Judge Bryan Byun once made experimental shorts; unfortunately, the world wasn't ready for assless boxers.
A woman waits by the phone. A man watches a tea cup spin. Are they lovers? Yes, they are. Now letÕs watch them sing and dance.
Patterns Trilogy and Other Short Films is a collection of visually inventive, exquisitely stylish shorts by Canadian filmmaker Jamie Travis, best known to date for his short films and a pair of music videos for Tegan & Sara. It's tough to describe Travis' style except in terms of other filmmakers, which may or may not be a good thing: imagine a film scripted by David Lynch, directed by Peter Greenaway, with art direction by Wes Anderson.
This set includes nearly all of Travis' film work to date: the three short films that make up The Patterns Trilogy, The Saddest Boy in the World, and Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner. (Mysteriously, his most recent, The Armoire, is not included.)
Patterns (2005) is a largely plotless meditation on the filmmaker's obsessions: a young woman, Pauline, makes a cup of tea, draws a bath, listens to a record. The phone rings. She misses it. She takes a bath. The phone rings. She answers it. An odd conversation ensues. Woven into the "action" is a weird stew of stop-motion-animated figurines, obsessive hand-washing, and Lynchian/Kubrickian imagery.
As obscure, self-indulgent, and self-consciously referential as Patterns is, it shouldn't work at all, but it does. Travis takes the dream logic of David Lynch's films and applies it to his personal fears, anxieties, and obsessions, both visual (wallpaper and fabric patterns, home appliances, plumbing) and thematic (germ-phobia, fear of people), creating a narrative based on a kind of "OCD logic."
What saves the film from dreariness is that Travis doesn't take his subject too seriously—Patterns isn't exactly a comedy, but it recognizes its own absurdity, and plays with it. Ever been in a Goodwill and half-grimaced, half-smiled in astonished horror at a particularly tacky tchotchke? Travis takes that micro-horror and amplifies it into something reminiscent of a Japanese horror film, with a bit of Hitchcock mixed in. You laugh at the dancing fawn figurines, then tense up a little when they just keep-on-dancing.
Patterns 2 and 3 (2006) expand on the original, introducing the voice on the other end of the mystery phone calls—Michael, another neurotic loner—and revealing the true nature of their bizarre relationship. Random Chinese food, obsessive hand-washing, equally obsessive paper airplane love letter making, and more odd drain-phobia culminate in a split-screen musical number that somehow manages to be romantic, charming, creepy, and frightening at the same time.
This bizarro absurdity can come across as pointlessly random, but Pauline and Michael's hyper-neurotic, mutually-obsessive anti-love affair makes a kind of inexpressible sense. If you're an agoraphobic, Asperger-ish shut-in with OCD and boundary issues, and most of today's rom-coms just don't speak to your concerns, then The Patterns Trilogy was made for you.
Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner (2003) is Travis' first short film, and plays like Wes Anderson's Addams Family. A trio of hollow-eyed children suffer a day of being fed elaborate, grotesque meals (deep fried frogs and roasted pigs' heads are just two of the entrees on this macabre table d'hôte) prepared by their mother, who putters around the kitchen hooked up to an IV and being horrified at the sight of brown eggs. The kids, (literally) fed up with their sadistic mom's revolting offerings, find a novel way to escape her madness. It's morbid, surreal, and weirdly touching.
The Saddest Boy in the World (2006) rounds out the collection, and it's probably the most accessible and emotionally involving film of the set. Little Timothy Higgins is celebrating his ninth birthday, and unlike most kids on their birthdays, Timothy is sad. So sad, in fact, that he's about to hang himself in his bedroom, and through flashbacks the film makes a convincing case as to why Timothy is, in fact, the saddest boy in the world. Despite how it sounds, The Saddest Boy in the World is actually pretty hilarious, in a dark sort of way. Travis has a sharp, morbid wit and impeccable comic timing, and this bleak little portrait of childhood depression is like a David Sedaris story, adapted by Todd Solondz.
Video and audio quality vary slightly between the films—the earliest, Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner, showing the roughest edges—but are actually fairly consistent, a testament to Travis' filmmaking craft and attention to detail. All the films are presented in 16:9 widescreen and present Travis' vibrant color palette well, with a clear, bright picture (the films appear to have been shot on digital video). Audio is only stereo, and while the sound is clean and clear, some of the musical scenes would have benefited from a richer, more muscular sound.
Other than the films, there are no extras (this includes subtitles and additional language tracks), which is a shame, because Jamie Travis is an intriguing new filmmaker. Given the rather avant-garde nature of his work so far, it would have been useful to have an interview or commentary tracks to give Travis an opportunity to introduce himself and offer the new viewer some background to his work.
I've probably used more space in this review referring to other filmmakers than talking about Jamie Travis, and that's the biggest weakness of these films. Travis self-consciously references other artists to such an extent that it's often difficult to identify his own voice. These films are beautiful to look at and marvelously effective, but I don't know that there's a single moment in them that isn't a deliberate homage to a half-dozen other directors.
Still, there clearly is a Jamie Travis speaking through these films, and this compilation makes his concerns evident: intimacy issues, suburban anxiety, childhood self-drama, and fantasy escapism, just to name a few. Travis has yet to make a feature-length film (he is developing one), and after sampling his work I'm looking forward to what he can do in an expanded form. Travis could be the next Wes Anderson—if he can just stop trying to be Wes Anderson.
The Court of Dancing Fawn Figurines declares Patterns Trilogy and Other Short Films not guilty by reason of insanity.
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