Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Little Island, a cautionary tale (probably)

I blame the fact that I'm writing this at all on hearing Fastball's "The Way" on the radio at work the day after my failed attempt to watch The Little Island, and for a reason I barely understand, the song made me think of the short, and a few choice phrases I wanted to write about the little of it I did see. And so here I am, writing this up to save you all from having the same experiences. So please, enjoy (if you can) Richard Williams' first film through me.

The Little Island starts with stark, white on black credits over odd, cacophonous music. This only lasts a minute but feels much longer. Then we get a screen that portends to explain what this short is about (about 20 minutes too long, that's what), but really explains very little. "Many people in this world have ideas but sometimes only ONE idea.... Each of the three little men in this film has an idea....BUT ONLY ONE." I just really don't get what Williams is trying to say here. I mean, only one idea ever? Or just one idea that they keep trying to pass off as new? (I'm only focusing on the first part. The second part means that these little guys are symbolic, not real.)
Without explaining further, the short introduces us to the three men mentioned who appear on the screen naked but not anatomically correct. The first one has pretty wild hair; he believes in Truth, and thus we get to see it flash on the screen in at least fifteen different fonts before it turns into a lotus blossom, which I'm assuming is the pictograph for Truth. Then we're told the guy to the right believes in Beauty, and the word stretches in all directions before changing into a laurel wreath. The last guy, who believes in Good, gets shafted in the changing words department, as it's painfully obvious that most of the animation here is just two or three frames cycled, and then all he gets for a pictograph is a heart. So, lotus = Truth, laurels = Beauty, heart = Good. Remember that. We pan out to see all three men with their respective words flashing over their heads as the film slowly, slowly zooms out and the men get smaller and smaller and smaller.
In the remaining darkness, fireflies show up out of nowhere to chase each other, before blinking out of existence for a weird color and light show, which turns into the sun. The scene pans down, down, down through shades of blue until it finally reaches the ocean. The scene fade-transitions to the titular island and a buzzing sound starts up. The camera looks for the source to the right, but then looks left, as one of the few things that are actually fast in the short film flies by--a motorboat with the three, fully-dressed this time, men. They arrive on the island, and the boat leaves them behind. They blink, but then get excited (I think. They jump and tinkle like bells) and run around the very small island exactly once, before throwing off their clothes and just sitting. They look at the sun, and then they burn. And then they just sit. And sit some more. For DAYS, literally! The sun sets and rises in quick succession, and finally Beauty Guy has had it. He starts talking, only there's no dialogue, so he toots. The others just stare at him. I assume he's saying something akin to "Who's bright idea was it to come here, anyway?" Good Guy honks back at him, and there's more staring, and then Beauty Guy and Good Guy start fighting, with Truth Guy playing a little eyeball tennis watching them both. But it gets to be too much for Truth Guy, and he goes off at both of them. And then they all start honking and clanging at each other, and I really wish this part were over already. They're apparently one-upping each other over who can make the most noise. Like I said, you don't really want to watch this.
At last they stop, and the sun sets and rises a few more times. And then Truth Guy gets an idea! Since he only has one, obviously it's Truth. But he doesn't do anything. So he thinks of it again. Still nothing happens. After a third time, we close up on him, and it becomes obvious that he's going insane. His eyes rolling in his head and his hair goes all electricified. He starts bouncing in place while the other stare and the background keeps changing color. And then he somehow becomes a gazebo. Or possibly an hourglass. I'm really not sure, and he must not be, either, because his body starts rejecting the form, and he changes into a sunny-side up egg. Then he rolls his body down his leg and leaves an afterimage, and then he does the same on the other leg. This is where I skipped ahead to the end the last time I tried watching, but for your sakes, I'll soldier on. Truth Guy turns into a curlique entirely, rolls away, and blinks out of existence. But he's back again, fully found with rays of light emanating from his navel. He starts to spin, and turns into colored shapes that I don't feel like describing, except that there are also more eyes than he should have coming out of them. The eyes then join up and have adventures independent of the shapes, floating around the screen like a game of Nibbles. The eyes then fill up the entire screen and turn into polka dots, with the occasional dot blinking here and there. Then the screen clears and the original four eyes are left. The shapes return and combine with the eyes to create a Donglemonster! The monster sprouts arms that spin around his body, and then he explodes, leaving only a pink dot. The dot, apparently a ball, ricochets around for a while, before finally landing back in Truth Guy's head. Truth Guy gains a third eye on his forehead that engulfs the camera and "sees" (I'm guessing) various patterns that also come up and engulf the camera, paving the way for the next pattern. And then one particularly pretty pattern farts and the whole thing just whooshes away in flashing colors. Truth Guy comes to with a start and gives the others a sheepish grin. The others just shrug.
And then Beauty Guy gets an idea. He does the same "think of it three times" thing that Truth Guy did, but after the third time, he gets up and goes into an interpretive dance. And yeah, he's still naked. He leaps into the air and transforms into a svelte dancer in silhouette, but as he dances, he becomes more and more of a stick figure until he is merely a line moving around. Okay, this kind of interesting. Better than Truth Guy's weirdness, anyway, and better music. The line draws itself into Beauty Guy again, this time with some clothes and a set of pipes. He plays while prancing up and down the sides of the frame, spontaneously creating flowers with his steps, which is all well and good, but he keeps doing it and the flowers get bigger and bigger with each time around. He ends the song by becoming a flower himself in the center of the frame. We pan out and to the side to follow a set of stairs down to somewhere in the leafy green background while an unseen orchestra tunes up, and this is getting boring again. We stop on a statue of a naked lady, but an arrow appears pointing us back to the left where there are two...things? holding a box? And the William Tell Overture starts to play. But the things just stand there until the arrow shows up again and points them to the right. And they're off, carrying the box, which is actually a frame, it seems, to the statue. They frame her torso and the rest of her disappears, and the arrow spurs them on, so on they go, with the torso in tow. Only the torso splits in half, leaving each thing with a box. They stare at each other for a while, and then start moving again, trying to get themselves in sync and the torso back together again. It takes a while, as they start moving the frames around, putting the torso pieces out of context, and then the image inside each box changes. But finally, finally, they get it back together, only upside down. So the camera turns, and the things swap places, and the arrow spurs them on again. Where the heck are they going? And why to the William Tell Overture of all things? They climb a narrow stairway into the sky, going uselessly all over the place and finally enter a door and hang up the frame in what I'll assume is their house. They applaud themselves, and then the camera pans over to reveal that they have at least 30 copies of the same torso hanging on the wall. No, wait, waaaaay more than thirty. But in the midst of all the torsos is one picture that is different. The camera almost misses it, but goes back to see that it's a framed photo of the sun.
And then we're inside the photo, and a weird thing squeaks in on wheels while the sun sets. Only it stays at eye level with the thing for a moment, and then goes back up. Another, similar thing rolls in, and the first thing converses via cello concerto. The other thing is taken aback by this, and the sun comes back down. What the heck is going on, and why isn't it Good Guy's turn for insanity, or drugs, or whatever the heck is happening to these guys? I'm sorry I ever said this part was interesting. Anyway, having seen the sun, the other thing is able to speak violin, which the first thing resents and tries to beat him with more cello. This just leads to the two things having a musical fight, and after some back and forth, the first thing somehow creates a pedestal for himself. Not to be outdone, the other thing makes an even taller one and berates the first thing. And then they just keep growing their pedestals and sniping at each other and can't this be over yet? Finally they reach the limit of how high they can go, but they continue to quarrel. Being on the same level, they get in each other's faces until they combine into one griping thing. The camera pulls back, and we see more and more of these things, all griping away on pedestals. This is kind of creepy, but soon the scene dissolves away, revealing Beauty Guy just sitting on the beach, as he had been before. He smirks at the others, then stands up and takes a bow. The others just shrug.
And now it is Good Guy's time to think three times. He starts off with a sheepish grin and stands, clutching his heart and dances over to Truth Guy. He kisses his head, and does the same for Beauty Guy. He dances around some more and then turns into a star-heart combo, and then morphs into something else. Maybe a church, since he opens his mouth and organ music comes out. Whatever it is, he seems to be enjoying himself. With the clang of a bell, he is transformed into a gate of some sort, and a multitude of people pass through him, going in black but coming out white and apparently being lifted to heaven. Good Guy is very pleased. But then darkness falls and Good Guy morphs again, this time into a Crusader with a viking helmet. Blood flows over his sword, and he turns black and white. Huge arrows very quickly eliminate most of his trappings, leaving only the cross that was on his chest, which shrinks as things go back into color and covers his privates. What a time for a (also naked) lady to arrive! With a mere sway of her hips, she sends Good Guy into a furious red blush with his hair standing on end. He has to turn away, as he puts the cross on her private area and pushes her away. No sooner is she gone than a Snidely Whiplash type comes creeping in with a glass of wine. Good Guy summarily whacks him with a hammer (heh), and he slinks offscreen. Everything goes dark again, and Good Guy panics, very aware of his nakedness, as he tries to flee. Instead, he summons his armor back, this time with a million hearts in place of a cross, a ray gun, and a haze of radiation buzzing around his head. The gun goes off, but releases a heart, which shrinks a bit as we go back to Good Guy as he is on the island. Sadly, the heart cracks, and Good Guy smiles at the others in a haze of confusion. This time no one shrugs, as his was the most coherent story.
The sun sets and rises a few more times (don't these guys need to eat?), and Beauty Guy goes off to dance again. Such a narcissist, that one. He imagines himself as a neo-roman god, complete with harp, which he plucks while whipping his head (with feather headdress) around, making a rather annoying sound. Good Guy gets so annoyed that he transforms into the church again and tries to drown him out with more organs, even summoning up little children to sing with him. Beauty Guy invades his space with his plucking, so Good Guy moves over, and the camera can't decide who to watch. Meanwhile, Truth Guy watches them both from above, thoroughly annoyed, while the antsy music from his original thinking time plays. With all three going at once, the background music gets very annoying, so some higher power strips them of their imagined powers, leaving them naked on the beach once more.
There's a missing scene, but we return to Beauty Guy standing again, waving his hand at the others (I'd like to imagine he's doing that "I'm crushing your head" thing, but that's probably after this short's time). Oh, he's playing his imaginary harp again. This enrages Good Guy for whatever reason (probably the expression on Beauty Guy's face while he's doing it. I want to punch the guy, myself). I kinda like how during this part, Truth Guy just keeps looking at Good Guy, like he's watching to see what he'll do. And Good Guy gets so riled up that he summons back his armor and heart gun, plus a battilion of smaller soldiers with him. Beauty Guy is at first startled, but then goes back to his harp playing (I just want to make this clear, he's obviously doing this to get Good Guy's goat. I don't know why, he just is), and once again imagines himself as the neo-roman, but this time with a fencing sword. Good Guy's gun is actually a bazooka, and he fires a heart at Beauty Guy, who simply leaps out of the way. Good Guy fires again, with similar results. Beauty Guy poses with the sword quite a bit before lunging it offscreen, taking out all the little soldiers. Adding insult to injury, he plucks the helmet of one soldier like a harp and starts doing the head-swish thing again. Good Guy gets so mad that smoke rises from his armor, and Truth Guy has wisely levitated out of the way. He watches them, once again annoyed, when a thought hits him! As before, he starts to go insane, and he summons up a snake to do his bidding. But before he can actually order it to do something, once again all three are stripped of their powers.
Back on the ground, Good Guy and Beauty Guy fume at each other, and Good Guy makes a fist that triples in size. It actually grows so large that it floats off his hand entirely, and Good Guy goes white with fear as it comes down on his own head, shrinking him into almost nothing. While the others watch, he grows into immense dimensions, filling up the entire screen, but then the fist comes back and squashes him down again. So much for that. Good Guy immediate repeats his actions, only to beat down yet again. This time he comes back to normal size, having learned his lesson and joins the others. This inspires Beauty Guy (perhaps he reasons that he doesn't have a fist to beat him down, so he's free to do as he pleases?), and he immediately becomes the neo-roman again, this time with a bow and arrow, which he aims at the fist and shoots true. The fist, shot, leaves. Good Guy is so shocked that first his eyes leave his head and then his pupils leave his eyes. A drop of blood falls from the fist and lands on top of Good Guy, coating him red. He begins to tremble, and glowers at Beauty Guy, who is once again doing the head swish thing with the bow as his new harp.
Filled with rage and with the threat of the fist gone, Good Guy once again grows to immense proportions and grabs Beauty Guy by the neck. He throws the other guy to the ground over and over again, then stands on his legs while he plucks off his feather, and kicks the other guy away. Good Guy then flings the feather away, and it floats down, and down, and down (enough already!), right under Beauty Guy's nose. He picks it up and stares at it, the sign of his broken pride. And filled with a righteous rage, he transforms into an equally immense cross-dressing warrior! Good Guy is taken aback at first, but then smiles, welcoming the challenge. The two smile evilly at each other for a few shots, and then summon swords. And slowly, so slowly, one step at a time, they advance on each other. They get closer and closer and closer, and finally they start to run at each other, but it's still slower than it could have been. And they clash headfirst into one another, each one barely keeping the other at bay.
Meanwhile, Truth Guy, extremely annoyed at getting so little screentime during all this, has summoned up his snake again. But suddenly the snake morphs into a test tube filled with bubbling chemicals and Truth Guy morphs into a scientist! (CUTE!) He doesn't get to do anything, though, as the other two scrabble at each other below, neither budging an inch, despite the addition of tank treads. Suddenly they become mechanical, with each of them adding rivets, but it doesn't really help them any. Back up above, Truth Guy wanders over to a blackboard. He pulls out a piece of chalk and sucks on it, thinking. And he starts to write out calculations, but the board keeps expanding, forcing him to start over. Conversely, it could be that as his calculations get bigger, the board expands to fit them. Either version will do.
With his calculations done, Truth Guy puts away his chalk, dusts off his hands, and starts to walk away. Suddenly he hears a snickersnack! He ignores it, but there it is again! He turns and finds, to his horror, that he was not writing on a chalkboard at all, but a giant bomb! A bomb that just happens to be hovering over the still at odds other two. And the snickersnack is the pattern from his earlier thoughts, apparently a nucleus. The other two look up and see the bomb, to their dismay. Then we watch the nucleus for a while, before moving to alternating shots of horrified Truth Guy, dismayed other two, and the nucleus going snickersnack. As cute as horrified Truth Guy is, this sequence still runs too long to justify it.
And then the bomb goes off with a silent bang and seizure-inducing flashing lights. There is a quiet boom as everyone is knocked back to the way they were, naked on the beach. The three men suddenly lose their tans, regain their clothes, and hop onto the suddenly reappeared boat and sail off, leaving the island for good. There is a thumping in the background as we pan out from the island and pan up to the sky, reaching the sun and panning out into blackness with a handful of pinpoint stars. Minimal end credits, and it's over.

I know that I don't really get what all of that was supposed to mean, but after watching it all, I change my mind. You can watch it if you want to, and maybe you'll understand it more than I did. Parts of it run too long, but there is a bit of a plot there that wasn't apparent from the beginning, so stick with it.
Still, I'm left with questions. Why should good and beauty be at odds? And why does truth get so little to do? What was up with the snake? Outside of the symbolism, it seems to me that these three are friends, but Good perhaps always resented Beauty's narcissistic tendency's and only realized how much when they were isolated on vacation together. Or perhaps those two were always sniping at each other at work (I really get the feeling that they all worked at the same place) and Truth was the mediator for the group. And being in such close proximity, he realized it wasn't worth it anymore and let them go at it. Or maybe he realized that the others didn't really appreciate him (judging from his first thinking sequence, he's probably the weird friend they tolerate for comic relief), and that's why he didn't step in. The smart guy is never appreciated until it's too late, but by then he's created a bomb, and there you go then.
What I really want to know is, what the heck was Richard Williams on when he conceived of this thing?

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