For this week’s edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has assigned a curveball: rather than one feature, we have here two short films. And in what is surely not a personal favor to me, though it could hardly be more gratifying if it were, the first of these is the 2011 The Eagleman Stag, Mikey Please’s graduation film from the Royal College of Art, which I’ve talked about once or twice as being pretty much my favorite movie of the present decade. If you haven’t done so, why not go ahead and take the nine minutes out of your life to give it a watch?
Alright, now that’s done, let’s think about a shot. This is, firstly, a fucking dense movie, and while I like to try to approach this series by picking out that one single image that best sums up the entire piece, I actually don’t think that’s possible here. The field of inanimate (and presumably human) objects? The embryo with a beetle head? Plus, finding something that shows off the film’s incredibly beautiful animation style (those models are carved out of the foam you get from couch cushions, as revealed in this playful but not hugely informative making-of documentary).
Anyway, this is where I ended up going:
Among its many themes, The Eagleman Stag expresses the frustration of a man who hasn’t done anything in his life, and, crippled by the awareness that time is moving on with or without him, has an even harder time getting going because of the attendant feeling of hopelessness. It is through the act of collecting insects that he’s able to reverse this, suddenly finding that as he does more and enjoys it, he seems to have more time in which to enjoy it.
Tragedy strikes, then, when the collection of insects that has formed the backbone of Peter’s newfound happiness is destroyed. Of course, that tragedy is entirely his own fault, and so the movie reiterates the idea that so much of human suffering is self-inflicted and entirely avoidable, but some of us are just too adept at self-destruction.
So, the shot: a sorrowful frame of a man slumped in a pitiable heap, surrounded by the detritus of his own self-abuse, with the stark light of morning revealing in severe detail the destruction he has wreaked, while he clings to the last patch of gloominess (that diagonal line of light is outstanding, no?). It’s an unforgiving image of self-inflicted failure in which we’re acutely aware of what it costs: all the time Peter spent assembling the specimens that now lie dead in their carelessly tossed-open vivariums. Wasted time being the single greatest human tragedy in The Eagleman Stag, it is that much more horrifying to see it so frankly here.
Of course, this is merely the halfway point of the movie, and the very next narrative beat twists and changes this development, but like I said: I couldn’t remotely figure out a way to express the complete thing in just one image.
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I hadn’t seen the week’s other short, Death to the Tinman; nor in fact heard of it prior to its selection here. It’s part of the (so far) very small career of director Ray Tintori, a member of the same filmmaking group that resulted in Beasts of the Southern Wild (indeed, that film’s director, Benh Zeitlin, contributed to the Death to the Tinman score). It’s pretty marvelous, despite the unavoidable “cheap indie film” acting, with a busy, speedy pace and a light, unobtrusive ironic sense of humor, tapping into the fractured style of Guy Maddin, with a couple of nods to Jean Cocteau. I see no reason not to embed it, as well.
In the mix of all that revolutionary satire, the post-modern riffing on the Oz books of L. Frank Baum, and hipster-comic body horror, there’s quite a lot to choose from, and on a different day – hell, an hour from now – I might have gone someplace completely different. But in this moment, here’s what I’m going with as my pick for best shot:
My rationale is at least a little bit questionable, for the main reason I went here is that, in a movie full of Maddin-esque lifts from silent film grammar (and oh, how close I came to picking one of those process shots of Bill (Jeff Delauter) in front of the grinding machine at the slaughterhouse, which felt irresistibly like German Expressionism), this is the one that most felt to me like something taken from an actual silent movie, a particularly experimental one at that. The black background has a whole lot to with that: it non-diegetically removes any trace of realism from the shot (and while this is hardly a “realistic” movie, it’s at least a bit more representational than this non-setting), while also focusing our attention on the actual subject of the image with the fewest possible distractions, while also being so dark and miserable that even before we’ve started to process what the shot is saying, we’re already well aware that it’s something grim and sorrowful.
So how about that content, though? Such a simple thing to pick apart: Bill’s second arm has been cut off and replaced with tin, and he looks at it with confusion and disgust. But for a movie in which the division between the body and the self provides most of its thematic weight, it’s as important an image to experiencing that them as the movie offers (since there is perhaps only one other shot that is primarily about Bill’s own feelings about his situation). The composition is flawless, with the lines and lighting combining to draw the eye to one of only two things: the tin hand, or Bill’s face. It’s expressly presentational – another thing borrowed from silent, especially silent German, cinema – and it lasts just long enough so that we have time to drink it all in and reflect on the low-grade horror of it. Potent stuff in a movie quite bursting at the seams with warped imagery.