Culture Rover

#10 - Strindberg and Helium

John Rockwell, "Reverberations: 'Strindberg and Helium,' a Sweet Flowering of Youthful Creativity," New York Times, 28 May 2004

A few weeks ago, John Rockwell wrote a column about new art on the internet. He highlighted the delightful animated short Strindberg and Helium. The films, created by the comedy troupe Killing My Lobster in collaboration with the animation group Milky Elephant, shows us the Swedish playwright August Strindberg waxing melancholic about life's futility, while accompanied by a pipsqueak-voiced helium balloon that echoes his words and tries to cure his depression.

Rockwell argued that one of the animated short's small pleasures resulted from its poke at gender stereotypes -- the sullen man and his caretaking, female companion. But I think the brilliance of the shorts (there are four of them so far) are not just gender-derived, but more generally about the tragi-comedy (or is it comi-tragedy?) that results from the collision of two people's opposing sensibilities. When morose grandiosity meets silly fondness, the result is humor that pulls the sweetness out of sullenness and the painful neediness out of the urge to soothe.

Milky Elephant's animation reinforces Killing My Lobster's exploration of the relationship between the depressed soul and his or her companion. The images -- from their slightly sepia-toned colors to their striking "camera-angles" -- bring out the absurd poignancy of a late-nineteenth century playwright discussing life's shortcomings with a small pink helium balloon. The drawings switch back and forth from Strindberg's perspective to Helium's and isolate details that the playwright seizes upon to express himself (leaves, bleeding fingers, clocks, a woman at a bar). They picture Strindberg's twisted logic (showing us how twigs turn into the Latin letters for "F" and "S"), and they show us Helium bobbing in and out of the top of the frame or getting bopped up and down by Strindberg's cane -- always almost floating away only to return again and again. In the end, Helium offers the tortured Swede a cupcake to ease his ceaseless pain.

24 July 04

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