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Teeth Short Film Analysis Essay

Movie critics don't write about short films much. Or at all. Short films get shown in their hundreds and thousands at festivals, and most great directors have cut their teeth making them, often at their own expense, which serve as that most yearned-for of things, a "calling card" for their entry into the profession. But despite the fact that they are often brilliant, they don't show up on the culture radar - unlike the world of literature, which values, and is seen to value, short stories.

I came across a short film recently which blew everything else I had seen that week out of the water. It had come into my hands as part of a DVD that the UK Film Council had made as part of its Cinema Extreme project: commissioning short films on provocative, extreme subjects from new British filmmakers.

The disc was thrust into my hands at the Cannes film festival. It slopped around in my bag for a while, and kicked around in my office a while longer, and then in an idle moment I slipped it into my MacBook Pro and pretty well at random clicked on one: Soft, by Simon Ellis. It was 14 minutes long. I shall just watch this, I thought, and then pop out for lunch.

After it was over, there was no question of my popping anywhere, or doing anything other than lying on the sofa with a cushion on my face, whimpering in fear and paranoia. Soft is shocking and violent, and ingeniously, intimately upsetting in a way I can only compare to the controversial scenes in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible.

It is about bullying and happy-slapping. The first sequence shows flickering mobile phone video footage of a teenage boy getting brutally beaten up. An inspired opening. A later sequence, now on conventional celluloid, shows the same teenage gang with a swaggering Asbo-type leader, bullying and scaring a grown-up middle-aged man outside a newsagent.

The man comes home and is shocked to see his teenage son is bruised and bloody: it is the same boy from the video. Then the gang turn up outside their house, sitting on the man's car, taunting them both, and the son is horrified to discover that the man is scared. The film escalates to an apocalyptically violent finale which triggered feelings in me that as a fully paid-up liberal I found uncomfortable: a sense of justified revenge, together with a sick sense that such a revenge would be impossible to enact.

Soft is relevant in a society when we hear about teenage violence and stabbings all the time. And it is brilliant because as grownups we forget how scared we often were as children - of bullies or anything else. A child's second worst nightmare might be to be bullied: but his or her greater nightmare would be for the parents to find out about it. A parent's greatest nightmare, greater than this, would be to be bullied and for his child to find out. To be scared in front of his child: an unthinkable humiliation.

The film reminded me of an essay I read by the late Alexander Walker about Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange: that the film was not merely about violence but about something deeper, darker, more unsayable: a fear of our children, and older people's fear and hatred of the young.

Soft has already won prizes at festivals. It is next being shown on Wednesday July 11 at 4pm at the Cambridge film festival, as part of its UK Shorts strand, and will almost certainly surface at British festivals after that: FilmFour has broadcast it once, and I hope will do so again.

Check it out.

The marvel of our bodies and their constituent parts is so natural that it escapes everyday examination. We’re so habituated by our fine strands of hair, our ever-growing nails, and yes, our hard, enameled teeth, that we ignore that in many ways they are profoundly strange.

teeth, the new film by celebrated animation duo Daniel Gray and Tom Brown, seeks to snap us out of this comfortable obliviousness by focusing on a character with a profoundly disembodied relationship to his teeth. It’s an odd premise, and its execution defies easy categorization, trending as it does towards body horror, but not rising to a level of being truly scary. Instead, through its focused visuals, solemn voice over, and unnerving sound design, the film opts for a tone of psychological discomfiture through the chronicling of a life of peculiar preoccupation that culminates in actions that are truly upsetting. 

While Brown is based in NYC and Gray in Hungary, the duo met and began their partnership in animation school in the UK, and the film goes forth in a manner that I associate as British, propulsed as it by the voice over of a gravelly veteran actor (Richard E. Grant) and in an economical sweep, covering the life of lonely man’s obsession.  The visuals are a delight, employing a painterly palette of muted colors punctuated often by the color red for bold contrast. The style, an evolution of their previous film, T.O.M, builds off of that effort, yet is expanded by years of commercial experience. That experience did not in any way streamline the effort of making the film though as Brown, quoted in a piece on the film in Vice, notes that the visual aesthetic is “…not a commercial style we could ever use because it took me three years just to color it in.”

Sound Design does not get called out much for recognition on this site, but Antfood, a favored studio of the animation set,  is prominently listed in press materials for the film, and rightfully so. Sound is a vital aspect of teeth—with its preponderance of tightly framed shots, visually the film is almost claustrophobic in its narrow focus (mirroring the obsession of its main character), but the sound design both expands and amplifies the films themes, punctuating the body horror that is implicit in the premise via a delightfully organic mix of gurgling swallows and uneasy scrapings underlined by burbling, unsettling, bass.

This attention to detail in all aspects of the film is obvious, and underline what a labor of love it was for its principals, who confide that, from ideation to completion, the process took almost 8 years. With that in mind, the gratification received from film’s reception must have been immense, as the film premiered at Sundance, was awarded a Special Recognition honor from SXSW, and also received Best Animation at the British Animation Awards. The duo continue their commercial careers under their Holbrooks banner, but we hope that the arduous experience has not exhausted them from pursuing their filmmaking further. Knowing these talented gents as we do however, I expect we’ll continue to see exciting artistic work from them in the future. 

Film Website


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