THE ANIMATED NIGHTMARES OF SAM BARNETT
Sam Barnett makes animations. His clinically precise use of both technical and narrative devices of the uncanny render his existential themes in petite, stark, fear factories. Not for the lighthearted, Barnett’s films offer us a bleak glimpse into both fundamental fears and oddball paranoia. In some cases, NSFW. The Flesh, Reduction, and I am the Eggman are included alongside an interview detailing some of the more abstract elements of these films.
Courtesy of Barnett Films
RK: The introductory images seem to refer to a modern conception of body, a body simultaneously identified with and subordinated by machine. Yet this is immediately contradicted by the first dream sequence. After all, machines don’t dream.
SB: Right. The arc of the whole story, which extends beyond this first part (the rest is not complete), is about the Wireman’s journey from machine to man. This first dream sequence is about his perception of himself as a mechanical construct. Which is to say: without soul. A random product of evolution. A structured organism born out of the chaos of physics.
RK: There are 3 dreams in the piece. They progress through paranoia to sensuality, and finally to what appears to be a death fantasy. As a trilogy, what do these dreams collectively symbolize?
SB: The first dream is the Wireman’s’ conception of himself as a machine. This conception of himself leaves him paralyzed and without reason to act until confronted by need for love in the second dream, and fear of destruction in the third which drive him into action. So this first chapter addresses the experience of primal motivations.
The big existential problem in this first chapter is the absurdity of having to make important decisions without having significant information about what the decision means.”
RK: What prompted you to use title cards?
SB: I liked the idea of having a narrator, to communicate part of the film in language instead of cinematically. But I did not want the voice to be a specific person’s voice. So they narrate without being a character.
RK: Please talk about the score.
SB: I worked with 3 composers. One of whom, Benjamin O’brien, I gave a few themes to work with. “Chaos” was one. He then build sound generation software, a system of devices that generated sounds based on mathematic relationships, and tweaked them towards these themes. This is most of what you hear in the film. I wanted to keep it organic and alive. This way it was mostly out of my control. Sexy Ultimatum made a sexy score for the sexy dream, which was a simpler process.
RK: “As you make this decision…you set in motion…patterns in yourself…that you will never be able to stop”. This text leads in to the visual of European expressionist styled drawings on either side of a room, as though they symbolize the protagonist’s options. This leads me to think you’re discussing the construction of an internal logic that is subject to both existential freedom and deterministic rules. What the hell does it mean?!
SB: The big existential problem in this first chapter is the absurdity of having to make important decisions without having significant information about what the decision means. You’re right that there is both the freedom to choose and awareness that much of the outcome is arbitrary. In every choice you make in life, you eliminate the possibility of a whole future that could have existed had you made the opposite choice. Of course this is a paralyzing way to think about decisions, and the whole first section is about choosing action over inaction. Because, at its essence, life is action. So this is the point where the Wireman embraces the consequences of his own existence, whatever they may be. His angle of trajectory is random, but he makes it his own anyways. By basing it on how the piece of himself falls that he has pulled from his chest.
Courtesy of Barnett Films
RK: This is probably your most abstract work. Why did you choose such ambiguous imagery for this piece?
SB: I actually thought of it as being less ambiguous. Ha! Most of my films had been about what the brain is doing before this one but I thought I would try being direct and use an image of a brain as the brain for once. It’s still plenty ambiguous.
RK: Who and what is being reduced here?
SB: By the end, everything. It’s a slippery slope film. Once you start reducing things it can become very compulsive. The reducing of other people is of the most immediate consequence though. In the film and in life.
It’s easier to eat animals if you pretend they have no consciousness and its easier to hate another race or religion than to sort out a conflict and deal with the complexities of combining different cultures.”
RK: The theme of a polluted body recurs in this piece, but it is difficult to understand the nature of that pollution. Please explain.
SB: It starts out in the microscopic. Ideas are born and float around like single celled organisms in the sea of the mind and try to take root. Something goes wrong and a thought that would normally have been swept away mutates and it becomes hard to ignore. Like you notice something that contradicts your established world view. And its small but it opens up a hole and that hole starts bleeding. So instead of investigating this pollution, the protagonist destroys this thought. He destroys the whole line of thought. He crushes its significance. And by doing so imposes a heavy handed limit on his own perception. And so his body then becomes polluted by his attempt to reduce things in order to control them.
RK: In the first sequence, the forms and landscape are organic, but their sound and movements are mechanical. What were your intentions with this juxtaposition?
SB: I have always been obsessed with the conflict between, and combination of, the mechanical and the organic. It can be hard to draw the line between them and I think it’s getting harder all the time. So, it’s something I like to explore.
RK: What are the black boxes coming out of the guy?
SB: They are the reduction virus.
RK: Who’s the girl, and are you presenting a kind of power relation when he grabs her head?
SB: There is a definite power relationship. She is someone who was important to him, and someone being important to you makes you vulnerable to them. As a defense mechanism against this vulnerability he reduces her, and destroys her value to him at the same time.
RK: What is the takeaway you hoped the viewer would achieve with this work, and what has the result been when you’ve shown it?
SB: The world is mind bogglingly complex. And there are many advantages to trying to reduce that complexity in your mind. It’s easier to eat animals if you pretend they have no consciousness and its easier to hate another race or religion than to sort out a conflict and deal with the complexities of combining different cultures. Racism is the simplest example of reduction. It is the act of reducing a human being to color of their skin. But, I think this mechanism has all sorts of implications for our day to day personal lives as well. Do we keep our eyes open to the world before us, accepting the fact that it may change us? or do we try to enforce a mental stasis, and cut ourselves off from new experience and new possibilities?
Courtesy of Barnett Films
I AM THE EGGMAN
RK: The Eggman seems to recall Edward Bernays (Freud’s nephew and the man who created the term “public relations”). Is the Eggman a Bernays namesake?
SB: In a way the Eggman could be an extremely pessimistic or paranoid grandson of Bernays. In that, one of my core motivations for the film is the idea that when you speak to someone, if what you say effects them deeply, it will change them and you cannot really know what the ramifications of that change may be. Bernays got women to smoke in America by associating it with freedom, making it a symbol of the suffrage movement. No one knew cigarettes were bad for you in the ’20s. But, his grandson would be aware of the fact that Bernays’ contributed to the deaths of thousands or millions of women. The Eggman ultimately accepts the idea that he cannot control the ramifications of his actions when he rolls his head through the hole out of the room.
The only alternative to the action and chaos and violence of life is nothingness or paralysis. The Eggman chooses the sublime.”
RK: What’s that thing in the other room that’s eating the guy’s leg? What is the significance of the clay figure forfeiting part of his leg?
SB: The idea is that the Eggman compulsively feeds on himself. I think a lot of people get stuck in patterns in which they live out unsustainable compulsive behaviors. Physical addiction is the most obvious example of this pattern but there are many less literal examples. If you are ‘stuck in your own head’ I think it is similar. The creature is the mechanism (which could be drugs in addiction, or the reliving of a traumatic experience in ptsd) for feeding the fat baby, with the fleeting blood of experience, which is the (psychological) Id. I designed the film to be an open metaphor for breaking out of any compulsive self-destructive process. People have come to me with quite a few different interpretations. All are valid.
RK: How does Freud figure into all this?
SB: Room the guy is in is the consciousness, the room with the creature is the subconscious, and the baby is the id. I don’t know if its a critique or an engagement. These are useful terms for trying to put complex phenomena into categories. But deeply flawed. I think the truth is much much more messy than most people, including Freud, would like to admit.
RK: How does this film relate to Reduction or the Wireman?
SB: In all of the films the whole world is inside the mind of the protagonist, with the exception of the girl in reduction, before she is reduced, and the audience at the end of the Eggman. So, all the other characters, if you can call perpetually grabbing hand-box things characters, are mechanisms in the mind of the protagonist.
RK: The self-decapitation scene. wtf? His head rolls into a hole in the wall!
SB: In order to change in a really significant way you must be willing to risk everything. You don’t get to know if it pays off before hand. This is him accepting that risk. Sending his severed head into the unknown.
RK: The end seems to reference the idea of performance, and perhaps the violence of performance, at the meta level. If there is a violence to performance what is it?
SB: This goes back to Bernays’ paranoid grandson. At least in part. Part of the violence in the not knowing what effect your performance is going to have on people. If you change someone, that change could always have destructive implications you don’t foresee. The other part is, to me, that there is inherent violence in language. The act of categorization is to rip things out of the living continuum and turn them into static discrete objects. Performance does the same to the life it represents. The only alternative to the action and chaos and violence of life is nothingness or paralysis. The Eggman chooses the sublime.
SB: I started animating because I wanted to make a film and it seemed easier than finding actors. I already had wires and clay on hand. I stuck with it because narrative can take you very deep into an idea through the experience of it playing out. And animation, because you have to create every detail, is much more personal and better at representing the internal. Realism in film seems to be trendy right now but I am much more interested in myth.
RK: What about the role of sound in your work?
SB: All of these films use pretty simple imagery. I think of these films as being at least as much about the sound as the image. The sound tells you more about what the image is than the image its self in a lot of places. You can turn a black square into a scary little machine with the right sound. One of my general goal with all three of these films is to make intellectual ideas visceral. Sound is key for that.
Biology has had major influence on my work. Thinking about the different mechanisms in a cell definitely influenced Reduction. How the basic functions of low level chemical reaction can have massive repercussions for the more complex systems that depend on them.
RK: Do you align yourself with specific art histories?
SB: I did study surrealism alot. And the idea of the surrealists, that art should break down the barrier between the conscious and subconscious, always appealed to me. I draw from anywhere and everywhere though.
RK: What about intellectual history? Psychology, Sociology – how do these and other fields figure into your work?
SB: Alot of my films are studies on some psychological process going wrong. I read a lot of Carl Jung as a teenager. Dreams and symbols and schizophrenia and so on… But everything I do more or less is built from something I have witnessed or experienced directly. Biology has had major influence on my work. Thinking about the different mechanisms in a cell definitely influenced Reduction. How the basic functions of low level chemical reaction can have massive repercussions for the more complex systems that depend on them. Things you will never even realize have happened. The idea of chain reactions in complex systems is important to me. I think learning to respect complexity is one of the most important things we need to develop as a cultural value. Always assuming that there is more you need to know. Reduction is largely about responding poorly to complexity.
RK: From a surrealist point of view, what do you achieve with animation that would be difficult to pull off in live action?
SB: Animation is great for ideas and abstraction. In live action it is extremely hard to get away from the specific. As in, this specific actor in this specific place and time and social status at such and such a time of day, and the shirt he is wearing means “x”. At least for these three films, live action would not work. When you look at animation like this you can think about it the way you think about a dream, which means right away you throw out all of your preconceptions about how things are supposed to work and just try to see what’s going on and figure it out. Or, maybe you don’t even try to figure out and just experience something that is foreign.
In animation it’s possible to create powerful representations of things that in reality you cannot see or hear. In Reduction there is a moment where the protagonist grabs a box and it starts to consume and paralyze him. This represents an intense experience that I had that is hard to otherwise explain. At a screening, a guy came up to me afterwards and asked me how I knew what it was like to have a seizure. I have never had a seizure. But, apparently this moment in the film felt to him like having a seizure. He had suffered from seizures all his life.
Sam Barnett spent five years producing experimental music, taking photographs, and running a surrealist writing group, before realizing he could combine all of these interests in film and animation. His Films I AM THE EGGMAN, Reduction, Breathe, and others have been featured in festivals all over the world. He is the recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship and a graduate of the University of Southern California (USC) Film Production.
You can view more works by Sam at barnettfilm.com
You can reach Sam at Barnett.Film[at]gmail[dot]com
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