Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Adam Elliott

This November has been especially gloomy so my mind has been lingering on brown/gray palettes, and one animated film in particular my mom recommended to me a few months back which fully embraces the color brown; Mary & Max (2009). It's a true claymation film. Everything, including the tiny props and sets, are all handmade with clay plasticine.

It's about a plain Australian girl whose favorite color is brown, with eyes the color of "muddy puddles", and a brown birthmark on her forehead which "looks like poo", who is sad because she has no friends; and a 44 year old, overweight, Jewish, New-Yorker with Asperger's syndrome (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who also has no friends. Through random chance Mary flips through a New York phone book to find Max's name and decides to write to him.

Max is overwhelmed by the letter he receives and is soon launched into a full-blown panic attack due to the complex and invasive nature of Mary's questions. For a man with Aspergers, any small thing that alters the routine of normal life is cause for great anxiety.

Instead of telling you too much, how about you watch the lovely trailer yourself to get a better idea:

Beware of spoilers; if you want to see this film for yourself please skip the next 5 paragraphs. This is an animation you probably wouldn't watch with a very young child, due to it's black humor and dark themes. It definitely hits it's lowest point when the pregnant adult Mary is standing on a stool with a handful of Valium pills and a noose around her neck because her husband has left her for another man, and her best friend, Max, hates her for the book she wrote about his condition.

Before it is too late Mary receives a forgiveness package from Max just in time, and only because her agoraphobic neighbor is brave enough to face his fears and leave his house.

Max's letter is sweet and heartfelt. He admits that everyone is flawed, and we all must learn to live with our flaws. However, one thing we can choose is whom we befriend. "Hopefully one day our sidewalks will meet, and we can share a can of condensed milk. You are my best friend. You are my only friend. Your American pen-pal, Max Jerry Horowitz".

I was crying in the end when, one year later, Mary finally makes the pilgrimage to New York only to find Max had died that morning. The irony is bitter, but the moment sweetened by the fact that Max's dingy apartment is sprinkled with pieces of her; drawings, photos, cans of sweetened condensed milk, and the crown jewel is the veritable Sistine Chapel of every one of her letters laminated and plastered to the ceiling. She was everything good and meaningful to him, and he to her.

Despite the fact that they had the deepest of friendships, theirs was never meant to be consummated in a face to face union. But, perhaps it is better that way. We can be rest-assured that Mary will continue forward in strength, now that she has a little one to care for, and she will always hold her memories of Max close to heart.

Before seeing Mary & Max I had never heard of the Melbourne-based, director Adam Elliot before, but collectively his five claymation films, (including Uncle (1996), Cousin (1998), and Brother (1999)) have participated in over 600 film festivals and received over 100 awards, including an Oscar for his short film, Harvie Krumpet (2003), narrated by Geoffery Rush, which you may enjoy here (Part 1):

Elliot is a very gifted writer and storyteller, whether he's telling personal stories, funny stories, or moving stories, all follow the lives of average, quirky folk. He focuses on relaying their sparse moments of joy, but more often, the unpleasant moments they experience in their short lives.

Life is indifferent and can be ironically cruel at times, and death is just as abrupt. Most of the characters aren't even aware of their misfortune because it has become a natural part of their everyday lives, such as living with insane parents, or a mental or physical disability. Elliot often leaves the audience feeling uneasy.

His characters still find joy, however, in a variety of simple pleasures; a loving pet, a can of condensed milk, a warm seat in the sunlight, and most of all, talking with a dear friend.

Please enjoy one final clip from Adam Elliot's early short, Cousin:

I find there is more depth and poignancy in five minutes of an Elliot animation than in most 2 1/2 hour films. I know that in the last six months I have been more moved watching animated films than live-action ones. Isn't it interesting how animation can be so moving despite the fact it is told with "inanimate" objects? Well, the inanimate becomes animate through the skillful hands of the animator. That's why it's magic.

That's also why I prefer stop-motion to computer animation. Computer animation often comes off as sterile, rigid, and hollow feeling. True, the quality is incredible, and they're getting great at making if feel alive, but it takes a lot to force a computer out of it's need for geometric precision. Stop-motion involves the hands of a living, breathing human, and with that comes all the flaws and imperfections of human touch, but that's also what gives it love and character.

Elliot's entertaining stories about friendship and heartache remind us to appreciate the simple joys in life. He is truly a gifted filmmaker and I hope we may see many more talented animators like him emerge from Australia in the near future.


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