Phil Mulloy's work exists somewhere between the realm of the scatological sophomore and the defiant artist. At any moment, the British animator can be offensive, clever, bizarre, obvious, muddled, smug, distinct, or any combination of those traits. It would be easy to brand many of his scenes as pornography if his visuals weren't so primitive and ugly that they cancel out any sense of eroticism. He makes sure you always feel uneasy and dirty, never aroused.
KimStim and Kino's (Extreme Animation) films by Phil Mulloy collects 24 of Mulloy's shorts and offers a lengthy, if incomplete, overview of his career. Mulloy's loose narratives contain satirical parables that paint a bleak picture of human nature, complete with violence, longing and, whenever possible, penises.
Mulloy's style matches his worldview well. His character design yields grotesque, simple black-and-white men with gaping, white oval mouths and peg teeth. While the disc contains no information on Mulloy's working process, he appears to achieve this effect using ink-and-brush on paper and cells. It looks like the artist held the brush by sticking it up his nose, yet the compositions are usually smart and clever. Color is used sparingly (mainly for fire--often on spontaneously flaming penises), as is dialogue.
By presenting a two-and-a-half-hour sampling of Mulloy's previously unavailable filmography in one disc, KimStim gives us the opportunity to track the evolution--and lack thereof--of Mulloy's work from 1991 to 2001. (Extreme Animation) begins with the six-part Cowboys series (1991) and then offers two films about The History of the World (1994) and a film for each of The Ten Commandments (1994-1996), a collection that's kind of like Kieslowski's Dekalog but with more sci-fi tangents, surreal logic and--you guessed it--penises. Sadly, the last cycle of the DVD, Intolerance, is missing the third part of its trilogy. One may want to check the years of the miscellaneous films filed under the DVD's "Other Works" section and view them chronologically.
The impulse to offend is ever-present. His first series, Cowboys includes a tale of men in a tavern who trade tales of sexual conquest until they all get so excited that they must run outside and give it to their horses. Intolerance, centers around a race of aliens whose genitalia and heads are in opposite locations--which makes kissing relatives at the family reunion much more of a chore. Each of The Ten Commandments tackles its rule with flippant mockery and/or tangental disinterest.
Mulloy has a tendency to think he's more clever than he is, as is apparent in Cowboys: The Conformist, about a man who mutilates his glorious horse to fit in with all the cowboys who have wooden horses on wheels. It's such a self-satisfied, trite, from-A-to-B story that there's hardly any point in telling it. The History of the World: The Invention of Writing and Education tells the old chestnut of how the writer only writes to open the door to sexual intercourse. As if there were ever any question!
But Mulloy does belie some maturation as an artist in his work from 1996 an on (with the exception of 1998's The Sex Life of a Chair, which exists mainly as a study of how long you can draw out a lame joke until it's agonizingly tedious).
We find the animator at his most inventive in 1996's The Wind of Changes, based on the memories of Romanian voilinist Alex Balanescu. The film isn't only special because Mulloy quells his confrontational impulses for the most part, but because he pushes the boundaries of his visual technique, experimenting with more colors and textures and techniques than he did in any older film on the DVD. Rising to the meditative subject matter, he reaches a level of beauty not found in his other work.
The Chain (1997) depicts a meaningless war fought over a child's scribbles with white-on-black effects and also uses color to great effect. Finally Intolerance (especially part II) uses lighting effects to create some memorable visuals--so that we may better look at the penis-headed aliens.
KimStim and Kino's compilation was originally released in England by BFI. The video is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ration, with several films letterboxed to widescreen. Obviously anamorphic transfers of the wide-format films would have been nice, but Mulloy generally doesn't deal in details, so it doesn't feel like a huge loss. Some of the transfers look a tad on the dirty side, although that could be more indicative of Mulloy's style and way of working than damaged source material. Compression artifacts are rare, as they should be given the simplistic nature of the image. The blacks and whites are well produced, which is essential given the high-contrast nature of the material.
The stereo tracks on the shorts match the simple natures of the visuals. Everything is well recorded, albeit occasionally muddy, and works for its purpose. But obviously Mulloy wasn't going for a rich, full-bodied soundtrack. At one moment a loud, sustained hiss could be heard in the background, but fortunately it was during the closing credits. It may have been intentional, but if so I couldn't tell you why.
I'm sure the good folks at KimStim would like to point out that while there are no extra features on (Extreme Animtation), there are 153 minutes of shorts (but not Intolerance III). Nevertheless, a booklet sampling critical opinions of Mulloys work or featurettes documenting his working process would have been welcome. Oh well.
A glaring navigational omission mars the DVD's menu. The disc includes a "play all" option at the top of the main menu, but doesn't include one on the sub-menus for each series. So if you want to watch all 10 shorts from The Ten Commandments, you have to ether play them one at a time or select "play all" from the main menu skip through all of Cowboys and The History of the World.
However you feel about Mulloy's works, Kimstim and Kino ought to be commended for bringing this little-known filmmaker's work to the United States. Some people will be automatically offended by Mulloy's work, others automatically amused. Those of us in between are in for a sometimes frustrating, sometimes mesmerizing experience.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.