The feverish, dystopian vision of British animator Phil Mulloy is pitched violently in the bleak void between the misanthropic Dadaist jollity of Gary Larson and the threateningly acidic inkblots of Ralph Steadman. Using crudely drawn but eerily entrancing stick figures that appear to be scratched out by a deformed hand clenching a barely functional Sharpie, the artist depicts the most abrasively sadistic tendencies of mankind with haunting irony. Most of his animated shorts can be breezily summarized as three-to-five-minute socio-moral scenarios populated with humanoid creatures sporting Freudian distortions (phallic noses, jagged, beastly incisors, and detachable penises that are wielded like clubs) and a penchant for exhibitionist anal penetration. But the laconically narrated stories often complicate, or simply mock, the issues they’re purportedly meant to dramatize, lending the humor a cruelly ambiguous edge.
A brief cartoon somberly titled after the commandment “Thou Shall Keep the Sabbath Holy” turns out to be a surreal detour about aliens—in a giant flying teacup, no less—abducting a redneck with a merely arbitrary reference to the ubiquity of church-going tossed in as a punchline. Mulloy isn’t only poking fun at the stereotypes and hypocrisies rotting occidental civilization from the inside out but also the bromidic institutions and brocards putatively holding back our innate thirst for tribal chaos. Not even a universal apothegm like the golden rule falls outside the scope of the filmmaker’s scorn; he’s likely to interpret “Love Thy Neighbor” as a sketch about lonely adulterers frenziedly humping one another in a space shuttle (sci-fi motifs are another of his obsessions).
Kino’s Region 1 release collects Mulloy’s output between 1991 and 2001, documenting the animator’s impressive decade-length stylistic development. Though his simple, ultra-indie look wouldn’t change much during that time, the manner in which his cartoons tackled anthropological defects grew more subversive and wryly tangential as the years and projects progressed. Most shorts are entries in structured cycles rather than isolated pieces, allowing Mulloy to recycle characters and concepts while exploring epic topics piecemeal. The History of the World includes a familiar but scathing polemic suggesting that the written word was invented by weakly pariahs who couldn’t get laid, while the tour de force of The Ten Commandments approaches each of Moses’s laws with a bawdy wit that elicits favorable comparisons to Kieślowski.
But it’s the two series with which Mulloy bookended the ‘90s that impose themselves upon the viewer most trenchantly. The six brief scenes comprising Cowboys are wildly repellent examples of saturnalian satire—strangers are lynched and innocent women raped without much explanation—acted out by horrifying characters that resemble what a particularly moody Don Hertzfeldt might come up with if commissioned to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The social commentary is infuriatingly general (one segment even maniacally thumbs its nose at “media violence leads to real violence” activism with bludgeoning images of brutal prurience), but the sheer audacity of the productions, paired with Mulloy’s spine-rankling signature aesthetic, allows them to viscerally succeed. And the final chronological inclusion on the set, Intolerance, is an abstrusely allegorical masterpiece about Earth’s guerrilla war with the inhabitants of the distant planet Zog, who are essentially men and women with genitals and heads anatomically reversed. Unfortunately, the third and concluding film in the Intolerance saga was omitted from the set, but the daringly skewed examination of xenophobia conducted in the first two parts is more than enough to provoke curiosity as to what Mulloy’s been up to in the last 10 years.
Part of Phil Mulloy's talent includes painstakingly creating landscapes and figures that appear to be the half-assed work of a 10-year-old without an apparent future in visual arts. But don't let the rough-hewn edges fool you; Mulloy's mise-en-scène is both sophisticated and professional, creatively toying with space (through clever rule-of-thirds usage) and perspective (who knew there were so many angles at which a penis could spontaneously combust?). Kino's DVD cleanly captures the strangely graceful movement of every stick figure, and while the sound mixes are predictably muddy in places, the satirically stately narration is given due emphasis.
The DVD set contains no extras (not even liner notes), but this wouldn't be so disappointing if the thrilling conclusion of the Intolerance trilogy had not been left off. Simply put: fail.
Imagine awakening from a series of grim nightmares to find your body covered in dried blood and ejaculate. The expression on your face will probably be similar after watching a Phil Mulloy short, and you'll probably have learned about as much.