Today, things in Estonia seem not-so-bad. It enjoys a #1 ranking in the State of the World Liberty Index,1 and its freedom of the press ranks several spots higher than our own blessed United State. The economy is growing at an impressive clip and the Estonian government is recognized worldwide as a leader on the human rights front. But, it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, the people of Estonia are only in their 20th year of independence from the former Soviet Union, who occuped the nation from 1940 to 1991 - the only break in this decades-long domination was from 1941 to 1944, and that was only because instead of the USSR, it was Germany occupying them. On top of that, the European Union didn’t grant Estonia entry until 2004. Suffice it to say, Estonians and transplanted Russians alike did not always have it so easy—all those years under repressive regimes stripped them of their former identities. Control and censorship were the unfortunate pillars of Estonian society.
It is this history, coupled with the mountain of modern problems the rest of the world endures, that serves as the fuel for mastermind Priit Parn’s wildly absurd animated films. By the way, I know that saying something is “wildly absurd” is a bit redundant and unnecessary, but I cannot think of a representative way to describe the overall tone of Parn’s films. Just saying they're "absurd" doesn't seem like enough.
To be sure, these are powerful films. Parn uses a style that’s inspired many other animators, most notably, the Klasky Csupo animation studio, creators of Rugrats and Ahh Real Monsters.2 Stylistically, it’s sometimes jarring and unnerving; ragged drawings with intense colors and often mind-bending instrumental music, that all serves to create an incredible experience. There is very little in the way of dialogue, and far less in the way of context; there is no real immediately discernable narrative. In fact, a cursory viewing of Parn’s work, might just appear to be a collage of ideas, loosely strung together in the hopes of creating a story. However, one must dig in deeper to see the true, haunting beauty of Parn’s work.
Too often, we of the western world get off easy when it comes to entertainment. We are force-fed happy endings in commercial cinema. Network television comedies telegraph their jokes. Characters on mainstream television and movies are carbon copies of everything that preceded them. In other words, the amount of risks taken in modern, western entertainment is small and hard-to-find.
I don’t have a great answer as to why this is the case, but I think it’s just the fact that we’ve gotten used to it. We’ve gotten used to the idea that we, as an audience, don’t have to do any work. We don’t have to derive meaning out of things, and we don’t have to fill in context. And, of course, sometimes we just want to zone out and watch something that doesn’t force us to think. And all that is perfecly okay. In all honesty, after watching Parn’s three films, I myself took a break and watched three straight episodes of CBC’s amazingly hilarious and stupid Trailer Park Boys.
However, after viewing the films ("Hotel E", "Breakfast on the Grass" and "Triangle"), I was extremely thankful that this sort of art still exists, and thankful that Parn forced me to think in a way that I’m not often required to do. In "Hotel E", Parn has created two universes: a colorful, laid-back but dull landscape which seems to represent the “American dream,” and a drab, grayer universe, where men are forced to sit at a round table, sipping what seems to be espresso while a swinging blade moves across the table. The men methodically lift their cups and saucers each time the blade approaches them, so as not to shatter the precious porcelain holding their liquids. The entire time, those in the more colorful room seem to have very few cares, though their actions are entirely superficial. A man in a visor focuses solely on golfing. A lazy dude in a cap sprawls out on a couch, watching television and spends most of his time waving away people standing in his line of vision. Meanwhile, a man from the other world tries desperately to escape into the American dream. Eventually he does so, but when the door is finally locked on his former world, everyone in his new home sits down at a circular table, to - yes - drink some sort of liquid out of a tiny cup. A laser-like blade cuts across the table, and the more colorful, American-seeming crowd drinks their cups in the exact same way as their grayer counterparts. Parn seems to be saying here: we’re all fucked. It is bitingly funny, but also deeply moving. For all the freedoms we enjoy in America, we often take it for granted. We indulge in silly things. We often ignore the big issues and shirk our responsibilities as citizens of a free world.
Of course, that’s just my interpretation of it. But that seems to be Parn’s main intention: to provoke his audience into thinking, into doing the heavy-lifting of filling in context. It is not an incredibly easy film to watch, as it is entirely surreal and contextually sparse, but the satisfaction one feels afterwards is worth the work of trying to understand the story and meaning of it all.
The late, great Kurt Vonnegut once remarked in Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation about Writing, that “literature is the only art that requires our audience to be performers.” After watching Parn’s films, I’m not so sure that literature is indeed the only art-form that requires a performance out of the audience. True, there are no actors in literature, no set to see, no images at all, just the ones we create in our head. However, there is an element of audience-performance to Parn’s films. Though there is a cast of characters, we still have to fill in the blanks on what it all means.
Personally, I am thankful for this. Thankful that there is still someone out there, pushing people to shake off the cobwebs of banal entertainment and focus on something truly provoking and thoughtful for an hour or two. And, maybe a little guiltily, I'm also glad that afterwards we can all go back to our reruns of Top Chef.