Saturday, June 28, 2008

An Unfocused Imagination
Defining art isn’t easy—it’s like pornography in that you know it when you see it, or hear it, or experience it, as the case may be. I’ll be the first to fess up to the core fact that I don’t always know what art is, since the term is thrown around like discarded tissue. I knew an “artist” in the eighties who actually said if he puked on the sidewalk, and called it art, then it was art, since he, as the artist, defines art. Truth is, puking on a sidewalk, no matter how you rationalize it, is not art. It’s puke on a sidewalk.

The problem with artists defining art is it turns the entire process into an opaque little box of self-congratulation, where like-minded sycophants convince themselves that everybody else just isn’t hip enough to understand that sidewalk barf is art because the artist said so.

The indie film Imagination doesn’t take its pretensions that far, but it does take itself very seriously as “art.” And therein lays its fatal flaw. Ostensibly, Imagination is a film about the varying perceptions of reality—a favorite subject for philosophers, quantum physicists and stoners alike. Co-written by brothers Eric and Jeffrey Leiser, Imagination is the story of twin sisters, one autistic, or actually suffering from Azperger’s Syndrome, and the other, legally blind, fated to be totally blind at some indeterminate point. Being twins, though, they of course share a telepathic bond and a form of communication known only to them. What their parents don’t see is that their daughters are linked by the power of imagination, which in no small part leads to the dissolution of the family—the father runs away, retreating to the local speakeasys, and the mother is killed while driving on the freeway during a conveniently timed earthquake. The twins, effectively orphaned, are taken in by the kindly psychotherapist at his institution, where things take an “unexpected”, if telegraphed, turn.

To say the story is thin is being charitable—the basic premise of linked twins has been done many times before, and usually better, most recently in the indie production Brothers of the Head. The acting here doesn’t fare any better, either—the performers walk through their lines bereft of any semblance of emotion, disconnected from the characters they are supposed to portray. Even though the script doesn’t offer the actors many opportunities to emote, and the direction in the live sequences is reminiscent of a 1950’s educational film, the cast, admittedly mostly first-timers merely recite their lines.

The story in Imagination, though, is an incidental anecdote to showcase Eric’s animation skills and Jeffrey’s music composition talents. In those regards, the brothers show a great deal of promise. It’s in the animation sequences that Imagination shines, even though it’s heavily influenced by the work of Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer. The music backdrop shows traces of Philip Glass, but with a bit more meat to it. It’s here that the brothers work seamlessly together, and come close to achieving the avant garde piece they sought out to make.

The problem with Imagination is that the elements of storyline and surreal animation never quite gel. The result is jarring—on the one hand is a terribly played live action drama, and on the other, a lyrical bit of animation illustrated by a haunting score. As much as the brothers Leiser would like us to accept Imagination as an enigmatic piece of art, it emerges more as an animation portfolio. That being said, the brothers Leiser may well be players in the future of cinema. Once they get over their art for art’s sake fixation, they may make a cohesive film.

Imagination is a nice try, but doesn't quite make it.