I’ve been trying to recreate this one feeling for about a month now. On a red-eye flight back from Los Angeles, too edgy to sleep, too sleepy to do anything but stare straight ahead for the five hours, I zoned out and half-watched the TVs on the back of the seats of the people around me focusing on three screens all next to one another.
One screen played the new, ostensibly “live action,” dumb-as-hell-looking Aladdin, starring Will Smith, a cacophony of CGI that, without sound, seemed zippy and boundless for better and worse. On another screen, Detective Pikachu, a kiddie cyberpunk neon-noir Blade Runner/Pokemon pastiche no one asked for that is charming, ridiculous, and kyooooot; and on another, episode after episode of Cheaters, you know, that reality show where a camera crew helps capture video of a significant other’s partner cheating on them, shows the footage to the cheated-on and then, with cameras and big lights in tow, confronts the “cheater,” which almost always leads to a fist fight, a blur of punches and bad fashion.
This eschatological Chelsea Girls or something that afforded me a manic sort of clarity—not on drugs but to feeling like I was, in a dream that was not a dream, a trippy serendipity of screens—and watching selections from this year’s Sweaty Eyeballs Animation Festival (Oct. 4–6 at the Parkway) got me to a similar frenzied mindset. For the rest of you who weren’t on that flight with me, here is a slightly more universal description: Sweaty Eyeballs as like the High Zero Festival and Publications & Multiples Fair happening at the same time on top of one another for three days in the dark and containing even more multitudes.
Seriously though, there are around 80 animated shorts showing over the run of the Sweaty Eyeballs festival, organized by animator and Towson University professor Phil Davis and artist/writer Rachel Bone, plus a late-night feature (1981’s totemic, psychedelic Son of the White Mare) and a series of animation workshops and it is, in the best sense, too much. Because it is so much, here are some picks—thematically and discursively paired—from the fest’s programming.
Early Abstractions and Split Ends
Early Abstractions #1-3 (part of Opening Night Shorts) from proto-hippy polymath Harry Smith are cruddy, caked-up whirls of shape and color, dyed and damaged cartoons that over the years, because they were silent, have been set to various kinds of music (Smith preferred the playful hard bop of Dizzy Gillespie; scored by DJ Spooky) and at Sweaty Eyeballs, Afro House comes through to score, which feels like splitting the difference between Diz and Spooky, really.
Animation legend Joanna Priestley, whose works have jumped around festivals for decades, who has done some animation on Sesame Street and many other places (I know her for her work on the music video for Joni Mitchell’s brooding jazz-disco duet with Michael McDonald, “Good Friends”) gets a full retrospective at Sweaty Eyeballs this year. Among the shorts showing is 2013’s three-minute Split Ends which looks a bit like Harry Smith’s work in full bloom, an endless scroll of shape and color—the effect is a bit like watching a screensaver of the natural world, unbound, with rhythms all its own—everything or nothing about it is mind-blowing, depending.
Flipped and Foreign Exchange
In Flipped, (directed by Hend Esmat and Lamiaa Diab and part of International Competition 1) we enter a world—or maybe just one very special opposite day—where responsibilities are well flipped, and the children take care of their parents, walking them to the bus, pushing them on the swings, and picking up the doll these big grown babies keep throwing on the ground, all done in an MS Paint meets ligne claire style.
Foreign Exchange (directed by Corrie Francis Parks and part of the Baltimore Showcase) cuts up and animates colorful foreign currency, as grains of sand and pebbles wiggle around and sometimes cover up the money (a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quote attempts to contextualize it). Something here about how money isn’t actually real and abundance and scarcity are in the eyes of the beholder, or at least they should be. Imagine one of those I Spy books or the cover of Burna Boy’s African Giant album come to life—with a sleepy, honking score by Alexandra Gardner.
Pit Stop and Good Night, Bicycle-Seat-Head
Pit Stop (directed by Raship Trikha and part of International Competition 1) is pretty much a fart and poop and pee pee joke in space. Two astronauts are stranded, one has to pee and while he’s peeing in the corner of this far-flung plant, aliens appear. Amid the juvenilia (not that there’s anything wrong with that), there is the added bonus of Pit Stop depicting, in a rubbery computer-generated style, some of the most gorgeous clouds I’ve ever seen, flying out of the bottom of a rocket ship as it shoots back off into space leaving our astronauts behind.
“Time flies when you’re doing work for hours and not thinking about anything else,” a squeaky-voiced pinkish-purple thing with a head shaped like a bicycle seat declares in Good Night, Bicycle-Seat-Head (directed by Rob Thompson and part of the Baltimore Showcase), a breezy, sad, and funny short about how we are working all of the time and even sleep is considered a “break.” From MICA student Rob Thompson, it has the specific Baltimore laughing-to-keep-from-crying absurdity Wham City has taken all the way to Adult Swim.
Finity Calling and Daughter
Whatever epic grandiosity those Marvel movies try and cook up when they have Thanos or whatever bloviating as he puts the entire world at risk is accomplished more effectively in Finity Calling (directed by Jasper Kuipers and part of International Competition 2), a 15-minute stop-motion allegory you can’t ever quite get to the bottom of, featuring five figures decked out in jewels who look as though they’re styled by Alexander McQueen—and seem to be gods maybe?—in a castle tower with windows but no doors. A child interrupts whatever it is they’re doing and the world begins to crumble.
For approximating, with stop-motion, the style of a shaking, hand-held camera rushing behind someone in distress trying to keep up, Daughter (directed by Daria Kashcheeva and part of International Competition 3) is alone worth seeing. Really, it seems intent on countering so many of the expectations of animation, so here the gestures are small and subtle, and the story internal: A daughter and father endure a decades-old misunderstanding that may never be resolved now that the father is in a hospital bed.
Slug Life (directed by Sophie Koko Gate and part of International Competition 4) stands on its own—there is no way to pair it with anything. The style here is airbrushed T-shirt from the beach gone grotesque and extremely online, as decadent, dejected Tanya who 3-D prints people to fuck (her latest print-out does not even have bones and is maybe The One) chats with some Schwarzenegger-voiced body-building friends flexing and voguing to music that’s part black metal, part gabber on the beach. Tanya boasts, “I got tits from space and an ass from hell” and the “ass from hell” part goes chopped and screwed—because why not, it’s funny and scary (like most of this short)—and in between the hard style soundtrack cues, some sort of damaged Danny Elfman mood music communicating a certain degree of longing which is what Slug Life is really all about.
Unlike anything else and also very apt these days, Slug Life takes on some of the tech-as-connector, tech-as-facilitator-of-loneliness deep thinking and self loathing that a lot of work right now explores, but drops the solipsism and has jokes and style for days.
Sweaty Eyeballs Animation Festival takes place at the SNF Parkway Theatre, Oct. 4–6.
Images courtesy the artists/SNF Parkway
Featured image: Sweaty Eyeballs Animation Festival 2019 trailer