you still look somewhere else just in case, just to end looking for them at the spot you knew they were at, and then you ask yourself: ‘Why?’.
Nigel’s friend backs up and returns to his original position, he doesn’t want to be catalogued as weird because he’s looking at the mouth of his friend, this also marks one of the situations in which social rules come into place to ‘straighten’ situations or just try to make them ‘acceptable’. Nigel’s friend takes a step behind because he’s afraid of what may people tell about their relation, maybe they’ll think he’s homosexual, or even worse, Nigel himself could think that. The thing is that while he backs up, at the same time takes a hundred steps forward by asking if he can pull out the stitches, yet this question was not easy to made, he thought about it while he looked at those strings that barely popped out of Nigel’s mouth, seductively calling the friend to make the question, maybe knowing that the final reaction would be possitive, but at the same time fearful of what he would really think about it, after all, he lowers his voice quite a bit to make the definitive, hilarious and pain inducing question. The question is received with an inmediate negative, and the instant physical reaction of Nigel is to close his mouth and deviate his sight to other side, as if he was ashamed of looking into his friends eyes, calculating the question and the answer… ‘why is he asking that?’, social quandaries abound in this uncomfortable moment. Also, the negative is so simple and quick, that seems like a baseless dismissal, which really shows how we react to the unknown… it’s also damn funny.
The uncomfortable silence and negative response (to which his friend surely has reacted sadly, yet he doesn’t show it at all), are broken by Nigel himself, who has taken into count his friendship, and also has decided to make a paradigm shift in his life and in the plot of this short. Nigel approves the petition made by his friend, and lets him pull one of his stitches (only one), and with that change the way he understands and reacts to the world, he has decided to throw away any social restriction that made them uncomfortable in the past, he doesn’t really mind that his friend looked at his mouth, or that he wants to pull his stitches, or that he has just really wanted to feel it, put everything that took them appart and embrace themselves as true members of a simbiotic relationship between two human beings, while his friend has been brave enough to ask the question and taking a leap of faith, Nigel has just changed the way he saw the world and relations with people, making the advance one for posterity, even surpassing the boundaries of the two of them, being a contagious feeling that would be spread around the world among the people. But society may just not like that…
Nigel’s friend blank expression after Nigel’s initial negative shifts into a distinguishable smile as Nigel ends up accepting the paradigm-shifting petition, he inmediatly understands that the situation among them has changed forever, their bond is now special and profound, he’s gay (in the widest and less offensive term you can think of). He’s both gay as in happy and homosexual, and listen to me here before you jump to my throat because I’m seeing things I shouldn’t, just wait a bit. He has found his love for Nigel and he’s trying to express by an intimate act that requires actual physical approximation and (maybe) contact, that would lead to his own happiness. Nigel’s friend approaches smiling, happy to have an opportunity, he’s shivering from expectation of doing something as ridiculous and at the same time personal as yanking stitches from someone who’s recently gone through an operation, this is something that will not be pleasant, yet he allows it (it’s also something forbidden medically, so even more confidence is needed). Yet Nigel is also happy, he also laughs as his friend approaches him and takes hold of one of his stitches, he’s also happy and receptive of the new experience he has just made possible, he may or may not be homosexual (or a representation of it), but he sure is curious, making sure his friend ‘yanks hard’.
Here comes the icky part. When Nigel’s friend pulls the stitch, it has no end. Why are we seeing this? Why do we keep seeing this after every bloody little second? Why is it so appealing to see the movements and phrases they say when Nigel’s friend tries to pull it out as quick as he can, and at the same time, doing it in the most painful way possible. Their faces are at the same time horrifying and funny, Neil is suffering while his friend is just doing as much as he can, and this goes on and on and on, and I couldn’t stop laughing at every turn and face Nigel made, even if he’s suffering, we are being espectators of someone’s suffering and we laugh, a similar thing happened with any similar prank youtube video or tv-show, where they capitalize on someone else’s pain, and maybe it’s a guilty laugh, a senseless chuckle, and at the same time it reveals our own nature as disgrace spectators. Don Hertzfeldt manages to reveal our soul through the process of seeing a cartoon, and it’s amazing how with repeated viewings you begin to see the true intentions of the director: first of all, why are you watching this (same message given by the primordial horror porn movies) and then why are you watching this again, and finally you realize that a never-ending stitch is impossible.
One of the funniest parts of the whole thing is when Nigel’s friend thinks that the stitch is coming to an end, after all those incredible and quite disgusting sounds, we see some hope in the face of both, a glimpse, that is finally shadowed under the face of circumstances, it really doesn’t end, and we cut to a close-up of Nigel’s face, one of the most haunting and at the same time hilarious expressions anyone has ever drawn. Do you see what I see here? This is pain at its best, it’s pure and pristine, and it was originated by a situation of love, in this case, homosexual (or a representation of it). Nigel and his friend are suffering because their contact and new relation is difficult to endure in a society like ours today: blood comes out and nasty things happen, they can’t express freely their feelings, and because of that they suffer. Do you also realize we are watching a representation of a sexual act? Nigel at the start of the process opens his mouth as if he opened his soul and body to the entry of a stranger, he is yanking something that comes from inside of him, it doesn’t get as much obvious as that. We are being shown the consecuences of the society we live in, a society in which homosexual behavior is seen as wrong, and that truly gives people pain, and we are witnesses of that.
Then comes the final ordeal, but before that I’ll point out the big elephant in the room, because here is obvious. Nigel’ friend is still pulling the stitch until something tries to come out of Nigel’s mouth, a bloody mass of something. Here, the friend says that something is coming out of his ‘gum hole’, but that’s what you read, he really says ‘gumee hollen’, and is in that moment that we can understand that we are not hearing german or another european language, it’s gibberish, it’s invented, it’s part of the comedy inside of this short, these characters are communicating in a language we can’t understand and, therefore, we have to read subtitles. Now, I don’t really have a clue about what he wanted to say here, sure is awesome, but I can only think that subtitles would drive away from the icky details of the plot or what really is happening on the screen, but I can’t do as much as an educated guess, much more baseless than what I’ve already said during this entire article.
Nigel sees prehistoric beasts, his pain is unbearable, and it’s in this moment in which we applaud the animation technique of Mr. Hertzfeldt, the effects we see here are really astounding and truly accompany the feelings of dread, primal fear we sense in Nigel when he feels this mass going through his mouth and throat. Interesting how we hear this clearly, yet we shouldn’t as his entire throat oughta be blocked by this thing that’s tied to the stitch. Nigel remembers when his father started the truck when his bike was still tied to it, he remembers a moment of great pain, maybe his greatest pain until the situation he’s living now. And here comes the punchline, Nigel knows a lot of black people, another thing about society, how you show off your tolerance towards other people, a technique he practices, yet the society can’t really accept what’s happening between he and his friend. This moment, with the silent friend, encapsulated by a dramatic music turns out to be one of the best scenes of the short in terms of social critique and overall good technique. This is also one of the most painful moments for Nigel, yet it all comes down to an act of love, which is represented by the pulling of a stitch.
Pull. A baby is born. Unexpected? You bet. This is the love child of the contact both Nigel and his friend have been through, a crying baby born from two men, a birth caused by the act of love which was the pull of the stitch, a personal and really life-changing event for them, as they have accepted each other as something else and way more profound than a friendship. But the friend asks if isn’t it a bit premature, referring to the baby, and at the same time to the fact that two men have had a baby, is society ready for this? Just look at your left Nigel, you can’t put it inside you once more, you can’t hide what you just made, and the society doesn’t like what has come out of you. Of course a baby can’t come out of a man’s mouth, and certainly the first reaction wouldn’t be to eat it so it can go back in, but the symbols are clear, the prematureness of the situation is too much for the society, and even the friend, to really stand… but prematureness is in the eye of the beholder.
Nigel is punished for ‘eating babies’, but he’s punished because he tried to change things, he accepted someone as a companion and accepted him in public with a personal act of love, the product of that is visible and due to it is what he’s being punished about. So sad we live in a society like that, and Don Hertzfeldt has made one of the most accurate portraits of it in a long time with two simple phrases: ‘That sick bastard is eating babies! We must destroy him.’ and ‘I’ts a good thing we brought these giant knives’, as simple as that. The friend, a coward, backs up and leaves the place so maybe he gets the chance once more to love and pull someone else’s stitches.
Or maybe I’m over-analyzing and this is just a silly cartoon… anyway, enjoy.
Coda 1: I avoided writing about this short utilizing comparisons to other films or any medium (except for the introducting paragraphs), as I feel that this work is among one of the most original I saw past year, and its ‘random’ or ‘silly’ characteristics could be more associated with ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ type of crude humour (or even something before that I have no knowledge of and probably get scolded by someone with a greater knowledge than mine just because I love those guys to death).
Coda 2: How ironic. Don Hertzfeldt has fought many times because his shorts are on youtube, this time he has posted it himself (through SHOWTIME) in this video plataform. He said, some time ago, in a Q & A that he was doing ‘something silly’ while he was finishing a bigger project. How ironic… Well… not really.
Coda 3: When I was in school, not so long ago, my best friend was homosexual and I was friend with a homosexual couple, and I’m not trying to show off how good I am with other people, or that I have gay friends (still, I could never see them kissing, it gave me – and still does – goosebumps, i.e. I’m still not the best guy around), but I knew how much they suffered and that made me change from the inside into seeing the world and the society as a hostile place to people that are catalogued as different. This entry is for them, I truly love them and value their friendship.
Coda 4: You can contact me at jaimegrijalbagomezATgmailDOTcom