I’d like to take some time to discuss a short film of note that I saw recently. It’s called “The External World” and if you haven’t seen it I recommend watching it before reading the spoiler-ridden maniacry I have put down here.
The External World is listed with the following plot summary: “a boy learns to play the piano.”
In fact, only a brief few occasional scenes compromise that plot. But the summary is correct. This movie is absolutely about a boy learning to play the piano. And it’s also about all of his little screaming ghosts that are trying to come out. As it turns out, the boy is real, and is name is David O’Reilly, the filmmaker extraordinaire that crafted this little masterpiece.
“The External World” is a short animated CG film (don’t think Pixar – think Nintendo 64), featuring a massive, seemingly-random ensemble of stories and characters that intersect and for whom subtext gradually becomes text over the course of the exactly-17-minute-long movie. The rotten secrets beneath the shiny veneer, the innermost layers, gradually become more externalized as the film progresses (or is that regresses?). You could say we are going inward – but what’s actually happening is that those insides are being dredged up, they’re seeping into the surface and left to fester and flood. Most of this seepage leaks through a pop-culture filter. Images are like tv stations flashed in front of us, sometimes distantly, filled with glitches, nothing quite whole or right – they form an animated world of corporate cartoon characters and living logos, they are composed of warped little creatures that belong right alongside the legion of strange figures that populate cartoon and corporate advertising history – only here they are demented in a truthfully human sense. What unfolds with these particular figures may be a bit different from what you’re used to. “The External World” makes the Oscar-winning “Logo-rama” look like a childish exercise in smacking the audience in the face. At least David O’Reilly has the decency to feature a little screaming child banging on a pot as a recurring character.
If this looks appealing to you then what in the world are you waiting for?
I think what it’s really about is David O’Reilly coming out as an artist and claiming “I’ve found my voice.” If you hear it, good for you. If it sounds muddled to you, give it a few days and see if it haunts you. Return to it again and it may just surprise you. It’s worth pointing out that this at-times hilarious and nightmarish work of surrealism begins with gentle beauty. O’Reilly’s making sure you know right out of the gate: “I have something to say. Stay with me on this one. It might get a little bit weird in here.”
But what’s beyond any doubt is that a massive talent is here in young David O’Reilly. He has a big future, there’s no doubt about that now. And he is undoubtedly very aware of this talent now, as it’s written all over his movies. The honest storyteller, if he’s to commit to expressing the internal, the nigh-inexpressible, must include himself somehow in the proceedings, acknowledging that if anything he has to say is truthful, then it must come from himself. It reminds me a bit of Synecdoche, NY, a movie by troubled genius Charlie Kaufman that happens to be about a troubled genius. It may on the surface sound lacking in imagination, but these are two of the most imaginative movies I’ve ever seen. I think Charlie and David have something in common here with these two films, each of them setting out to externalize the fundamentally internal. And both feature crying babies screaming and banging on pots – it’s just that one is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and one is literal. Or perhaps it’s only just a baby screaming for attention, and people are now exploiting it for novelty value. Either way, the baby doesn’t seem to mind. He’s getting attention, that’s the important bit.
The kid knows his audience.
O’Reilly’s commentary on animation is throughout. Everything in this world is dysfunctional, unhinged, nearly dismantled, and frequently references cartoon fantasy in a realistic context (who ever knew that dashed eyesight lines were so deadly?). After one particularly disturbing moment, we pull back from a computer screen and remind ourselves that it’s “just animation. It has no real effect on people.” Meanwhile the old-folk’s home for retired and long-forgotten black-and-white cartoon characters is a racist hell-hole coming apart at the seams. The image of a black tarry substance slowly seeping into the world, barely noticed by its inhabitants, tells the entire story of this film in a glance. The Japanese pop segments, populated by impossibly cute little chibi anime critters that would feel right at home in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series or Hello Kitty lunchbox, is percolating, vibrating with an absurd perversity that forms much of the underbelly of Japanese pop culture. There is definitely SOMETHING bubbling up to the surface of this world, more and more by the minute.
People who watch this movie and dismiss (or even celebrate) David O’Reilly as merely sick and twisted are really missing the point. The world is sick and twisted. David O’Reilly sees that, and he’s attempting to put it down on film.
It’s easy to forget some of these wretched old cartoon people are still sadly alive somewhere in old Toontown.
Speaking of Nintendo, there’s something else that O’Reilly does here, and it may be the result of capitalizing on his limitations more than anything else. But he’s utilizing the language of Videogames moreso than the language of film. There aren’t many cuts, and transitions are handled with brutal force – the screen shreds with giant text reading, as bluntly as possible, “ELSEWHERE.” The rest of the storytelling depends on a history of gaming more than a history of movie-watching. We are treated to top-down isometric perspectives and side-scrolling views and the post-kill “flashing bad guy” that are more than a little reminiscent of videogames past. It’s actually a brilliant way to utilize the form and turn its limitations into an upside, and be able to say something that can strike an instant chord with a certain audience. O’Reilly proves here that you can express big, complex things in CG, and it doesn’t have to look anything close to a Pixar movie.
But there’s in fact much more to this whole videogame thing than that.
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I’m going to go far enough to say that I believe David O’Reilly should consider making a move to videogames, and the sooner this happens, the better for the world. Here’s my call to David: Finish your feature, and then ride its inertia into the games business.
To answer why I feel strongly about this, I’m going to move on to discuss his earlier short film:
“A troubled relationship between a Cat and Mouse set in the distant Future.”(or, it may be about something slightly different involving the recent Past.)
David O’Reilly may be one of the first geniuses of the youtube generation. In Please Say Something, he has crafted an ambitious short film with a lot to say, using only 23 short segments, each composed of exactly 25 seconds. Think about that challenge for a minute. Give yourself 23 segments of 25 seconds each to express as great and complex a truth as you can muster. Doesn’t that make you want to sit down and start scheming? With “Please Say Something” you get an amazing, truthful, heartfelt story and you get it all in tiny, tasty bite-sized nuggets and the whole thing is under ten minutes… Sold, and especially tasty to anyone with a “yew-toob” in their lower prefrontal cortex.
The thing about this fragmented filmmaking is that, even moreso than The External World, it’s utilizing “videogame language” to tell much of the story visually. The segments are not generally tied together with elegant transitions – O’Reilly disregards the transition between these segments almost entirely, establishing a blip of bars and tone between scenes, which, through mostly silent filmmaking, tell their tales through a language that almost teases you: Here, you may be watching the most beautiful videogame cutscenes ever made – if only they were in a videogame.
Here’s a movie with more cute N64-esque cartoon animals that manages to get across the great complex nuances of human relationships. It’s lyrical in its imagery, at times the movie achieves poetry, but it is a strange sort, utterly a product of its times, and focused in on a generation of young people weaned on videogames and the internet and now becoming adults, moving out of small towns and into big cities.
This is a movie that shows the videogame of the long-term relationship and the loneliness and dehumanization that can come from the density of city life. The games we play – the thoughts we think – the irrational ways we try to rationalize. All of it plays out in front of you in videogame images – it makes you wonder, “how close to playable is this story? Could David O’Reilly be making videogames?”
I wonder right now if that isn’t David O’Reilly’s future. I’m not sure I’d want to see him transition to live-action filmmaking considering the unique sculpture he has begun to carve. He would undoubtedly do wonderfully as an animator for the rest of his career and work within a form that he’s very good at. But I want to see him transition into videogames, which is still an infantile art form barely being creaked open at the hinges. We need brilliant people to get in there and start really breaking some rules and making an honest attempt to create Art. It’s heartening that David O’Reilly posted “We should collaborate on something!” to the twitter of The Super Brothers, a small film/illustration company working with indie game developer Capy on an amazing-looking game for Apple’s itunes store called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.
The “art game”, when it finally arrives in a massive way, an interactive digital “game” that everyone wants to play, that everyone passes around and says “holy shit, you have to play this” – an interactive experience that, fundamentally through the fact of its interaction, expresses great truths and complicated feelings – might just help change the industry in a big way. On top of all of this, it needs to be playable by Roger Ebert too. Then there will be a big and, in my opinion, long overdue splash. It likely won’t happen for a good long while and after a great deal of trial-and-error experimentation, but the point is that the brilliant among us must STRIVE for it in order to make progress. I believe David O’Reilly may just be the kind of dude that could secure a place in videogame and interactive art history if he just devoted himself enough to it. Maybe he should get together with the amazing indie developer Jason Rohrer?
So I’m calling him out. It may be wasted breath if he’s already planning it anyway, in which case I’m just pointing a spotlight for a brief moment in his direction. Or, maybe I’m just setting him up to create a pot-rattling baby which people will then put on a pedestal and call “Art”.
Either way, and whatever you do, Godspeed David O’Reilly, and I am sincerely giddy with anticipation for your next film.