THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Short films are a very special art form. For years, they were little seen by the public, but thankfully that is changing. Cable channels like Cinemax and IFC regularly run them and, of course, film festivals all over the world add them to their programming schedules. I don’t review a lot of them here, mostly for reasons of time and space. However, every so often – via one means or another – a short film really catches my attention. Such was the case with Dirty Girl, a six-minute short directed by Jennifer Clary that is scheduled to play at this year’s Maryland Film Festival, which is held in Baltimore on May 1-4. Dirty Girl is part of “Shorts Program: Potpourri” and will screen in auditorium #4 of the great Charles Theater, a wonderfully atmospheric place in which to see some great indie motion pictures. The first screening takes place on May 2 at 9:00 PM, with the second scheduled for May 3 at 4:00 PM.

Dirty Girl is, on the surface, a simple film to describe. It tells the tale of a woman undergoing cancer surgery. Clary uses tight close-ups to convey the process. First we see the patient’s breast surrounded by surgical cloth, then an unseen surgeon’s hand holding a scalpel, then an incision, and finally a tight shot of the woman’s mouth as she gasps. This process is repeated as the anonymous woman has surgery on several parts of her body. There is no dialogue here: just well-timed sound effects and the breathing/gasping of the woman.

A claymation still from Dirty Girl
As the surgeon goes in, the format of the movie changes. Clay animation is used to depict the cancerous cells that are ravaging the woman’s body. The clay figures are menacing-looking, with angry eyes and sharp teeth. Sometimes they fight back as the surgical tools try to yank them out. Each little vignette ends with a jarring juxtaposition as we move back to reality and the surgeon displays a very authentic (and bloody) tissue mass.

Like I said, Dirty Girl is easy to describe on the surface, but a lot harder to describe in terms of impact. Clay animation has traditionally been the domain of frivolity: Gumby, the California Raisins, Mr. Bill, etc. To suggest that cancer is portrayed using this format may sound like the movie is trivializing its subject, yet nothing could be further from the truth. As unlikely as it sounds, the approach gives Dirty Girl a raw and unexpected power. By subverting our expectations, it strikes us in a very profound manner.

The idea of mixing live action and clay animation came to the director organically says Clary, who had a tumor removed from her left breast when she was twenty-one. “I had a recurring nightmare about the experience which played out exactly like Dirty Girl,” she told me. “In my nightmare, the tumors were animated characters and I decided to remain true to my mind’s initial interpretation of the surgical experience. In a sense, I made Dirty Girl to explore my own psychological reactions to disease and invasive medical treatments.”

This personal relevance comes through in every frame. Often times, short films (even the best ones) are somewhat emotionally distant: you’re witnessing a clever concept as opposed to something genuine or heartfelt. Dirty Girl, on the other hand, works on a deeper psychological level, strongly conveying the sense of intrusion or invasion that cancer patients commonly report feeling.

“I think that an offbeat approach worked for this particular film because of the personal nature of the material,” Clary adds. “My medical experience affected my imagination in a certain way and I wanted to share that very personal, very specific experience with the film’s audiences. As a director, I portray something the way I see it in my imagination and hope that it reads to others. I think because cancer is a disease which so many of us experience either personally or through a connection to afflicted loved ones, Dirty Girl reads differently to everyone who sees it. When someone watches a film, they bring with them their life experiences. Unquestionably, their personal experiences impact the way they perceive art. No two people will ever be impacted by Dirty Girl or any artistic piece in exactly the same way. For some viewers I believe that the mixed medium format of Dirty Girl is very powerful and something that they can relate to. However, other viewers may perceive the cartoonish tumors as an inappropriate portrayal of the disease and will feel that the film is trivializing cancer.”

It’s true that some may feel that way, but I think those who do will be missing the point. Yes, at some level, there is an occasional wink of humor here (laughter, as they say, is the best medicine), but far from trivializing cancer, Dirty Girl really drives home the horrific invasiveness of it. The disease itself may be portrayed in a traditionally “cartoonish” format, yet the plight of the female protagonist is unexpectedly touching. I found myself breathing a sigh of relief along with her every time a piece of the cursed disease was ripped from her body.

Such a project requires a lot of work, especially given the challenges of the clay animation process. Says Clary, “We worked six days a week for three consecutive weeks. We worked between 7-10 hours per day. We messed up several times and had to start over. It was a very difficult decision for me to animate the tumors because I had no prior animation experience. Claymation is very tedious but there is something messy and beautiful about it that I feel is impossible to achieve with any other art form.”

Dirty Girl had its world premiere at the Tampere Film Festival in Finland, and its American premiere will be this year at MFF in Baltimore (which, it should be added, is a wonderfully receptive festival for those who have made short films). Clary plans to enter her movie in additional festivals throughout 2008, and she has received interest from several distributors. The director, who cites Tim Burton as an influence, also plans to begin production on her first full-length feature in either December 2008 or January 2009.

Be on the lookout for this incredible short film, and visit the official website for more information. This is, hands down, one of the best and most compelling shorts I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, both in terms of style and substance. “I hope that Dirty Girl provides people with an alternative view of cancer and surgery,” Clary concludes. I think it’s safe to say that her mission has been magnificently accomplished.

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