Steve Carlson was the first person who knew what he was talking about to tell me that I had done a good job. This was back when I had just started reviewing and I was posting reviews through Blogcritics. At that point, I could have just as easily dropped the reviewing thing and gone back to my usual schedule of playing video games and drinking until I passed out, so even a few kind words from a guy as good as him were invaluable. And what a role model: his reviews run the gamut from small to massive, from the mainstream to obscure to utterly bizarre. Whether he writes a capsule or an essay, I'm always amazed by his seeming inability to waste a single word, as well as his fusion of cerebral analysis and giddy, blunt enthusiasm for the medium.
Steve's selection is "Rejected," Don Hertzfeldt's 2000 short film about an animator's mental breakdown, seen via his commercial work.
Nine minutes. The greatest film of the 21st century thus far runs nine minutes. Don Hertzfeldt's violently hilarious masterwork "Rejected" spans less time than a commercial break on Hot-97, yet crams so much into the space of its brevity that it never fails to set the inside of my skull ablaze. At this point, I've lost count of the number of times I've seen the film between rewatching it and exposing other people to it. And it is endlessly rewatchable -- and only partly so because of its length (you could watch it twenty times in the time it takes to wade through the bloated likes of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button").
If you've not seen it, the concept behind "Rejected" is irresistible: The film takes the form of several supposed potential promo clips commissioned by The Family Learning Channel and the Johnson & Mills corporation. (Both entities are, of course, fictitious.) All the clips were submitted by Hertzfeldt and summarily turned down by said corporate entities, and it's not hard to see why once the clips start. The adverts start off strange (the infamous "My spoon is too big" clip) and progress into more perverse, warped territory with a quickness, culminating in an astonishing piece involving dancing fish-sticks, a Swedish folk ballad and an alarming amount of blood loss. On one level, this is shock humor, crude and simple and ruthlessly effective (with stick-figure visuals to match); Hertzfeldt's ever-more-outre ideas, festooned with absurdity and swimming in an ocean of red, serve as primitive and explosively funny contrasts to the benign products they're meant to pitch. Maybe it's cheap, but if guffawing at the line, "You're watching The Family Learning Channel. And now, angry ticks fire out of my nipples!" is cheap, then nuts to sophistication.
But if these attempts at advertising are wholly inappropriate, that's also part of the joke -- the idea that any creator anywhere could think these gory, bizarre things would pass muster for hawking bean mulch. "Rejected" is on its face a parable about the potential for compromising one's ideals in a consumer society. Multiple viewings, however, reveal it to truly be less about the dichotomy of selling out versus individual creativity and more a slow autopsy of a crumbling psyche, driven to despair and insanity by neuroses brought on by fumbling attempts to reconcile that dichotomy (In this light, it can be seen as a dry run for Hertzfeldt's recent, shattering "Everything Will Be OK").
The film moves from being a scabrous satire into something more unforgettable in its bravura final section, a technical and emotional stroke of perfection; the animator finally, permanently loses his mind, and his mental unmooring externalizes itself in the apocalyptic destruction of his creations. Characters are crushed underneath falling letters and stars, dismembered by rolling waves of crumpled paper and sucked into oblivion through holes torn in the sky. The last image in the film is so potent an expression of desperate frustration in the face of helplessness that I got it tattooed on my right shoulder blade. Come for the chuckles, stay for the kick in the gut. It's all fun and games until someone loses their mind. - Steve Carlson