Sunday 10 July 2011

Millhaven (2010)

Director: Bartek Kulas
My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2011.
I'm well acquainted with The Curse of Millhaven, a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from their 1995 album Murder Ballads, which follows nine tracks about murder and mayhem in myriad forms with a cover of Bob Dylan's Death is Not the End. I once gave a copy to my stepdaughter for Christmas in a subtle attempt to transition her from the fake alternative music ClearChannel radio fed her to real alternative music that was even more subversive. I wrote a poem based on one of the other songs on the album too, fashioning my own story around its tempo and title. Obviously the material inspires creativity, as this Polish animated short takes one of the songs and brings it to vivid life, as much through an amazing cover version as the glorious animation that accompanies it. Director Bartek Kulas knew the song from Kinga Preis's version, only for it to return to him in another by Katarzyna Groniec, which contains far more nuance and playfulness.

The story concerns a girl called Lottie who has been presiding over a reign of terror in the town of Millhaven. She's the curse of the song's title, though she's only fourteen, and she's eventually hoisted by her own petard, only to remain unapologetic in an asylum. Cave's song is a galloping narrative ballad, but Groniec's version is acutely sinister, not only in the way she builds a superb performance along with the story she sings, going from deceptive sweetness to outright lunacy through pitch and depth, but through Roman Kołakowski's translation, not direct but more of an interpretation. It misses out entire verses of the original song but adds freakish descriptive colour, swapping lines like 'twenty cops burst through my door without even phoning' for 'I was just brushing the blood out of my hair when in barged a bunch of cops'. No wonder hearing Groniec's cover drew Kulas to animate the material. It invited such a treatment.

Kulas's animation is as filled with haunting textures as the music and it grows with the story as well as Groniec's voice and the deep piano that stalks her. His Lottie is an ethereal marionette whose hair is almost as long as she is and almost as much of a character, but the way she moves depends on the point in the lyrics. He combines Christ poses with hypnotic stares to accompany the religious hints Kołakowski introduced in his translation. She plays to the camera like her dark work is a performance piece of art, like she's a Flamenco dancer, a guitar strummer or a kung fu fighter. The flies and spiders that crawl over the inside of the screen ensure the piece seethes. Kulas shot everything in halftone monochromes for which he'd been seeking a use for years and he overlaid a texture that suggests only a subtle barrier between Lottie and us. By far the best piece in Selection 2011, this is a masterpiece of a song and an animation. My wife plays it often.

Millhaven can be viewed at the director's website.

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