(Catch my previous Frederic Back film review here: Taratata)
Quebecois animator and short film director Frederic Back’s sixth film is important within his oeuvre for one principal reason: the innovative new approach to animation used therein. Rather than using large quantities of paper anymore to produce his animations, Back decided he needed to find a cost-effective and ecologically-sound way to make his films. The result of his search was a new process whereby Back used frosted cells, which he would animate, commit to celluloid, and then reuse by either making small changes for the next shot or by erasing his work to create a new scene entirely. Even though this process was more in keeping with Back’s ecological concerns, it was a slow process wherein multiple frames could not be worked on at once by a team. As such, even with two assistants on the film, it took the team 20 months to complete this 11 minute, 30 second long short film.
The story is extremely philosophically and theologically resonant while never making reference to any particular mythos and instead concerning itself with a sort of constructed or imagined creation mythos derived equally from Judeo-Christian tradition and Native American cosmology. A vague, personified cosmic force with the general appearance of a human being lives within a universe that is void and without form. This being decides to bring into creation other beings who may commune with it. The first are the birds who come into the world naked, featherless. They emerge from out of the void of Being into another kind of void where they now exist but live without direction, meaning, and in a cold world where their bodies are ill-equipped to handle the elements. The God-force directs their evolution through a one-time instantaneous change that allows all the birds to develop feathers and wings of ostentatious, beautiful, and varied plumage.
Next, the mammals are created to live upon the terrain of the Earth. They too are brought into being naked and afraid without fur. The God-force directs their evolution into hairy, warm animals who live in peace with the land through natural laws of predation and survival. The fish are born and the the heavens emerge to the light this new world wherein so much bounty has been established. And all things are good and well, are wholesome and gay in aspect.
And then the God-force creates a pair of beings in its image: the humans. They are endowed with the power of intellect, reason, fore-thought. But with this great gift, so too arise negative forces like desire. The animals, endowed with animality as opposed to God-gifts of language and intellect, live with the world and in the world. They do not desire things beyond the fleeting momentary ones needed for survival. Through this imbecility, they remain pure, sinless, and live without a fear of death because their thoughts don’t reach forward for very long into the domain of the future. They are, in a complicated German philosophical strung together word, Being-There, Dasein, and happy.
The human pair arrive and immediately covets the majestic potential of life undersea with the fish. The God-force grants their desires to appease them and changes them into merpeople who live amongst the sea’s creatures for a time before becoming tired of these surroundings and crying out to the heavens for a change. Next, the humans become hairy beasts who roam the land with the other animals, consume weaker forms of life with their claws and teeth, and generally live as Bigfoot-like monsters, which also bores them after a time. Finally, the people are changed into bird-people who admire their own plumage and attempt to live within the branches of trees. However, having heavy bones and large frames only makes life difficult so up high as they break branch after branch in their tree-domiciles.
Finally, the God-force decides to forsake these presumptuous human beings who thought they could just demand and demand again and again from their creator, progenitor, from the wellspring of their being. They are reverted back to naked human beings who then create their own weapons to destroy other forms of life once more. This time, however, this destructive work is not undergone for sustenance, for food, it is undertaken to artificially constrain the powers of nature to themselves. They kill all kinds and don the dead’s skins as fancy accoutrements to their newfound powers as murderous beings who kill for sport and comfort.
The generations pass and children are born to these beings. Those children are indoctrinated into the murderous lifestyles of their forebears. They travel and spread by foot before developing ships with which to conquer the world. They go whaling, harness the oil therein, create factories and oil refineries, deforesting operations and natural resource extraction, automobiles and planes arise. Industry booms as cities expand, and so too do production and wealth increase as waste and abject poverty become the norm for the majority of those wretched of the earth (to quote a Franz Fanon title). Human beings become more than a member of the animal kingdom. They become the master species whose exploits have the ability to alter the very inner workings of the world itself.
And they kill the God-force with their bows and arrows and other weaponry, just as we have killed spirituality and a belief in forces outside of our power through modern medicine, science, and technology. They rely on medicine for cures rather than on nature’s discretion about who will live and die, they rely on science to avert global catastrophe or lessen their effects, and they rely on technology to prolong their lives. All commendable things in a world where there is no God, but Back’s imaginative plain here is not such a world. And as such, the final action for these people is only to return to nature, to recognize their animality, and to become one with the world once again rather than coveting all its spoils. The God-force revives after this about face by the humans and all is restored to an idyllic world. If only such a narrative were true and such a return were possible in our own world.
[Continued here with Back’s award-winning 1981 film Crac!]