For this week’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot, we arrive at one of my favorite annual traditions in the series, almost as much as the token animated film: Nathaniel has picked some shorts, Canadian filmmaker Jamie Travis’s Saddest Children in the World trilogy from 2003-2006. The official rule is that participants only need to watch one and pick their favorite shot, but come on. I’m me. Obviously I was going to watch all three. They’re all available on Vimeo: the first is 2003’s Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner, followed by 2006’s The Saddest Boy in the World, wrapping up with 2009’s The Armoire.
First up, then: Why the Anderson Children &c, a student film completed while Travis was studying at the University of British Columbia, which obliges me to be gentler with it than I might otherwise be. All of us had our student film period,* and it’s hard as hell to shake off the influences one sucks up like a sponge during those years. None of which changes the fact that Anderson Children basically looks like Charles Addams’s version of The Royal Tenenbaums. I am not clear if the surname in the title is a deliberate homage or a subconscious accident, but it’s regrettable either way: it’s as if Paul Thomas Anderson to have instead given Magnolia a title like Meet the Altmans, and I, for one, am not sorry that he didn’t.
The film, anyway, plays in the same thematic box as its two more controlled, effective successors: kids in a shitty house and a shitty universe take control of their fates by whatever means necessary. Only with more affection for the fussy, center-punched Suburban Gothic images than for any of the film’s ideas about what those images are supposed to mean. Anyway, with more richness to come in the follow-up movies, I went with this shot:
Because kitty. And because I like the ironic symmetry of a ginger boy and a ginger cat both learning over at approximately the same angle. But mostly because kitty.
Next up: The Saddest Boy in the World, the shortest and most high-impact of the trio, opening as it does with the titular figure (Benjamin B. Smith) with his head in a noose in his bright green bedroom. The plot from that point in is simple and clear: what makes Timothy Higgins so sad? This question is answered in a series of dark comic vignettes with the same Anderson-inflected visuals, though in this case, Travis has moved from blandly aping that filmmaker to adding a personal spin on the imagery.
And in the process, the film moves from being macabre and wiseass for the sake of it, to having a kind of bleak tenderness. It’s more aware of real emotions, and is a far stronger work for it. With that in mind, my pick for its best shot:
The perfect combination in my mind of snazzy style, with the bright colors in the swing set and the trees and sky of the background, with a sadness and misery in the isolation of the moment; particularly the way that the use of angles exaggerates the boy’s smallness and loneliness in all that bright, manic space. And while it was completely an accident that I managed to snag a still of Timothy caught in a motion blur, it couldn’t possibly fit any better, adding to the moment’s feeling of being indistinct and empty.
Last up: The Armoire, certainly the most ambitious of the lot, both in its writing and its aesthetic, and the least amusing as well. If the first two are Anderson by way of David Lynch, this one triangulates over to Pedro Almodóvar, to tell a story in vivid primary colors of homosexual desire shading into psychological despair. And it does it with 12-year-olds, a layer of kink that even Almodóvar would typically shy away from.
I’m not in love with the way that the film uses its enlarged canvas (it’s the longest of the trilogy by 4 minutes, a fairly huge percentage of its running time), heading towards an ending that’s maybe a bit too cryptic and metaphysical for its own good, but there’s no denying that the film finds Travis’s aesthetic hitting some pretty fantastic heights, enough to turn him into the closest thing to a celebrity that the microscopic world of festival circuit short films can claim. Certainly, the contrast between the slabs of highly saturated color and the moody, murky psychology of the piece is the sign of a real gift for filmmaking, and the emotional and thematic immediacy of so many images is absolutely brilliant, as evidenced by this shot that I couldn’t quite bring myself to select:
Instead, I elected to pluck out one of the film’s surprisingly effective moments of something close to horror, mixing a shock of the uncanny with one of the film’s most overt nods to the never-specified homoeroticism. Herewith my Best Shot:
Inexplicable, threatening, and sexually suggestive – hands that near a clothed crotch is about the most explicit that any halfway moral filmmaker could possibly get to specific physical desire and contact with 12-year-old subjects. It’s a bizarre and freaky image that perfectly taps into the protagonist’s deeply confused understanding of himself and others, long for that physicality but also pathologising it at something aberrant and weird. It’s a bold moment that only a fearless filmmaker could get away with, and my hat’s off to Travis for Going There; his subsequent career hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire, but this one film, flaws and all, is more than enough to prove that he and his art deserve a bigger audience, and I thank Nathaniel for pointing me in his direction.