I missed Dash Shaw’s MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL FALLING INTO THE SEA at the press screening. I arrived just as it ended and was greeted by several friends wandering out into the daylight who were wondering all sorts of things about the film, chief among them what the point of it all was. I was amused by their quizzical looks and looked forward to seeing the film at the first public screening.
I have now seen the film and I too am quizzical for any number of reasons, most of them not good.
The plot of the film has two friends,Dash and Assif who work at the high school newspaper getting into a tiff over a girl and separating. When Dash discovers that the school is not only rotting from the inside but on a fault line he tries to warn everyone but no one listens. Immediately there after an earthquake hits and the school falls into the ocean. Dash and his friends are forced to try to climb to the top of building for rescue as all those around him die horrible deaths in a weird melding of Dante's Inferno and the POSEIDON ADVENTURE. There are a few little flourishes and a few witty lines but that is more or less the entire film.
Made with a mix of drawing styles and an ever changing color palette the film is an occasionally visually interesting as an odd moment of disconnected animation transcends the rest of the film to become something intriguing to look at. The problem the visuals are attached to a script which acts as a lead weight that pulls the whole thing under the waves.
The script is about a couple of high school sophomores and it’s written with all the skill and care of similarly aged kids. There are no characters only cardboard cut outs and assholes. The characters are sitcom types not real people who speak in a flat monotone style that make them even less real. There are stabs at social commentary and points about the class system in high school but theyare obvious and heavy handed. There is nothing we haven't really seen before thanks to a plot which has the floors of the school seeming to be Dante's circles of Hell and the climb up to be saved mirroring both Dante's trip out of the inferno and the trip made out of a certain upside down cruise ship.
I’m told that writer director Shaw writes stories that are dream like in their construction of the narrative but here there is no logic, not even dream logic, it just jumps to the next thing for no real reason other than it's something to do. Why does society break down instantly? Why is there only one staircase up? Why are there ways up under the bleachers? How is there electricity in the school? Why is there a soccer goal in the attic? None of it makes sense. Devoid of reason and purpose the film is simply just the school sinking and the kids trying to get out as written by a ten year old, with the odd glib line tossed in.
It’s a mess from some one who some consider a great graphic artist.
Sadly while he maybe a great person on a comic page Shaw doesn’t understand cinematic storytelling. What he did was make a film that moves and acts too much like a graphic novel. There is a static-ness to scenes that would play fine as an exchange on the page but is deadly in film. There is no motion or life, characters stand motionless while the background moves. In other sequences we get characters traveling through the school that play like the Spiderman swings filler sequences in the Ralph Bakshi produced SPIDERMAN TV series. Shaw doesn't realize that when you turn graphic work into a film you have a shot that mirrors a comic panel for an instant you don't have an entire scene play out that way.
Events happen in randomly selected places. We jump from hallway to room and back again with abandon. There is no sense of "here" or how we got from place to place. We are just suddenly in a place. There are references to events that seem more like non sequiturs than part of a world. Events transpire as if they are from comic panels or a comic strip and not a real world. For example references to Dash and Asif's camping trip feels like the punchline to a joke not a real event. Shaw doesn’t fully understand that the films require a certain connection to reality, or a reality, for it to work. The film is not connected to our reality and unfortunately he keeps throwing things at us to change his reality (paging the ten year old writer) so nothing ever feel grounded.
While I freely admit you can do anything when you’re telling a story. Shaw's story telling style is something different and he is taking risks in how the story unfolds. I applaud his trying to mirror his comic style. However the key when you're being bold is that what you do has to work so we won't care you're breaking the rules- because if it fails, as it does here, you’re going to get kicked to the curb for doing it because the whole frame work of the film collapses on itself.
The film might have worked better if there was any real humor, but the film isn’t all that funny. The jokes seem shoehorned in at odd moments rather than part of the action. What jokes there are are either obvious or crude or just mean. I laughed once. Most of the audience never did.
As much as I can rip the film apart it isn’t a bad film -lord knows it’s not NERDLAND, which is really bad. But at the same time it doesn’t hold together like that awful film. This should be better. This feels like someone took a two hour film and cut half of it out. It’s a bunch of sketched ideas that need fleshing out. If this was a demo reel, which it looks like, I could accept it but as a finished film this film is a nice try but it’s a non-starter.
I suspect that this film is going to play best if you are a fan of Shaw’s graphic novels and know and love his rhythms. The small audience at Alice Tully was full of friends and fans of Shaw and they reacted with gales of laughter to some of the jokes. They also cheered wildly when the film ended. The rest of us just got up and walked out not waiting for the credits to end or the Q&A to start. I suspect that most people not being Dash Shaw fans was why the film had the first walk outs I’ve seen at the festival.
My biggest question concerning this film is what in the hell is this doing on the Main Slate at the New York Film Festival. The film is visually interesting enough that I could see it playing at the festival but on the Main Slate in the 1200 seat Alice Tully Hall? Are they mad?
This is especially a puzzlement when you consider all of the really good animated films floating around off and on the festival circuit. The answer to why they picked this one eludes me. RED TURTLE from Studio Ghibli seemed like it would have been the choice. Or if they were going to go off the board stylistically they could have picked the wonderful WINDOW HORSES which played Toronto and is burning up the festival circuits. The only thing I can think of is that when Amy Taubin said she had a shelf full of Dash’s work she wasn’t kidding. Perhaps the programmers are such big fans that they couldn’t see that the film wasn’t going to ever work outside his fan base.
To be honest the film being on the Main Slate at NYFF forces me to really consider a film that doesn’t deserve this much consideration. It’s a not very good film and while it should be noted in passing it shouldn’t be considered more than just a doodle even from an artist of some status. I suspect that had the film not been in a front and center position at NYFF I wouldn't be as hard on it I probably would have shrugged and just went on to the next thing.
You have to forgive me, this film has me flummoxed.
This is a very niche film, that is very much for a specific audience that is playing at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world in its biggest theater. While the festival is full of films that are never going to get a wide releases I pretty much always know why a film was a Main Slate selection. This time I’m clueless. Even as a supporter of small inde films, and inde animation I’m at a loss as to why this is on the main stage with the brightest lights upon it. I say this because putting it out there gives the film a weight it simply does have and give it an importance it doesn’t live up to.
This is ultimately a minor film.
Unless you’re a fan of Dash Shaw I can’t recommend the film