Saturday, 24 April 2010

The Anachronism (2010)

Debuting online this past Monday, The Anachronism is a Canadian short film set against the stunning backdrop of the Pacific Northwest and the strange thing that a pair of inquisitive Victorian children find there. Director Matthew Gordon Long has gone to pains to describe the short as a "Steampunk" film for marketing purposes, but with all due respect to him I would disagree. For instance, no one is wearing goggles in it. Nor are there air pirates, nor is the mysterious Septopus made entirely out of brass.

Less facetiously, his own description of the film's themes explains why this is not - to it's credit - a Steampunk film:
The Anachronism, then, is about moments of discovery that have no reference points and about confrontations for which there are no preparations. Book learning and parental guidance can only take us so far. Beyond them lie the real questions that shape our journeys. How do we respond to the unknown and the seemingly impossible? With fear and denial, or with childlike curiosity?

My aim was to capture a child’s incomplete picture of the world, with all the sublime potential and scarring confusion that can come with it. I wanted to create a film that achieved the crystalline simplicity of a child's storybook while carrying complex, genuine mysteries at its heart.

The Anchronism, to reiterate, is a film about liminal spaces... Those encounters where we transition from the known to the unknown, when our concepts and labels fail us in the sublime immediacy of the moment.

Long himself has fixated on the liminal space of childhood, when the simplicity of taught rules and roles are shattered by the complexities of a broader, populous, multicultural world. There are further layers; symbols used to illustrate the theme that are themselves rich with meaning.

The children are naturalists whose ability to scientifically label and catalogue has failed them. Science, as effective and majestic as it is, is still a human rule-role system, an imposition on nature to make it comprehensible. Beyond our labels and catalogues lies our fullest encounter with nature as a spiritual force, fearful and wonderful. Even the mighty pontiffs of Scientism, brimming with contempt for "unreason", are ultimately forced to talk about nature in irrational, spiritual terms simply to justify their love of science.

It may simply have been the convenience of proximity, but my mind wanders to the connection between this film and the brooding coastal rainforest of Edwardian Canadian painter Emily Carr. Carr began her artistic career around 1898 with representational studies of Canada's Pacific coast. Over time and demoralizing career interruptions, she resumed her art in the 1930's and 40's by eschewing representation for a more emotive style. In her later work, the islands of British Columbia took on dark, mythical scope. Long echoes this progression and makes symbolic reference to nature as liminal space by moving the children from a pastoral farm to the forest, and from the forest to the coast with its rapidly encroaching tidewaters.

Two paintings by Emily Carr, both entitled Wood Interior.
Top: 1909; bottom: 1935.

The setting also begs discussion of the liminal space of the Edwardian Era as the transition between the seeming rigidity of the Victorian world and the uncertain chaos of the modern. Or, further yet, the modern day as a liminal space against an even more uncertain and alien future. The viewer is caught at the centenary pivot between the two anachronisms that meet in The Anachronism. Yet was are no clearer about that central mystery than the two children.

Then again, it may even be more mysterious than that, if the central conceit is a Shyamalanian twist. Perhaps it is the Edwardian children who are the mystery, not the Septopus. Not even being clear on that point is part of it. The Anachronism is itself a liminal storytelling space that invites multiple interpretations.

The duration of the film is perfect. If anything, it may be a minute too long, as the end begs more questions than it actually poses. My only real complaint is the final cliche reaction to "The Things Man Was Not Meant To Know". Restraint with the rising tide ready to reclaim its cephalopodic own would have been sufficient to convey the hint of Lovecraftian cosmic angst. Rumour has it that there are graphic novel prequels and sequels in store, and one certainly can't blame Long for wanting to build a franchise. This is a case, however, where less is more. More explanation can only work to undermine the the central contention of the short. The various little clues emanating from the Septopus deepen the mystery and plants the viewer firmly in the midst of the liminal space. To know how it got there risks turning this into yet another Sci-Fi epic. If Long proceeds, I hope he proceeds carefully.

In conclusion, I would argue, The Anachronism goes beyond the rules and roles affixed to a set of costumers and the Industrial Age Urban Fantasy they model their costumes on. Rather, such themes, settings and historical recollections place it as the latest full-blooded Scientific Romance in a long line. That it stars children leads one to implicate it favourably with other children's films of emotional, philosophical and aesthetic heft, such as The Adventures of Mark Twain and the works of Karel Zeman and Hayao Miyazaki. Overall it is a curious short film with much broader themes than any limiting label.

The whole short can be viewed at The Anachronism website.


Edward Pearse said...

What? You don't think giant red mechanical squid are steampunk? :-)

Leonard said...

I rather enjoy the way this film toys with Steampunk motifs - in my opinion, it's one of the best aspects of its stylisation. The film is Lovecraftian-ish, Steampunk-ish, Jules Verne-ish... but not firmly in a box that screams "cliche!"

Masterfully, subtly done. :)