State-sponsored Sex and Stab Wounds

The opening-night premiere of claymation film MARY AND MAXmade it clear that the Festival decided to throw a curveball for its opening pitch.

Sundance Opening Night Film: Max and Mary

MARY AND MAX is the first Australian film and the first animated film to open the Festival, but forget that stuff. It is also one dark and twisted little film. This picture from Adam Elliot, who won an Oscar® for the short film HARVIE KRUMPET, prompts one to wonder what happened in Elliot’s childhood. To say that this story of an unhappy Australian girl who corresponds with an obese New York man with Asperberger’s syndrome is dark and twisted is to understate matters. While Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore calls the film “a delight,” no one could call this film a crowd-pleaser–unless you find a crowd that is extremely hostile to goldfish and wishes to see them meet a variety of unappetizing fates, from defenestration to this picture’s version of the immortal bass-o-matic bit from Saturday Night Live. As for the humans, they meet a variety of unappetizing fates, too.

Elliot told the crowd at the Eccles Theatre that stop-motion animation proved more difficult than he had anticipated. “It’s like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time,” he said. He resisted the temptation to fall back on computer-generated effects, so that all the bits and pieces in the film are real objects. The rain is fishing line, the fire was red cellophane and for water, he said, “we used over 50 tubes of sexual lubricant.”

It took 57 weeks of filming, with six animators generating about five seconds of footage a day.

Given the grinding pace, it’s surprising that Elliot came with with a 92 minute film–and unfortunately, it seemed quite a bit longer than that. The opening-night crowd did not go wild, though the film was received politely. During the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked a question that had also occurred to me: “This was an uncommon story to say the least. How were you able to convince your investors to back it?”

The answer seemed not surprising. “I’m a product of government funding,” Elliot replied. Australian taxpayers apparently footed 66 percent of the money and private investors came up with the balance. Earlier in the day, Redford had been expressing hope that once the economy pulls out of the death spiral, the American government might step up with more arts funding, too. But Mary and Max could be seen as a cautionary tale in this regard. While Elliot undoubtedly has a brilliant creative vision, he seems to have expended quite a lot of government funding making a movie that will attract a tiny following. It’s a difficult subject, of course. Who should the artist please if not him- or herself? Those who fund art inevitably assume risk. But what if tax dollars are expended on what seems to be state-funded psychotherapy? I don’t propose to resolve the question; merely to pose it. Or post it, in this case.