‘OwnerBuilt’ by Lawrence Andrews

Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the people of New Orleans slowly began to rebuild homes and lives while trying to process what their community had endured. Lawrence Andrews presents the theatrical retellings of related events by a local man referred to as ‘Noel’. The retelling of his memories are further influenced by the tragic police shooting of unarmed civilians who were crossing the Danziger Bridge six days after the hurricane. This incident left two people dead and four seriously injured. Noel draws upon his personal archive of sound recordings and photographs to prompt a performance of his own narrative, interwoven with those of his community and the bridge victims.

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Initially produced in 2008 as an audio essay, ‘OwnerBuilt’ was redeveloped and released this year as an ‘Animated Performance Documentary’. Andrews appears as a character throughout the 49-minute sequence; narrating, contributing editorial notes and analysing the authenticity of Noel’s accounts. Andrews’ dialogue with Noel becomes integral, his presence noticeably influencing the process of documentation. A misunderstanding concerning Noel’s neighbours sparks an account of their plight along with a strange instance where Andrews witnesses Noel talking about him to the neighbour.

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Andrews is overtly self-aware as a filmmaker. He anchors the film in the context of a post-documentary age. The audience is handed frequent reminders that we are watching a set of illusions. For instance Andrews declares that Noel’s son is responsible for the sound of a cello being practiced. “Well actually it’s my son, his played sax,” the director declares immediately afterwards.

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Sound seems much more integral to this film than visuals. Not only is the sequence entirely dependent on spoken word, the sound design is speckled with effects and textures which construct images in the absence of visual stimuli.  While most animated documentaries attempt to augment a narration by visualising the subject matter, Andrews renders himself and Noel on a darkened stage with harsh spotlights.

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In step with the film’s non-linear structure, surreal aesthetic and confronting subject matter, the characters move with an uncanny jitter. While the lip-synching is often so slight it is barely noticeable, the speakers ceaselessly gesticulate. Their shifting bodies and stiff waving hands swing more vigorously than implied by tone of voice while maintaining rough correlation with emphasis. Lawrence Andrews seems to revel in the artificiality of the medium he has chosen. On occasion characters walk through each other, merging their digital flesh.  While describing the approach of the storm a flock of audience seats spin and float in the auditorium like particles in a snow globe.

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Noel’s speeches are almost lyrical; to me this implies an extraordinary aptitude for improvised speech or the possibility of rehearsal or scripting. Andrews addresses the theatrical nature of Noel’s performance in the blurb provided with the Vimeo link: “Presenting the work in what may be deemed a theatrical form has the potential to de-legitimize and thwart its claims for documentary status, but this is a tension I hope the project explores.”

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Lawrence Andrews’ Vimeo notes offer good insight; despite using the barely digestible rhetoric of academic arts, the associate professor of film and digital media at The University of California, Santa Cruz, explains thoroughly his intentions, raises questions for further exploration and indicates the contextual framework for his practice.

Samantha Moore brought this film to our attention. Moore is a director of animated documentaries whose work has been discussed a number of times on this blog.

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Review of ‘Caldera’, by Evan Viera

It is not often one comes across a CGI film with such a consistently rich sense of artistry. With his film ‘Caldera’, Evan Viera and a substantial team of supporting artists demonstrate a brilliant sense of composition, lighting design and mastery of the 3D medium.

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This animated short attempts to represent a series of visual hallucinations that take place during a psychotic episode experienced by the female protagonist. Viera is not interpreting his own experiences, but those of his father, a long-term sufferer of schizoaffective disorder. The title refers to the self-destructive process of collapse when a volcanic crater is formed after a major eruption.

As there is no attempt by the film-maker to claim this to be a documentary it may be unfair to criticise this short on the grounds of accuracy when depicting an unstable mental state. The psychological phenomenon is by its very nature subjective, however the lack of discord present in the character’s demeanour was striking. The protagonist spends most of ‘Caldera’ looking calm and concentrated in the context of the fantastical happenings she experiences. When depicting a gross thought disorder such as this it might be be fair to suggest that the subject would likely be considerably less composed during such events.

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Evan Viera writes that his father has “danced on the rings of Saturn, spoken with angels, and fled from his demons”. The traces of these delusions are quite literally interpreted in ‘Caldera’ yet the feeling is very much second hand in tone. Watching this glistening film gives one the impression of a challenging CGI exercise more than that of a depiction of pathological imbalance.

When viewing this film on Vimeo we are confronted in the blurb by Viera’s statement about his father. The film-maker wants us to be aware of the direct link between the protagonist’s vision and his father’s experiences of mental illness.  For that reason I propose this is a documentary of sorts. Although it is based on second-hand observations, the film makes an effort to interpret a subjective experience that most of us could never fathom. Viera repackages it as a digestible image sequence granting the audience insight into a fascinating and difficult topic.

However, the story telling is carried on the back of the film’s aesthetic. The synopsis, for instance, is minimal. In essence a sad-looking woman decides to not comply with her medication (an enormously contentious point in its own right which is not really addressed), leaves the city and goes for a swim. Within the ensuing visualisations good and evil are represented through the colours blue and red, as well as by an animal sprit guide and a telekinetic daemon. Such simplistic symbols are surprisingly successful as narrative features and indicators of tonal change. The absence of dialogue inhibits our expectation of further explanation leaving the imagery to speak for itself. (Spoiler Alert) A lack of resolution is apparent at the end of the film; the screen fades to white during an unjustified moment of mortality. This sequence is treated with such casual romantic vagueness one can only hope, for the protagonist’s sake, that drowning is an extension of her delusion; if not then we are left with a quizzically cynical finale.

‘Caldera’ left me nourished visually but a little under-fed intellectually. A sumptuous film with an elegant air of visual poetry which sadly was not complimented by the reductive narrative.