Saturday, April 24, 2010

MirrorMask (2005)

This weekend Unseen Films is going to take a look at a feature film and a collection of short ones by artist and filmmaker Dave McKean. McKean is probably best known for his comic work with Neil Gaiman. However McKean doesn't limit himself to any one medium and has produced amazing work in a variety of fields. One of the fields he works in is the realm of the moving image on film and video. Today we'll be looking at the feature film he created with Neil Gaiman and the Jim Henson Company called MirrorMask. Tomorrow we'll be looking at a compilation of his short films called Keanoshow.

McKean is one of the few filmmakers working today who's use of computer generated imagery makes sense. Here is a man who has been using the medium probably since the beginning and he knows how to make images that truly look real. Most Hollywood super productions spend millions of dollars on expensive graphics and when you look at them, and I mean if you really look at them, you can see that what you are seeing isn't real. Worse if it does look real it never integrates into the live action portions of the film.
That doesn't happen with Mckean.

What I love about McKean's work is that he doesn't use just movie tricks. He is a filmmaker who will use anything at his disposal. If one looks at his film you'll see a variety of styles and methods used. There are puppets and image collages and masks and costumes and props and computer generated gizmos. There isn't a limit to what he will use. He is very similar to true cinema masters like Jan Svankmajer or Hans-J├╝rgen Syberberg, who use a variety of techniques to get their stories told. I'm sure that the use of a variety of techniques comes from a lack of funds but at the same time it forces the artist to be much more clever and inventive.

McKean's visuals are works of art.
To be able to truly speak about Dave McKean's work seemed a bit beyond me. Honestly I didn't feel I could do them justice, so I've asked a good friend of mine and Unseen Films contributor Ken Fries to take over control for this weekend and really explain why McKean's work is so special. He is much better suited to get at the meat of the material than I am, since he's been a fan of McKean for longer than I have.

Before we get to the review itself I want to explain why not only I asked Ken to come aboard here at Unseen Films but also why he's the perfect person to review this weekend's films. Ken is a man of many interests, chief among them are film and art. With film he's the sort of person you can make an off the cuff reference to a film to only to find you end up in a two hour conversation about a variety of related films and subjects. It's never one thing its everything all at once. Not so long ago, before a few detours, Ken wrote regularly on comics and comic art for several publications. He was responsible for some of the earliest extended and meatiest interviews with people like Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. And when I say meaty, I mean meaty. He once interviewed illustrator Charles Vess for Comics Journal but the interview was so long and detailed that the magazine sent some one else to interview him because the act of transcribing it and getting it ready for publication was going to have the issue whiz past deadline. (The still unpublished interview is one of the best and most detailed you're ever likely to see on an artist.) Ken loves to make sure he's right on every detail which is what makes reading him so much fun. He's a guy who knows what he's talking about, and knows so much that odds are that even if you know a subject you're going to learn something from him.

With that in mind I'm going to pass control of Unseen Films over to Ken for his take on the works of Dave McKean.

Watching MirrorMask is like watching someone’s dreamscape gently drift across the screen. In this case, the someone happens to be the very talented artist Dave McKean, and the dreamscape, however bizarre, has a narrative, courtesy of Neil Gaiman. McKean has the ability to take the world of his dreams and visually transform it into something tangible for the screen, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Have you ever tried describing your dreams to someone? While it may make sense to you, the look on the face of the person you’re describing it to says something to the effect of “Why are you continuing to babble on about whatever meaningless nonsense this is? Please stop…” In this case, you wish for this world to continue endlessly.

The story is co-credited to Gaiman, who also gets screenplay credit. And while Stephanie Leonidas, who wonderfully plays the young girl Helena, along with Jason Barry and Rob Brydon, receive top billing, truth be told, it’s the visual unreality designed & directed by McKean that is the real star of the film. Helena is a mid-teen whose family owns & operates a small time one-ring traveling circus, and she wishes to run away and join real life. The colorful world she unhappily inhabits is disrupted by an argument with her mother in which harsh words are exchanged, followed almost instantly by the mother collapsing, being hospitalized, and in need of surgery. We are suddenly transported to a cold antiseptic grey block of flats where Helena lives, as she feels guilt over the exchange with her mother. She visits her Mum in an equally cold antiseptic grey hospital. All color and life has been removed from the visuals to a very great effect.

As Helena goes to sleep on the night of her mother’s operation, she awakens to McKean’s dream world, the visual cacophony that brings the film back to a vivid Technicolor life. The dream world she inhabits is a metaphor for what’s going on in her life, much like someone’s actual dreams are. It’s just a treat to see it translated so beautifully to the screen. Books are used as transportation devices, not in a metaphorical but a literal sense. Schools of fish swim by in mid-air, alongside people walking around who all wear masks, and look oddly at Helena for she doesn’t have a “proper face”, as she’s not wearing a mask. Talking winged cats with human faces threaten her. The entire dream world is a manifestation of Helena’s artwork (which is the art of McKean), which she draws to amuse herself, as well as to give to her Mum when she visits her in hospital as homemade get-well cards. All of these elements are presented in a stunning visual world that is a CGI transformation of McKean’s artwork, while the masks are also McKean creations.

The rest of the story concerns Helena's quest for the film's title, as it can be used to awaken the Queen of the City Of Light, and in turn return Helena to her real world. While the quest aspect of the story isn't exactly breaking any new ground, it's the visually exciting and beautiful way in which it's presented that makes the film so interesting to watch.

The DVD is packed with extras, including an extremely interesting and informative feature-length commentary by both Gaiman & McKean, sitting in the same room at the same time, so it’s a conversation, not just a mere recitation of facts. Made on an insanely modest budget of roughly four million dollars, this is an obvious labor of love that is an absolute treat for anyone who is already a fan of McKean’s artwork. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, but like things like Labyrinth (which in part inspired this film), this will be a delight as well. If you have an appreciation for a fascinating visual world, and always wanted to know what dreams would look like if they were brought to the screen (and would also like to see a librarian made partially out of books and voiced by Stephen Fry), this will be an enjoyable film. Just see if your dreams become any more interesting after watching this film.


  1. I always felt like people were a little hard on Mirrormask and unfairly. I know that McKean had done some film work previous to this, but this was the first feature-length film either Gaiman or McKean were responsible for. When you regard them as first-time filmmakers who made a small budget movie, it's a pretty awesome thing.

    I can't say I don't have my problems with it, but it is something I look at with a great deal of affection. Maybe it doesn't entirely work, but it's beautiful, visionary and original, I think that's more important that if it was perfect but derivative.

  2. Hey Eden

    That's true what you said. Despite having flaws (pace wise specially) the film has to be considered as being a 1st time work of two genius who are migrating from the media they were previously confortably with to a different land.

    I have really high hopes at McKean's upcoming Luna. I bet it will be a beautiful piece of art.