Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Why The Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner (2003)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

I don't usually watch a ton of short films; the only time I sort-of do is when specialty theaters roll out the "Oscar-Nominated Shorts" packages in January/February every year. Even that's a rarity: this year was the first year I've lived close enough to a theater that did offer it (I'm sure Asheville did, and I missed it, but you get the idea). So it's exciting that for this week's selection for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," The Film Experience's Nathaniel chose a trilogy of short films from new filmmaker Jamie Travis (For a Good Time, Call…) for us to watch. And you can too - they are available online!


Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner was the earliest of what's been billed as his "Saddest Children in the World" Trilogy, serving as Travis' graduating film. The plot is fairly simple: Eliza (Katherine Eaton), Chester (Michael Kurliak), and Godfrey (Colton Booreen) decide to escape the abrasive cooking of their mother (Patti Wotherspoon). It's not so straightforward, though, as Travis imbues the film with plenty of quirks and oddities.

What's generally exciting about short films is the economic storytelling: the filmmaker has an abbreviated time to tell the story, and so certain details are often expressed visually rather than being explained. It's difficult to present a beginning, middle, and end when there's only a few minutes to do so. So it's impressive that this remarkably odd little film manages to make the impact that it does, despite the fact that nearly everyone wears the same facial expression and only the mother speaks.

More after the jump.

It's here that Travis' voice becomes clear. First films - especially student films - often play more like a conflation of the filmmaker's inspirations than it does a distinctive feature. And Why the Anderson Children… certainly has a lot of that, particularly in it's style. The suburbanite surrealism feels like it was cribbed from David Lynch, while the affectless acting feels like it was dropped in from a Todd Solondz film, with a little dash of Wes Anderson's precocious production design and shot compositions thrown in for good measure. At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Travis' style is a Frankenstein's-monster of those three directors'.

Yet Travis distinguishes himself in how he presents these ideas. Everyone in this little family(?) has their own peculiarities. Eliza constantly holds three green balloons and eavesdrops through a conch shell. Chester enjoys flushing various objects down the toilet. Godfrey grows plants so that he can eat the blooms. And the mother - credited as "Maud" - spends all day cooking unusual dishes and has no patience for brown eggs. There's no explanation for these behaviors - no pop psychologies, no outsider going "hey, isn't this weird?" This is the "normal" of the film, and Travis rather quickly acclimates us to this sensibility.

The real marvel here, though, is that the film actually lands emotionally. Every character's face is frozen in a perma-frown, yet you feel the emotional impact of their actions. Through Travis' framing, we're able to recognize and empathize with the characters. For example, check out all of these frames:






In each one, the facial expressions (when visible) are pretty much the same. But there's a different feeling to each one. In the uppermost, Chester's curiosity with the toilet comes through. The second and third imply differences between Godfrey and Eliza - where Godfrey shares a room with his brother, Eliza is isolated, to the point where she would almost completely blend in with the furniture if not for those balloons. In the frame with all three children, we get the sense that they're uncomfortable with the meal that's been placed before them. Check out how much distance there seems to be between them and the feast in the foreground; there's definitely some apprehension. Then there's the last frame, where Maud's sadness is felt by how small she is in the frame, with three empty chairs and three unworn party hats before her. Note that in each of these frames, everyone's countenance is approximately the same. It's a wonder that Travis is able to accomplish so much with so little.

Yet when it comes to choosing a "best shot," I have to go with the weirdness, though it does tie in a little to my previous point. It comes from the opening sequence, where what appears to be a fairly ordinary breakfast at first becomes some much more strange, starting with the sheer number of eggs that have been cracked:


To the pause of discovering the odd-egg-out:


To its inspection and eventual destruction:

*Best Shot*

 I really just love the composition here. On the left, the unexplained IV, another indication that there's something off about this kitchen and this woman. Maud's bird dress makes for a nice visual pop, especially with the severe look on her face as she examines the egg that almost blends in with the cabinet. Nothing is directly centered in the frame, either, and there's a rather interesting symmetry to it. It pretty much sums up this film perfectly: just off-center of being "normal."

1 comment:

NATHANIEL R said...

glad you liked this. I really respond emotionally to his films even though you'd think they'd be too sealed off with their super precise almost suffocatingly colorful DESIGNED mise en scene.