For this week’s Short Friday I’ve selected another of my all time favourite shorts, Don Hertzfelt’s Rejected, one of the most famous, important and influential examples of the art form ever made.
I mentioned briefly in my last piece how the rise of internet video site has led to a resurgence in interest in short film-making, but despite the revival there are still very few directors who work exclusively in the short form who have attained the kind of respect and following that is afforded to their feature-length counterparts. Don Hertzfeldt, however, is unique – a genuine auteur, who writes, directs, produces, voices, and hand animates every frame of every film, he has built up a huge following amongst animation fans, college students, stoners, and hardcore cineastes alike, whilst almost completely avoiding the internet video boom: firstly, by dint of his early films being produced before the rise of YouTube, and secondly, by actively seeking to stamp out the online bootlegging that resulted in his initial cult following. All this while producing some of the most challenging and obtuse animated films ever made, at an output rate that would make Terrance Malick tap his feet, look at his watch, and implore “Jesus, come ON already!”.
I don’t think the influence of Rejected can be overestimated. One of the most important voices in both animation and comedy in the 21st century has been the American programming block Adult Swim, and I would argue that almost their entire aesthetic can be traced back to Hertfeldt’s early work: in particular, shows like Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job!, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, Robot Chicken and Frisky Dingo owe a great deal tonally to Rejected in particular. Other disciples of Hertzfelt include internet cartoons such as Salad Fingers, and the New York art/animation/comedy collective PFFR, responsible for the brilliantly warped Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel.
It’s all there: the intense surrealism, the random ultra-violence, the gross-out revulsion used as a punch-line, the rigid commitment to the non-sequitur. These are the elements that make up the first five minutes of Rejected, and it’s a formula that we’ve come to be familiar with through Adult Swim and the like.
It’s these first five minutes that are the most famous – they provide all of the quotes and memes that you may have heard, like “Ma SPOON is too big!”, and “I am the queeeen of France…” And don’t get me wrong: this section is really, really funny – my favourite moment is the inexplicable vacuum cleaner noise that follows “I am a BANANA!”
But what elevates Rejected to the status of a masterpiece in my eyes is its closing moments, where the tone shifts abruptly from weird comedy to full blown existential horror. I’ve read reports of supposed huge fans of the film switching off once this section begins, which I find completely baffling – not only are the final few minutes astonishing from a technical standpoint, but it’s the natural conclusion to the story: a mentally unstable artist attempts to make something with commercial appeal that also adheres to his artistic principles. When he fails miserably, it results in a complete creative breakdown, an ink-and-paper apocalypse that culminates with one of the most haunting final images of any film, be it short or feature-length, animated, live-action or otherwise.
I’ve occasionally wondered why Hertzfelt’s simplistic line animations possess the huge emotional impact that they do – there’s an interesting theory in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics that posits that the more simplistic a drawing, the more likely you are to identify with it. This is because when looking ath the faces of other people, you realise their features in incredible detail; every line, wrinkle, blemish etc. When picturing your own face, however, unless you have a mirror to hand you have to rely on your mind’s eye, which only picks out the most distinguishing features – eyes, nose, mouth, hair – then roughly fills in the rest, in much the same way that a cartoonist appropriates real life. Therefore there’s an inherent power and universal quality to stick figures and cartoons that affects us almost on a subconscious level – nobody has harnessed this unsettling feeling better than Hertzfelt in his short films.
Which might be an overly contemplative and pretentious way to end a piece on a cartoon that features a crudely-drawn cloud screaming “My anus is bleeding!” while the screen fills up with blood. But there we go. That’s Rejected for you. It’s as exciting, disturbing and relevant as it ever was.
NOTE: Short Fridays will be a regular feature from now on. Every Friday around mid-afternoon I’ll post a great short film for you to watch, perhaps over your lunch-break. Or perhaps over dinner, I don’t know. Maybe even next day’s breakfast. It’s not for me to say what meal you should accompany it with, really. Just watch it.
As much as I love feature films (and it should be fairly plain how much I do) I’ve always been a big fan of the short-form, which underwent something of a recession in the latter half of the 20th century as cinema screenings of shorter stuff became increasingly rare; only to recently undergo a resurgence thanks to the unstoppable rise of web video hosters such as Vimeo, DailyMotion, and the omniscient, fire-breathing colossus that is YouTube.
I think most people get their introduction to short film-making through animation, and I was no different. I grew up as a huge fan of Looney Tunes and animation in general, as every child should, really. If you are a parent and you’re not exposing your child to a steady stream of stuff by Disney, Warner Bros, Cosgrove Hall, Hanna Barbera, and Aardman, you are neglecting your duty as a parent and may as well be thrashing them to sleep every night with a slipper for all the long-term psychological damage you are inflicting.
Aardman Animations, of course, is the Bristol-based studio behind Wallace and Gromit, along with inumerate other cartoons, title sequences, commercials and short films. When I was about nine or ten years old I was the world’s biggest fan of Wallace and Gromit - I remember spending hours making my own horrifically misshapen Wallace out of a plasticine kit, and spending hours making the indentations on Wallace’s pullover just right. I still maintain that The Wrong Trousers is one of finest British films ever made, with Curse of The Were-Rabbit not being far behind.
It was because of The Wrong Trousers that I attended the first ever Brief Encounters short film festival in Bristol (my hometown), some point in the mid-nineties. It was part of a children’s screening, and I remember being completely enchanted by every film they showed.
As the years went on, Brief Encounters expanded to the point that it has now been split into two festivals, one for live action and one for animation. As I haven’t lived in Bristol for nearly a decade now, I haven’t had the chance to go as often as I would have liked to, but I attended several more Brief Encounters as I got older and was lucky enough to see some amazing films there.
One film that I first saw at Brief Encounters was Forklift Driver Klaus – The First Day on the Job, which totally blew me away and really made me re-think my preconceptions of live-action short films, which I’d always thought were more often than not inferior to their animated counterparts.
You may already be aware of Klaus as it’s become a bit of a classic on the short film festival circuit – it brought the house down when I saw it at Brief Encounters. Brilliantly it has also been screened seemingly at random by Channel 4 in the graveyard slots between 2.30 and 4.30, something they were doing as recently as a couple of years ago.
I could go on and on about why Klaus is such a masterpiece, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s best to go into it knowing as little as possible, so I’ll keep this intro brief.
Here’s a few things you should know:
1) The voiceover is by Egon Hoegen, an actor very well known in Germany as the voice for instructional videos and autobahn safety videos.
2) It may seem slow to start with, but trust me: it’s paced perfectly.
3) It is often actually shown on forklift safety training courses.
4) It is possibly NSFW.
Enjoy! See you back here next Friday.