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Stop smothering me



In my possession is a movie still that I've been magnetting to various refrigerators for some time now. It depicts an enraged stick-figure woman with a That Girl flip... well, just look to your right.

Until last week I had no idea that this primitive-looking image is a scene from Don Hertzfeldt's clever 1995 short Ah, L'Amour, first unleashed upon the world by Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted Animation Show. Oscar-nominated animator Hertzfeldt will be in attendance at the Dryden Theatre on Saturday, September 24, to present A Bitter Films Retrospective, a complete collection of the work produced at Hertzfeldt's Bitter Films Studio.

Ah, L'Amour, created during Hertzfeldt's student days, follows an incredibly resilient guy as he tries to engage a string of women in conversation but elicits only ultra-violent responses until he makes with the three magic words... and not the ones you're thinking. Also included in the program is Billy's Balloon (1998), a disturbing yet hilarious short that will make you wonder how your little helium buddy really feels about you.

Hertzfeldt's 2001 Oscar nominee is entitled Rejected, and it purports to be a series of advertisements commissioned by the Family Learning Channel and a company called Johnson & Mills. The black-and-white (and glorious, glorious red) commercials feature a baby's unfortunate first steps, a talking banana, and a happy piece of fluff with serious health concerns. Sadly, the ads were unceremoniously rejected upon submission, causing them to literally break down.

The retrospective also includes shorts like 1996's Genre and 1997's Lily and Jim, and attendees at the last Movies on a Shoestring will no doubt remember Hertzfeldt's most recent work, The Meaning of Life. For his most ambitious project to date, Hertzfeldt sets his traditionally crude figures to Tchaikovsky in an abstract look at our supposed evolution. Four years in the making, Meaning is less knee-slapping than Hertzfeldt's previous work but finds the animation purist (he draws everything by hand) in evolution mode himself.

The truest films incorporate seemingly irrelevant details, don't give us all the information we think we need, and understand that the story continues even if we're not spying on it. Junebug, director Phil Morrison's debut feature, is a true film. He brings screenwriter Angus MacLachlan's lovely and authentic script to life with the help of an accomplished cast of utility players... most notably star-in-the-making Amy Adams, whose funny and brave performance garnered a Special Jury Prize for Acting at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

George (Alessandro Nivola) and Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) meet and mate over Junebug's opening credits, and the plot is set into motion when the newlywed Chicagoans travel to North Carolina. The purpose of their journey is twofold: Visit George's family and court gallery owner Madeleine's latest discovery, an outsider artist who specializes in painting bizarre Civil War scenes. ("I love all the dog heads and computers. And all the scrotums.")

But George's mom Peg (Celia Weston, the go-to gal for Southern matriarchs) doesn't exactly warm to her favorite son's new wife, reticent dad Eugene (Scott Wilson) retreats to the safety of his workshop, and angry Johnny (Ben McKenzie from The O.C.) clearly has unresolved issues with his brother. George deals with his family by avoiding them, leaving his wife to fend for herself.

Thankfully for Madeleine there's Johnny's very pregnant wife Ashley (perfectly played by Adams), a sweet and sunny girl who bombards her glamorous new sister-in-law with invasive questions as well as unsolicited factoids about herself ("My favorite animal is the meerkat"). Ashley's doting attention smacks of loneliness and desperation, especially as we witness her ostensibly unsatisfying relationship with her brooding husband, but it slowly becomes clear that Ashley is the strongest Johnsten, the glue that holds this fractured family together.

At a crucial point in the film, Madeleine is forced to make a choice. Her sister-in-law goes into labor at the same time she faces the loss of her potentially lucrative client. Will Madeleine's beloved career take precedence over this new family of strangers?

Adams is the standout among the cast, and her beautiful hospital interlude with Nivola's George will undoubtedly find its way onto some "For Your Consideration" reels. McKenzie's Johnny is a sad and frustrating character, though there is one essential scene during which we realize that there is some good in him, even if he expresses it in odd ways.

Junebug is one of the quieter films to come along. I think we're all so used to constant noise in movies that the occasions when the sound vanished were surprisingly jarring. Normally those spaces would be filled with some kind of score, but this time, as my friend observed, "There was no music telling us how to feel." Silence can speak volumes.

A Bitter Films Retrospective is showing Saturday, September 24, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre | Junebug (R), directed by Phil Morrison, is playing at the Little Theatres.

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