Thursday, February 12, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: Strange Invaders

Continuing with the space theme I began last week with Universe, I thought I would highlight another NFB film dealing with the awe-inspiring, breath-taking, and deeply malicious cosmos—Cordell Barker's animated short Strange Invaders.

Barker's chief claim to fame is The Cat Came Back, one of those NFB shorts that infiltrate the Canadian consciousness by virtue of repeated airings on CBC. I assumed it was pointless to highlight that film since it's possibly the most recognized film on the entire NFB site. However, I still encourage people to revisit it, especially if they haven't seen it since childhood. My own dim youthful recollections just couldn't do justice to the film's superb timing or stranger jokes, which very likely flew right over my immature head (like the brilliantly bizarre gag in which the frantic protagonist comes across a cow tied up on the railroad tracks like a damsel in distress from an old silent-movie serial). Instead, I want to bring some attention to Cordell Barker's other great NFB short.

Strange Invaders is in many ways a prime example of NFB animation—the drawing is idiosyncratic and fluid, the tone droll and whimsical. But Barker balances some rather dark humour with a deeply felt theme (he apparently referred to the film as "semi-autobiographical," and for all of its fantasy trappings the film does seem strongly rooted in the realities of parenthood). The film focuses on Roger and Doris, a married couple whose wish for a child is answered when a baby-like alien crashes into their living room. At first overjoyed, they soon discover that the alien is a terror of a child, wreaking havoc with their lives and ravaging their home.

For a sample of Barker's masterful sense of comic timing, just look at the scene where Roger and Doris come across the alien after it has eaten three of their goldfish. It lies faces down on the floor with the skeletons of the fish scattered around it. A single goldfish swims around the nearly empty bowl. After the couple leave, the alien tilts its head towards the bowl. Ever so slightly, the fish begins to spin faster. The film is steeped in these sort of sly touches, hiding smaller gags within the more manic comedic set-ups.

Any new parents will fear what a baby will do to their lives, and this witty little film builds a brilliant farce out of that anxiety. Even though it ultimately reconciles itself to parenthood, the film dives deep into almost every possible worry associated with a new child—strained marriage, sleepless nights, damaged home, terrorized pets. Consider this the ideal short program to play before David Lynch's Eraserhead. The alien's excruciating squawking of "Peanut!"—the single word it knows how to speak—is perhaps not as painful as the wretched mewling noise of Lynch's mutant baby, but both strike the same nerve with deadly precision. Don't miss this one.

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