Saturday, October 19, 2013

#167: The Separation (Robert Morgan, 2003)

Sibling relationships are among the most complex we have as humans. Siblings share understandings and experiences between them that aren't shared by any other person on earth, as well as the obvious shared genetic material. In addition to this shared biological and ineffable stuff of life, the differences between siblings in the manifestation of otherwise shared traits of nature and personality are even more fascinating. I suspect these similarities and differences are even stronger in twins, though I know I need to be careful here. I am friends with twins who helpfully point out the often ridiculous media stereotypes about twins, stereotypes that those of us who aren't twins have too often uncritically internalized. Still, twins share even more experience between them than other siblings due to their shared age, while identical twins clearly share more genetic material. This similarity and closeness often has the effect of amplifying the differences between twins. Regularly unfairly portrayed in the media as a two-headed single entity, it's unfortunate that twins aren't regarded often enough as separate individuals with separate interests, goals, personality quirks, and personal lives. It's also clear, though, that twins have a deep connection to each other that I'm sure those of us who aren't twins can't begin to understand.
These are obvious points I'm making, but they are gracefully and subtly illustrated in British writer/director/animator Robert Morgan's stop-motion animation short The Separation. The 10-minute short begins with a pair of conjoined twin brothers in a hospital room. The brothers are joined at the side, a few inches above the waist. Soon, we see the aftermath of an operation to separate the two, and later, their work as dollmakers. The brothers have very different reactions to their separation, but each in his own way pines to be reattached, though their reasons are also very different. I'll leave it here.
The Separation is a visually beautiful short that manages to be both disturbing and touching, both creepy and sweet. Though the brothers are identical twins, their movements, facial expressions, and personalities make them easy to tell apart, no mean trick in a short piece of animation. Morgan is a skilled animator and director, and his characters and their backgrounds (the hospital, the doll factory), movements, and clothes are highly detailed and impressive. Morgan's decision to use only background sound and no dialogue was a wise choice. Without dialogue, every movement, every facial expression, every action carries emotional and narrative weight, and pulls the viewer into a dreamy but intensely focused level of engagement. In just a few minutes, Morgan makes you care a great deal for tiny, handmade figures that never say anything.
This level of handmade detail is especially welcome in this young century of computer animation, CGI, and green screen effects. A master craftsman slowly and painstakingly creating narrative and emotion with skilled hands and a camera is an art that is slowly disappearing. As someone who loves handmade FX, I find this cultural change depressing. Convenience, corporate money, and mediocrity tend to triumph in capitalist countries, but pockets of beauty like this survive in the margins. We're all going to lose the war, but battles can still be won in the nooks and crannies too small for the winners to bother lowering their giant heads and craning their oversized necks to see. The audiences are smaller, but they're more open and engaged.
Since 1997, Robert Morgan has written, directed, and animated four stop-motion shorts (The Man in the Lower-Left Hand Corner of the Photograph, The Cat with Hands, The Separation, and Bobby Yeah) and written and directed a live-action short (Monsters), and the rock band Tool used a reedited version of The Separation for one of their music videos. Morgan is contributing a segment to the sequel for the Drafthouse Films anthology The ABCs of Death. His shorts are widely available on YouTube and Vimeo, as well as his own website, and The Separation is on DVD on the international horror and cult movie shorts anthology Small Gauge Trauma. On the strength of The Separation, I'm definitely going to check out his other stuff. I have embedded it for you right here.

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