Salute Your Shorts: Phil Mulloy's Extreme Animation

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Salute Your Shorts: Phil Mulloy's Extreme Animation

Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Mainstream or no, one of the values most appreciated in animation is beauty. It's a result not just of Disney's early masterpieces setting our expectations, but also the obvious possibilities the form offers, where you're limited less by your budget than your imagination. But as a subsection of film, it's as wide as anything else, and two important releases by Kino this week highlight this as well as anything. Next week we'll take a look at shorts by Tezuka Osamu (one of the creators of anime), which illustrate some of the fuller possibilities of this beauty. Anyone expecting something of that sort from films by Phil Mulloy should probably look elsewhere, though, as his works focus on the awful, the grotesque and the pornographic rather than picturesque vistas and anthropomorphized animals. This is about as far from Disney animation as you're going to get.

Aside from a student film, Mulloy didnt begin working as an animator until very late in his career, after nearly 20 years working in television and documentary film. At that point he converted a cow shed into a studio and began creating wildly anti-commercial short films, growing famous within certain animation circles while never achieving any mainstream success. Before this recent release, the only place his works were available were obscure VHS tapes, imported DVDs, or via film festivals.

The reason for this obscurity is pretty obvious to anyone who's seen one of his movies, especially the earlier ones. Mulloy's Cowboys series, his first works to gain any real recognition, are defiantly crude and unsophisticated works, arguing against patriarchy and conformity with a sort of grade-school level of understanding. They're art cinema, sure, but they're on the opposite end of cinema from obtuse and overly symbolic Bergman movies. Cowboys is instead notable for its head-smacking level of obviousness, and the series ends up difficult to watch not for pretentiousness but because its attacks are so blunt and often poorly thought out that there's not much substance there. The series is not just preaching to the choir, its joining the choir in song about how amazingly great it is to be in the choir, subtlety be damned.

Cowboys isnt completely without merit, though, as it firmly establishes Mulloy's animation style which is, oxymoronic or not, beautifully rough. Mulloy's art consists of paintings animated both by painstaking redrawing and movable parts (he much later would add computer animation to his tool box). The paintings themselves are simple and unattractive, but taken as a whole, create absolutely gorgeous, expressive panoramas. Not only that, but the style fits perfectly with Mulloy's brazen storytelling, as it's endlessly and undeniably in your face.

While backgrounds and the rest of the worlds that Mulloy creates become gorgeous, his people never reach anything approaching beauty. They go from hideous to revolting, but this is oddly fitting given his choice of subjects. There are no good people in Mulloy's films, none at all, so their outer selves become an obvious metaphor for their inner natures. It's not a particularly brilliant way of getting the point across, but it's nonetheless effective and the most memorable part of his works.   

After moving on from strictly attacking the patriarchy of society, Mulloy took on the even more obvious target of organized religion with his Ten Commandments series (his History of the World is a mid-point between these, but not really worth noting except that even for him they're ridiculously sexual). Mulloy's animation and storytelling was maturing, but his approach to subjects was no less didactic than before. The series consists of showing possible negative consequences of following each of the commandments, and though its at times a bit more amusing than what he did before, overall it stumbles at the same pitfalls as his earlier works.

introduced to these movies is kind of like listening to the Sex Pistols  for the first time, where, regardless of the message, you're still attached at some level to the style and brashness of the works, just saying to hell with it to the traditional values of the form. But as Mulloy aged, he matured at least as a filmmaker, if perhaps not so much (judging entirely from his works) as a person. His style remained for the most part the same, but for the first time his characters began to look a bit more like, well, characters and less like faceless symbolic masses.

Mulloy released the first part of his grand opus, the three-part Intolerance series, in 2000. The films take on a subject very close to the nearly-pornographic artist's heart, which is to say censorship, and attacks based on images. In part one, our planet is enraged by seeing a film of aliens living lifestyles they find abhorrent and which they swiftly resolve to wipe out before their abominable sexuality spreads. For once it feels like there's something truly at stake for Mulloy, and he actually spends the time to make points both about the way we live life and our conceptions of how it should be lived.

The follow-up takes on a single person who sees the aliens on film and decides to devote his life to their extermination. He finds that he's either becoming one himself or hallucinating that he is. Likewise, on the spaceships sent to destroy the aliens, there's questioning about whether or not they exist. The polarities of Mulloy's previous worlds break down and he introduces the bane of his earlier films: nuance. Now there's persecution by religion and of religion, there's the horrors of sexuality and of anti-sexuality. The third of the series, irritatingly left off of Kino's DVD, has just as much raunchy irreverent humor but with the addition of a coherent story it takes Mulloy's strengths and brings them to the next level. Intolerance III is still filled with Mulloy's rough edges, but here those are more charming excesses than the only purpose of the films, as in many of his other works.

Oddly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Mulloy's one real masterpiece is the film that he didn't write himself. A one-off piece from 1996, The Winds of Change is a biographical film about the life of Mulloy's frequent collaborator, musician Alex Balanescu. Balanescu immigrated from Russia to the United States, after existing in Russia afraid for his and his friends' lives. Mulloy's images are as shocking as ever, but for once they seem less there just for shock value and instead add to the drama of Balanescu's tale. Although the art style used is largely the same as usual, here, the beauty seems more ephemeral and poetic and the horrors significantly more tragic.

There's no denying that Phil Mulloy's animation is an acquired taste and, honestly, his earlier works are more interesting from a historical perspective than an artistic one. But he did grow a lot through his work, and now his films are some of the more interesting pieces of avant-garde cinema being produced today. He hasn't given up the boldness and anarchist spirit that gained him a cult following in the first place; he's just learned how to better express it.