Jiří Trnka’s The Hand: not falling for the other side

If it wasn’t for my Intro to Animation class, I would have never heard of this stop-motion animated masterpiece.

To summarise the plot, it tells the story of a harlequin whose impoverished yet contented life of flower pot-making is disrupted by a literal and seemingly-omnipresent hand who demands him to make hand sculptures instead, compelling him to constantly fight for his freedom. Unfortunately, near the end of the story, he dies when one of his pots accidentally fell on his head (seemingly foreshadowed by the recurring accidental pot-breaking). He is given a lavish funeral by the hand.

One can guess why I love this short film.

It is an allegory of censorship enforced under authoritarianism. It sublimely evokes the terror of living as an artist and entertainer in such condition, amplified by the fantastical elements and the atmospheric percussion-oriented soundtracks. In fact, both Wikipedia and IMDB categorise this film as horror.

Unsurprisingly, I picked The Hand as one of the animated shorts I analysed for the final essay. My writings were even abysmal then. Thankfully, I lost it. But, I remember having a great time analysing every single one of them.

While analysing it, I found two peculiarities.

First thing first, the funeral. Why would the hand hold a state funeral to a rebel? Surely, shouldn’t he be demonised as an enemy of the state in the end?

Well, I found an article (forget which one, cannot find it again) about how the USSR and its satellite states honoured their artists posthumously, regardless of how obedient or disobedient they were; the writer said even Trnka himself was given a state funeral.

As I am too lazy to do more research, I cannot confirm or debunk the article’s factual validity. But, as the hand symbolises an authoritarian government (I cannot think of any other interpretations), what the article is saying makes too much sense for me to dismiss.

This reminds me of the legendary and ideologically-dissenting director Andrei Tarkovsky (can’t stop referencing him). After his death, the Soviet authorities regretted that he died in exile. Yes, linking Trnka, a Czechoslovakian puppeteer and animator with, to Tarkovsky, a live-action Russian director who loved exploring the metaphysical aspect of humanity, is far-fetched. But, I can’t help myself.

Oh, and the hand.

At first, I noticed the hand was a left one. I assumed it represented the far-left government of Czechoslovakia. But, when I took a greater look, the hand was not always left.

Sometimes, it appears as a right one. In fact, the first hand sculpture to appear in the video depicts a right hand.  So, I quickly dumped the interpretation, dismissed it as reading too much into things. But then, I remembered the funeral scene, where the hand can be seen making a salute eerily similar to the Nazi one; I could hear my classmates’ shock.

I was more baffled than shocked, as Czechoslovakia was a communist country, not a fascist one. Due to my slowness, it took me days to realise the film criticises authoritarianism in general, not just the communist Czechoslovakian government.

The film also subtly warns us to not fall for any forms of extremism. Your suffering under a far-left government cannot morally justify your support of a far-right government… and vice versa. One form of  zealotry does not justify the other.

I write as if I grasped the thematic depth immediately. I didn’t. Back then, my mind only thought about the Far-Left vs Far-Right.  It took me years to realise how the message is also applicable to any kinds of extreme dichotomies.

Yes, I know I seem to be reading too much into things again. The nazi salute may not be one after all and I don’t know enough about different types of salutes. I also cannot prove that extreme dichotomies in general were what Trnka had in mind.

But, you have to admit: the film does not target a specific ideology. My interpretation fits really well into the narrative.

A childhood treasure I didn’t know having

When I was a toddler, I remember watching feature films from those gigantic laser discs and one of my favourite films to watch was Disney’s Fantasia.

The original one, NOT the so-so sequel.

Back then, I didn’t try to comprehend the plots. I was simply mesmerised by the beautiful colours and shapes, adorned with harmonious classical music. It felt like I was watching a magically-animated painting, accompanied by a live musical performance.

Along with my beloved encyclopedias, I credit the film for making my childhood a colourful and vibrant life chapter where even the sky was not a limit. It felt like every inch of the universe was worthy to unearth.

When I started attending primary school, VCDs had become widespread. I started to watch more movies on the smaller discs and I started neglecting their bulkier predecessors. So, between pre-school and adulthood, I forgot about the existence of the film.

Yikes.

I managed to watch it again when I was eighteen. As I already started becoming a snobby cultural critic, I started to appreciate its merit.

Even though I don’t think it was an extraordinarily groundbreaking film*, it still effortlessly stands out among many Hollywood flicks. To this day, I am still surprised that one of my childhood favourites is of high quality. Most of them tend to be shit.

And, because of its uniqueness, it shapes my taste in the arts and entertainment as an adult.

Magically, absurdly and subconsciously realistic

The segments that feature abstract animations are my very first exposures to abstract art. Now, I am one of those weirdos who genuinely enjoy staring at abstract paintings.

I don’t care about the lack of coherent narrative. As long as the combination of shapes and colours impress me, I will consider the paintings beautiful regardless.

I also have to credit it for inspiring me to love surrealism and magical realism, making me attracted to the weird and inexplicably fantastical.

Nowadays, some of my favourite films include ones with strong metaphysical themes and/or ones that portray the inexplicable. They include Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining and much of Andrei Tarkovsky’s works.

While Fantasia is of neither genre, its sublimely fantastical depictions of natural phenomena certainly help opening the path.

And it is certainly metaphysical.

Unhinged sophistication

When I listened to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring supposedly for the first time, it felt like an inexplicable surge of nostalgia ran through my veins, as if I had heard it before. It turned out I had: it is one of the soundtracks of Fantasia!

My early exposure to the modernist composition possibly influenced my taste in classical music. I prefer the more stylistically-eclectic and/or “unhinged” newer works -like ones by Stravinsky (obviously) , George Gershwin and John Cooliged Adams- over the older ones, many of which I find a bit too saccharine.

In fact, I now love to complain about how films, especially fantastical ones, are too dependent on cliche-sounding orchestral music and are too afraid to utilise more ambient, more eclectic and more “untraditional” compositions.

The lovely dread

Chernabog is probably one of my first exposures to “scary entertainment”, even though I was never terrified by it. Again, I was too busy mesmerised by the beautiful animation.

Beautifully haunting and sinister animation, showcasing something one can describe as a symbolic representation of the dark side of humanity.

As an adult, I have a weird thing for entertainment with ominous atmosphere, as in you feel scared even though nothing scary is happening on-screen. You know, actual horror instead of cheap jump scares.

I am not a fan of the show Criminal Minds due to its dehumanising depictions of mental illness sufferers. But, I do love the episode where the heroes unwittingly cooperate with a police station where virtually every officer is corrupt; it genuinely feels like they can be ambushed at any time. It feels like real life horror.

Horror is not about what you explicitly show, it is about the feeling of terror you induce on your audience.

Connecting non-existing dots

Admittedly, what I just said do sound far-fetched.

It is indeed absurd to claim one feature film dictates my entire taste as an adult. There are many things that can be taken account as the influencing factors.

As I hinted in the beginning, I also read encyclopedias frequently as a young child and some of them not only discuss “weird” paintings and sculptures, they also display the photos. Basically, they partook in the exposure.

One of my favourite musicians is Chrisye, an Indonesian Pop singer whose early works reek influence from Genesis -a Progressive Rock band- and the band’s genre does sound “unhinged” to the “untrained” ears. After discovering that particular musical style, I ended up craving for more “weird” sounds.

And those films that I love, I also have to credit my time wasted on Wikipedia and my Media Studies classes as contributing factors; I would not have heard of Andrei Tarkovsky if it wasn’t for the former and I would not have watched a single film from West Africa if it wasn’t for the latter.

My love of ominous entertainment may also be rooted by many years of watching horror films and eventually ended up frustrated with the excessive amount of cheap jump scares, craving for actual feeling of terror.

Oh, and don’t forget about my personality. Our personalities not only dictate how we interact with each other, they also dictate what we love and hate.

I am a weirdo and have been called such since forever.

Therefore, my current taste can still come to being even without Fantasia in my life.

But, still…

As I said before, the film is a huge part of my childhood. While it is clearly not the only factor that shapes my taste, it certainly is a major one.

It certainly accelerates its formation and it certainly aggravated its potency.

Without the film, it would probably take me a much longer time to love the things I now love.

*I refuse to call Fantasia a groundbreaking film because I don’t think it is.

Yes, it certainly has a relatively unusual approach in regards to moving image narratives and may be unappealing for those who want more glaring expositions, who think escapism equals quality and who cannot give more damn about visual artistry.

But, if you dig deeper into the history of cinema, you would see there were already ground-breaking cinema movements -like surrealism and Italian futurism- that predated the film’s existence.

And works of those genres are bizarre and incomprehensible for the masses. Not matter how weird Fantasia is, I still think it is relatively comprehensible.

If anything, its audio and visual aesthetics were already conventional at the time of its release.

The risk-taking was indeed high. But, it was not that high.

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Toy Story 4: bittersweetness, quashing uneasiness and quality maintenance (a late review)

Warning: contains spoilers!

I was genuinely disappointed when Pixar announced the fourth instalment. Like, why? The third film has given us a strongly bittersweet finish to one of the chronicles that warmly occupied my childhood. A sequel would sacrificially bulldoze the highly emotional culmination to give way for more profitable yields. It felt scummy.

But, at the same time, I would still watch the film anyway. Pixar films have a special place in my heart due to their ability of narrating profound stories of humanity in spite of the abundance of non-human characters; I haven’t watched all because I missed their releases, not because of my lack of interest. Basically, my disappointment failed to squash my fanboyish eagerness.

And the film exceeded it by hundreds of miles.

Youtube Big Joel made a video titled Pixar and the Obsolete, in which he observed how Pixar films are all about characters coming to terms with changes and dealing with their increasing irrelevance. While I am not sure if it applies to every single one (e.g. Monsters Inc and A Bug’s Life), I still can agree with the assessment to a certain extent. Overall, the films do portray characters experiencing ups and downs in their lives and realising how life is inherently unstable and there is nothing they can do about it other than confronting the instability.

In the Toy Story series, this particular theme is very prominent in the third and fourth installments.

In Toy Story 3, Andy giving away his toys is the emotional climax of the film. In the end, the characters have finally accepted that he has fully grown and they are no longer Andy’s. For them, a new child means new adventures lie ahead, which should be embraced with open arms.

And it is not just the toys. Even Andy is experiencing changes in his life as well: he is leaving home for the university. Unlike his mom, he is emotionally taking it very well (or so it seems). Even when giving the toys away to Bonnie, he seems unfazed. Well, unfazed until Woody was in the picture.

Andy was initially very reluctant to let him go. But, knowing his age and where he is heading to next, he lets him go. This goodbye reminds us that Woody has a special place in Andy’s heart… and will always do. Andy has to bid farewell to his childhood and embraces adulthood.

What I love about Toy Story 4 is how it brings the unpredictability of life even further. Not only Woody gives up his voice box which had always been an integral part of his identity, he also decides to leave his new owner Bonnie and his old friends he has known for years to live as a childless toy with Bo. For me, it was unforeseeable.

The formula of Toy Story stories has always been toys getting lost, toys getting rescued by other toys and toys going back home. While Toy Story 3 breaks it a little by having Bonnie as the new owner, the formula is more or less the same as having an owner means having a home; not to mention that, due to the story’s premise, the emotional conclusion can be seen from miles away. But, Toy Story 4 decides to ditch it altogether. It gives the impression of life’s unpredictable nature and you will never know which paths you will take.

And that’s why I am scared. I always prefer to have complete control of my life, I always want to take any paths that I want. But, it begs to differ. The paths in front of us are limited and, whether we like it or not, we have to take the new ones and bring more uncertainty to our lives; choosing the old paths means we are moving in circles and we will never move forward. Toy Story 4 is one of those works of speculative genres that successfully reminds me of the reality.

Another thing about Pixar films is they know how to make me feel things. Unlike many of their family-friendly contemporaries, they believe there is no excuse for entertainment to tell hunky-dory stories. They believe good stories must encourage their audience to confront the unpleasant emotions within themselves. Basically, I am forced to become a human being. Ew.

Due to the aforementioned theme of the uncertainty of life, Toy Story 4 is even more emotionally profound than its predecessors. The pleasing and displeasing emotions are intense in equal measure. While not everyone may agree with me, I find this film terribly bittersweet. Even after leaving the theatre, I was still an emotional wreck for many hours. I was both heartbroken and overjoyed!

I never thought I would ever say this: I am glad Pixar made the fourth installment!

Oh, and speaking about sequels…

As I said before, I was apprehensive about Pixar’s plan to continue the series. But, my apprehension has been proven to be unfounded and, because of that, I am now actually open to the possibility of more sequels.

Obviously, we should never accept sequels willy-nilly. We must have high standards about how the continuation is executed. In the case of Toy Story, I don’t mind if the story formula stays the same as long as they tweak some parts in order to prevent foreseeability from taking shape. But, the emotionality is still the most important thing.

As one can see, the increasing emotional profundity parallels the series’ progression. It would be a considerable setback if Pixar decides to diminish it in the sequels; it is akin to raising a chick all the way to adulthood and then proceeds to shoot him/her down once he/she soars high in the sky.

Actually, that’s not a really fair comparison. It is literally easy to not shoot down a bird you raised. All you have to do is to not be an asshole. Making good art works, however, is far from easy.

I am no artist. But, I know bringing about a heart-wrenching piece requires both high mastery in the craft and good understanding of human nature. Undertaking the task of upholding excellence is certainly different from a walk in the park.

I must accept that my favourite film studio is run by humans who are certainly plagued with imperfection. While I haven’t watched Cars 2, I have heard about its less-than-stellar reputation among Pixar fans. I have watched Finding Dory and I am greatly disappointed by its lack of risk-taking and similarity to its predecessor. I cannot expect them to be excellent all the time. All I can do is to hope.

I remember reading an article (I forgot from which media outlet. So, take my words with a grain of salt) about how the producers are quick to shoot down ideas with low potentiality and are quick to kick out individuals from the screenwriting process if they are deemed incapable. Pixar’s higher-ups also consist of individuals with backgrounds in filmmaking and/or animation; consequentially, the executive decision-making is always based on the understanding of the craft.

If Pixar perpetually sustains such organisational practices, it would be hard for me to not have high expectations of them.