“The Split House” by Annie Poon

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Center Street in Provo is swiftly becoming the happen’est locale in Mormon arts. Pioneer Book has been hosting the monthly Mormon Lit Discussion Group and, more pertinent to this post, Writ and Vision has been hosting some great events and filling its gallery with provocative art.

Opening next weekend: Annie Poon.

Not being in Utah, I can’t speak much to the show (though I’ve seen the catalogue and it looks swell), but Annie gave me access to her new short film playing at Writ and Vision so let’s talk about that, shall we?

TheSplitHouse_00

It’s just under five minutes long and, thematically, strikes me as a cross between “Runaway Bathtub” and “Annie’s Circus“—and certainly it shares with those films its surrealism. (Aside: I don’t mean surreal, as it often seems to be used today, in the sense of Dalíesque—but, as Breton said, from the position of believing that “pure dreaming . . . is not inferior to the sum of the moments of reality.” All three of these films engage in a fluidity associated more with dreams than the empirical world, and all three of them find their truths through breezing past the strict requirements of realism.

Annie’s cut-out animation encourages viewer identification with her characters. Their ink-on-paper simplicity also connects us to childhood. While with “Runaway Bathtub” this connection is explicit and unbroken, even the “adult” characters of “Annie’s Circus” or “Split House,” by virtue of their medium of presentation, are as safe to identify with as a child. We haven’t all been owls, but the childlike innocence implicit in even her most dangerous characters, makes them as easy to identify with.

As the title suggests, “The Split House” includes various instances of characters splitting. When the woman transforms into an owl, for one. Here are two more:

TheSplitHouse_01 TheSplitHouse_02

The basic story line involves the lead character’s Alice-like adventures through her own subconscious, while in the form of an owl. Even within her subconscious, she finds portals leading her even deeper, (where she meets her black doppelganger).

That’s the opening to one interpretation. I could take it further, but I would rather not. The thing about surrealism proper, as I understand it, is less about finding a path through the surreal to greater rational understanding, but accepting the surreal as a form of understanding unto itself. In other words, the rational and the surreal are nonopposing epistemologies, much as many of us view religion and science: different means to understanding different (and thus noncontradictory) truths.

That said, the surreal is a delight to the critic because it’s like a playground for analysis. For instance, one argument I would make were I interested in being “right” about this film’s “true message” is that the main character finds redemption by becoming a Christfigure. Here’s some of the evidence I would employ:

TheSplitHouse_03 TheSplitHouse_04 TheSplitHouse_05 TheSplitHouse_06

I haven’t included everything I would use in building my argument, but part of what I find so interesting about this interpretation is the use of gender in building the image of Christ. For instance, moments of power are indicated with male imagery. Moments of grace and mercy and peace are accomplished through the original female character that began the film, although now she is at peace, her hair has grown, her clothing has waxed Pre-Raphaelite, and she has become pregnant. This is her first appearance:

TheSplitHouse_07

The contrast is great. It’s also, perhaps, notable, that her journey through darkness begins in a similar position to where it ends.

TheSplitHouse_08

For lack of a more certain term, the midwife/therapist has her lie prone, just as she will be later as she approaches her final state as a ship’s figurehead, leading the way.

I avoided reading Annie’s interview with Glen Nelson that appears in the show’s catalogue, but I did glance through it and one fact remains with me and I’ll share it with you now as I approach the end of what I’ll allow myself to say about “The Split House.” Annie said she

didn’t storyboard very much on The Split House. It was an interesting meditation and revealed itself bit by bit.

Even at five seconds created per day, “The Split House” hews true to surrealist ideals manifested in activities such as automatic drawing. In fact, you might argue that the slower speed at which animation is created has allowed Annie to be more deliberately automatic—which might be why her work is, shall we say, much more successful than the automatism of old.

Anyway. The film is available to see if you are in Utah. If not, I hope you see it soon. When you do, maybe I’ll tell you some of the other interpretations I haven’t been able to stop myself from making even though I really don’t think interpreting “The Split House” is the best way to appreciate it. The best way to appreciate it is simply to travel through it a time or two or three.

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