Great films have a habit of forcing me to scratch my head. And this one left a pile of dead skin on my shoulders. (gross. I know.)
Gene Roddenberry claimed at that “all art was an attempt to answer the question, ‘What is it all about?’” and I have taken that claim and held it up to almost every piece of worthy art I have come across.
For this one, I’m struggling to find an answer.
Here’s one take:
Negative Space is practically perfect. Like so many shorts I admire, the film incorporates multitudes of seemingly contradictory qualities: at a mere 5 minutes, there is really no wasted space, and yet it is exceedingly spare. Based off a celebrated Ron Koertge poem that clocks in at only 150 words, it allows for moments of subtlety and contemplation that are so necessary in visual storytelling—those perfectly blocked shots, held for an extra moment, that drive home the rich emotional interiority of its characters. It’s simultaneously one of the most humanistic films of recent memory, but it also stars no humans. Its stop-motion animation is expressive, detailed and grounded, and yet it has no compunction about taking off on flights of fancy, segueing via delightful transitions into fantastical asides that play with scale and setting.
And, most remarkably, none of these elements are simply stylistic choices, excuses for technical bravado, or kludgy compromises to the process of adaptation. They are all deep reflections of the film’s core themes, representing and enriching them. Adapting work from another medium is rare for shorts, but rarer still, in any medium, is an adaptation that exceeds the original. Negative Space fills in the subtext of Koertge’s poem, but doesn’t bludgeon it, and the insights and personal experiences the film’s creators bring to the source material prove additive rather than incongruent, elevating the work." - S/W Curator, Jason Sondhi (via).
But that doesn’t help. What themes are reflected? Enriched?
I agree that the artistic nature of the film is spot-on and “nearly perfect.” But what about the message? What is he trying to say?
And what poem does it help fill in? . . . oh. I found it. It’s called, Negative Space (huh) and is the narration to the film:
My dad taught me to pack: lay out everything. Put back half. Roll things
that roll. Wrinkle-prone things on top of cotton things. Then pants, waist-
to-hem. Nooks and crannies for socks. Belts around the sides like snakes.
Plastic over that. Add shoes. Wear heavy stuff on the plane.
We started when I was little. I’d roll up socks. Then he’d pretend to put me
in the suitcase, and we’d laugh. Some guys bond with their dads shooting
hoops or talking about Chevrolets. We did it over luggage.
By the time I was twelve, if he was busy, I’d pack for him. Mom tried
but didn’t have the knack. He’d get somewhere, open his suitcase and text
me—”Perfect.” That one word from him meant a lot.
The funeral was terrible—him laid out in that big carton and me crying
and thinking, Look at all that wasted space.
So what is the wasted space? Was it time spent apart? Wasted opportunities? Is his dad nothing more than a packed item now and no longer human . . . because he never was? Because he was only just a figure or title?
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Is he crying at his father’s funeral because he’s acknowledging that he should be thinking about something else? That he should be mourning the loss of his father and not the wasted space? That he should have a coffin full of memories to think about and talk about, rather than a phone full of simple texts that read “perfect” but which meant so much to a lonely son back home?
Should they have meant so much to a lonely son back home?
What do you think?
Man I love stop-motion films.
For more on . . .
-N- Stuff : My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes : My Grandfather, and the tools he left behind : Short Films