Brent Green at the Hammer Museum, 7/22/08
By Anna Feuer
In Brent Green's fantasy world, Santa Claus is a sickly old alcoholic who shrieks “Ho ho ho!” like a crazed killer. A little girl sticks her toy fire truck through one ear and lodges it in her brain. A mother slips through the floor boards and embarks on a Homer-esque odyssey through Hell.
On Tuesday night, the Museum's “Hammer Presents” series screened seven of Brent Green's short animated films, accompanied by live music and soundscapes from Brendan Canty (Fugazi), Jim Becker (Califone), Alan Scalpone (The Bitter Tears), Rodney McLaughlin and Green himself on guitar.
Paulina Hollers (part 1 of 2)
Watching one of Green's films is like stepping into the mind of a precocious child — a child with a darkly somber view of the world and a diligent moral compass. Aesthetically, the animations recall Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas or Michel Gondry's claymation in The Science of Sleep. But they're even more playful, more childlike; using playhouses built from corrugated cardboard, power lines made from fishhooks and characters constructed from little wooden dolls, Green welcomes his viewer into a homemade Never Never Land. He sprinkles his films with sweet and hopeful details, images of pure innocence: one character, for example, uses fireplace bellows to pump breath into dying crows, puffing them up to their original state.
But Green's vision is ultimately one of desolation and despair. The puffed up crow, life breathed back into its lungs, then falls off a branch with a plop and dies. There is a sense of menace in his films, ranging from the cosmological (in “Susa's Red Ears,” the sun explodes, leaving a young girl as the sole survivor) to that of human folly (in “Walt Whitman's Brain,” Green depicts a blundering lab assistant who drops the poet's brain on the floor). Pain and death lurk in the heart of almost every film. “Carlin,” shot at the farmhouse where Green grew up, chronicles the life of his long-suffering diabetic aunt. He also tells a disturbingly funny story about his “asshole grandfather,” who lost his fingers in a freak accident and refused to let them be sewn back on.
Hadacol Christmas (part 1 of 2)
Each film concludes by resignedly identifying human powerlessness as the cause of his characters' suffering. They all try, they really do: his diabetic aunt tries to die but continues to live in pain; Walt Whitman tries to do good by donating his brain to science, but is foiled by an innocent mistake. In the most dramatic and affecting of Green's films, “Paulina Hollers,” the title character shoots herself in the hopes of reaching Hell and finding her dead son. Green poignantly depicts Paulina's love for her child, but never lets us forget that these characters are in Hell for a reason. They are morally corrupt, though due more to their own ignorance than to any active malice.
That stories of such a dark nature are told through childlike animations — at some points, Green's illustrations look as though they have been scribbled with crayon on a restaurant's paper table cloth–emphasizes his characters' innocence, and, accordingly, their hopelessness. In addition to accompanying on guitar, Green also narrated his films in a frenzied, high-pitched voice that might belong to a evangelical preacher in a moment of revelation. The music, lively and perfectly attune to each film's emotional tone, often escalated to Green wailing over heavy drums.
Green's stories are not perfect. Most of his plot lines are scattered and almost impossible to follow as he jumps from character to character, from little Susa's bedroom to a jarring scene in a men's restroom. They are all nonsensical, which corresponds well with the DIY animation but often loses the viewer in confusion. However, to experience these films is to appreciate them aesthetically, both in terms of the animation and the live music. One is more focused on the pace and tone of Green's voice than on his actual words, and the stories' content is ultimately less affecting than their presentation. What Green offers his audience is a series of beautiful and often ominous images, loosely tied together by despondent plots. The world inside Green's head is quite dark, but he translates it to film with a bright and vivid visual awareness.
Susa's Red Ears