Lena Ólafsdóttir

CREAM | A Cruel Spectacle of Material Violence

Stop-motion animation has been tragically underrepresented in the realm of feature films. The many amazing stories of studio LAIKA (Coraline, Paranormal, Kubo and the Two Strings) have struggled to compete with their big-budget, CG-animated counterparts. Meanwhile, though critically well-received, Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant Anomalisa has remained a side note in discussions of its director’s work. The same can be said even for Wes Anderson’s two efforts, Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr. Fox. In all likelihood, the disruptions, gaps and fissures that characterise stop-motion, as well as the painstaking efforts needed to produce it, will preserve the medium’s position on the fringes of film culture. Those imperfections could therefore carelessly be considered mere handicaps, but a more thoughtful look at The Animation Workshop’s Cream unveils them as the source of stop-motion’s innate power.

While all but the most photorealistic animation films inherently exhibit their style, thereby calling attention to their nature as artistic constructions, stop-motion films are unique because they never erase the imperfect process that was used to bring their style to life. Movement stutters, forms remain ever-so-slightly inconsistent and textures cannot help but expose their tactile dimension. As unattractive and disruptive as those imperfections may be to some, to others they function as visible traces of impressive craftsmanship. For both types of viewers, it seems the materiality of stop-motion animation rouses a direct, visceral reaction in them. The strongest examples of the medium instrumentalize this characteristic effect, for whatever purpose suits their artistic intent.

In the disturbing Cream, tactility is weaponized in a sequence of violent deformations and bodily terrors. The film portrays a selection of figures in a doctor’s waiting room as they are subjected to various absurd spectacles. Close-ups of the puppets’ faces foreground their waxy features and the traces of the tools that were used to sculpt their uneven forms. The writhing, squirming textures in the doctor’s office reach out to us in an uncomfortably direct manner, underlined by a gruelling selection of painful grunts, frustrated screams and mean-spirited growls. Simply put, Cream is unlike most mainstream animation because it’s never a comfortable, seamless or amenable experience, and it never attempts to be.

The film wields a blasé irreverence that contrasts sharply with the meticulous craftsmanship that was undoubtedly required to produce it. In a memorable gesture of flippant disruption, one of the puppets crumples up into a ball of fleshy clay. Its pregnant wife is then unceremoniously attacked by an elderly woman before giving birth to a slimy child that she promptly abandons, her circular husband dutifully in tow. These surreal spectacles leave us reeling, unnerved and disgusted, though sardonically amused all the same. Cream is a cruel film, but it’s an undeniably fun one as well.

Pragmatically speaking, it’s only natural that the time-consuming work of stop-motion, disregarded as it has been among feature films, should find a more comfortable home in the world of short film. A more practicable runtime has enabled idiosyncratic filmmakers to experiment with stop-motion’s defining features in ways that would never have seen the light of day in big-budget feature films. Cream is a consequence of that creative leeway and a powerful yet playful example of stop-motion’s enduring artistic potential. By gleefully capitalizing on materiality with bombastic grotesquerie, the film offers a perfect marriage of form and content.

Mike Schrauwen,  is currently an MA student of Media Studies at Leiden University and is an intern and junior programmer at Leiden Shorts Film Festival 2021.