Phil Mulloy: Extreme Animation Review
One of the BFI’s greatest achievements in terms of their DVD releases has been their decision to issue discs containing the short films of various directors. To date filmmakers as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Peter Greenaway and Bavo Defurne have received this treatment, though in some ways their Phil Mulloy compilation is perhaps the finest. Despite containing nothing in the way of special features (not even the sleeve notes that accompany most BFI DVDs and videos), this disc does contain 24 of Mulloy’s films, the vast majority of his nineties output.
Phil Mulloy is one of the UK’s most intriguing filmmakers despite being little known (another reason to applaud this release, only one of his films having previously been available on VHS, The Sound of Music on the BFI’s Animation on 4: Volume One tape). Initially working in live action, the director abandoned this approach owing to the frustrations of getting his works funded and has since worked exclusively in animation since the late eighties. What Extreme Animation allows for most pertinently is the ability to consider how Mulloy has developed over the years, from the simplistic series of Cowboys shorts to the more ambitious Intolerance and its sequel.
The six Cowboys films demonstrate how Mulloy had most of his technique in place from the beginning. Made in 1991, these shorts display both the style of animation and sardonic, irreverent humour that have changed little over the years. Visually, Mulloy’s style is best described as the equivalent of scruffy handwriting; he utilises simplistic stick figures and minimalist backgrounds in order to allow the viewer’s attentions to focus on the ideas his films present rather than provide simple pleasures. Indeed, Mulloy’s work is serious in the extreme as he tackles what he considers to be the major problems infecting society. The Cowboys films see the beginnings of this idea as he confronts issues of crowd mentality; The Conformist being the most blatant, dealing with, unsurprisingly, conformity.
This isn’t to say that Mulloy’s work is in any way difficult however. He offers each of the shorts in an absurdist manner that proves to be hugely entertaining, not to mention shocking. Indeed, the “extreme animation” tag is fully justified; amongst the Cowboys works we are treated to group sex, bestiality (as the sleeve says, there are “scenes calculated to outrage horses”) and infanticide. And yet, to return to the seriousness of shorts, nothing ever seems gratuitous (as is the case in numerous teen comedies currently doing the rounds), rather the humour is deeply ingrained and beneficial to the films’ overall effects.
It is also worth mentioning how Mulloy makes his films in themed groupings. Whilst the Cowboys films work individually, as do his later The History of the World and The Ten Commandments collections, when seen as a whole it is noticeable how each entry complements its companions. The western connection present in the 1991 works is never intended as a direct link to the genre (as, for example, Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny would in Texas Tom and Ballot Box Bunny, respectively), rather Mulloy takes advantage of the viewers’ familiarity with its conventions in order to attack male society (and therefore patriarchy) as a whole. The director then takes certain elements present in one of these shorts and repeats them in others, creating tiny in-jokes and suggesting an overall point built from the issues raised in each.
The same approach is used in The History of the World and The Ten Commandments shorts, although here Mulloy achieves a more succinct result. As each of the Cowboys films lasted only three minutes, aspects of plot were negligible, Mulloy preferring to build on the absurdities of his situations, taking them to their (il)logical extremes. For these two collections, made between 1994 and 1996, he adopts the structure of a parable, though of course in a style that is distinctly Mulloy’s own; a sort of skewed take on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, if you will.
Demonstrating the success of Mulloy’s approach to his work, this addition of a narrative is the only change to be made (although The Ten Commandments would also add laconic American voice-overs from Joel Cutrara and the occasional dialogue). Elsewhere, the viewer is presented with the usual mixture of absurd seriousness and extreme situations; the second The Ten Commandments film, Thou Shalt Not Commit Blasphemy, containing a somewhat surprising close-up of God’s penis.
The main advantage of providing a storyline is that it makes these films far more accessible than the Cowboys collection. Certainly, some may argue that Mulloy’s distinctive take on animation requires as much help as it can, yet this is somewhat missing the point. The grotesqueness he presents, both in the characters themselves and their activities, provides the perfect expression of Mulloy’s hate for his targets (for The Ten Commandments this is, of course, religion) and by positioning these in a more discernible A to B narrative it allows the viewer to question them even more. As such, the effectiveness of the work is far greater despite many of these shorts also having a running time of roughly three minutes.
The more recent works show another development in Mulloy’s technique and also demonstrate different culminations of the themes and approaches previously utilised. The Wind of Changes from 1996 ignores the irreverent humour altogether to present a bleak portrait of life under political oppression. Based on the reminiscences of musician Alex Balanescu, who has composed the discordant accompaniment for many of Mulloy’s films, this short becomes all the more powerful by side-stepping the comic edges. Indeed, the biographical nature makes the absurdities on display all the more shocking.
1997’s The Chain similarly avoids comedy in order to focus on the futility of war. Learning from the narrative developments found in The History of the World and The Ten Commandments works, Mulloy paints an apocalyptic picture, one all the more affective considering how this developed storyline allows it to be grounded in its own reality. The Chain also sees Mulloy using colour to a greater extent than before, eschewing the usual black and white with occasional reds for a much darker palette.
Colour is also used prominently in the second of Mulloy’s two genuine masterpieces: Intolerance (2000) and Intolerance II: The Invasion (2001). The humour returns tenfold as the director narrates two tales of alien invasion (using the sci-fi genre in much the same way as Cowboys used the western) to take pot-shots at, amongst other things, organised religion. These two shorts also see Mulloy returning to areas and characters previously featured in Cowboys and The Ten Commandments, and as such they genuinely feel like the films which the director has been working towards throughout his animation career.
Moreover, Intolerance II: The Invasion also sees Mulloy moving forwards technologically by utilising computer imagery to enhance his designs. The style is essentially the same, but this addition allows the director to provide his ideas in a far more manner, leaving more room for the comedic moments. Indeed, the two shorts are by far the funniest on the disc, though I won’t reveal the situation on which they revolve as it deserves to be seen with no forewarning. Needless to say, it provides further evidence for the Extreme Animation title.
The final shorts present are the disappointing The Sexlife of a Chair (1998), which breaks from Mulloy’s stick figure animation to present a series of cheap, uninspired gags, is by far the weakest short on the collection. The second, The Sound of Music (1992) is a more familiar piece, cataloguing a series of atrocities (mostly cannibalism of the homeless and new-born babies), and fits in more with the Cowboys series that preceded it rather than the later works. As with the other films not made under a themed umbrella, it’s a less humorous, more disturbing piece, though matches most of them in terms of quality. Indeed, with the one-off exception of The Sexlife of a Chair, the works collected here are almost entirely perfect.
Each short is presented as intended, i.e. in its original ratio (either 1.33:1 or 1.66:1) and with stereo sound. Both are perfectly fine, the scores in particular sounding wonderful. Indeed, there are no technical problems to speak of and we are getting these films in as best condition as should be expected. As said, no extras whatsoever are present, but the fact that we are offered such a welter of films is reward enough.
The History of the World (1994)
The Invention of Writing
The Discovery of Language
The Ten Commandments (1994-1996)
Thou Shalt Not Adore False Gods
Thou Shalt Not Commit Blaphemy
Remember to Keep Holy the Sabbath Day
Honour thy Father and Mother
Thou Shalt Not Kill
Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
Thou Shalt Not Steal
Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
Thou Shalt Not Covet thy Neighbours Goods
Thou Shalt Not Covet thy Neighbours Wife
Intolerance II: The Invasion
The Wind of Changes (1996)
The Chain (1997)
The Sexlife of a Chair (1998)
The Sound of Music (1992)