[13 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The decor is all late ‘60s camp - a combination of placid pop art and the Madison Avenue interpretation of cool chic. The characters are straight out of a disconnected ‘90s RomCom - unable to express their true feelings while sipping cup after cup of carefully brewed tea. The narrative approach is piecemeal and wonderfully wonky - girl anticipates phone call, girls gets call, girl reacts badly, dreams are discussed, boy’s obsession with girl grows in unsettling ways. By the end, when all the confused emotions are being delineated in a delicious, dirge like musical number, Jamie Travis’ Patterns Trilogy (part of an overview of the filmmaker’s short films available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films) finally comes into focus - and it’s a satisfying view for sure.
Often compared to David Lynch and Todd Solondz (though the aesthetic and eventual message are uniquely his own), the 31 year old Canadian artist has been carving out a unique niche in the often unsympathetic realm of short form cinema since the debut of his dark, deranged Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner in 2003. Since then, we’ve had the equally morose - and very funny - The Saddest Boy in the World, and the aforementioned romantic misadventures of Pauline and Michael. Based within a Good Housekeeping nightmare of surreal set designs and recognizable product placement, Travis takes us on a journey of character driven self-discovery that often yields oddball, unsettling results. Even better, he does so with a Charles Addams/Edward Gorey blackness that skews everyday life into something imposingly evil.
The Saddest Boy in the World (also available on the disc) is perhaps the perfect example of his approach. Really nothing more than the story of a misunderstood little boy whose existence is unraveling thanks to a distant single mother, a goody two-shoes sister, and a school filled with Central Casting pre-adolescent horrors, Travis treats us to the moment when young Timothy decides to end it all. Like an elementary school version of Harold and Maude, our dainty, diminutive hero grabs a noose while highlighting all the humiliations he must endure. Pets abandon him with unnerving regularity, his fashion plate parent appears unable to do much except plaster on the white lipstick and primp for the neighbors. While bullies bid him drink from the urinals and destroy his papier mache projects, Timothy bides his time. A missed opportunity with an ice cream truck appears to be the final straw.
Dressed up in slippery lime greens and demonic interior design, The Saddest Boy in the World would play like an outrageous satire if it wasn’t so accurate. Travis paints with the same suburban angst that others have managed and manipulated, but he does so with a masterful sense of tone. The minute we see Timothy’s face, almost always frozen in a sad clown frown, we know where things are going. Even the collection of school mates argues for a formulaic, cliched approach. But thanks to the magnificent use of backdrop, as well as Travis’ visual flair, what could be archetypical becomes disturbingly true. It’s a magic trick he managed with his first short film, the similarly sensational Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner. It’s a presence so unreal it argues for a soundtrack by San Francisco noise masters The Residents.
You expect some first time jitters from even the most seasoned film school vet and yet Travis takes on the complicated comic material with absolute verve. We meet the family as breakfast is being prepared. Mother is tied to an IV, but this doesn’t stop her from whipping up four dozen eggs, a platter of sausage the size of a small dog, and a confusing collection of organ meats and reptiles. As she works her cruel culinary magic, the three Anderson underlings - Godfrey, Eliza, and Chester - are portrayed as they indulge in their daily means of escape. The girl is lost in a paint by numbers image of a serene swing set. Godfrey is obsessed with growing (and then eating) his various plants and flowers, while Chester wants to flush everything he can down the house’s antiquated toilet.
In between, Mother serves up desiccated flesh, piles of fetal pigs, and all manner of miscreant food stuffs. She sits in stern conviction, waiting for each child to finish their massive meal. After each rotten repast, the kids go off into their own little worlds, the payoff being a means of getting away from their insane guardian once and for all. Being finicky about their food is every offspring’s birthright. It’s part of the growing process. But Travis takes the notion to imaginative, macabre heights, hammering home the message that, sometimes, wee ones have the right idea. No one will argue over a simple meal of toast and bacon. But when Mother is storming away from the sink to deal with a dreaded “brown” egg, we know something is not right with this particular harried homemaker.
After experiencing his initial forays into filmmaking, it’s hard to be as impressed with the Patterns Trilogy. In fact, without the song and dance/pseudo documentary approach of Part 3, the entire series would seem minor in comparison to what Anderson and Saddest accomplish. The first installment is nothing more than a study in style and form. Travis holds the camera on actress Courtenay Webber as if she was an icon from a bygone era. She then does a little dance, takes a bath, and answers her long anticipated phone call. The dream she ends up describing is more interesting that anything we see beforehand. The same applies in Part 2, when Christopher Redman turns Michael into a milquetoast with a bad sense of rejection. His own visions are tainted with blood and failure - and for a moment, we think Travis has lost the tune.
But when Pauline and Michael begin to sing, their suppressed feelings coming out in angry, accusatory tones, the Patterns Trilogy transcends its inferences to become something original and fresh. Granted, it still smacks of hipster cool, a somber self-deprecating irony that threatens to undermine Travis’ perceived intent. But then our couple coo their statements of rape and soul snatching, and everything is right in the indie world. With its use of neon Lite-Brite colors and Warhol/Maxx wall space Travis’ triptych could be confused with a nutty bit of nod and wink nostalgia. Look deeper, whoever, and you will see something far more telling…and terrifying…and terrific.