“Sometimes you gotta feed the serpent its own damn tail”
The love child of David Lynch and Michel Gondry has been born in Rochester, NY and its name is The Beast Pageant. Screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, Albert Birney and Jon Moses’s film is obtuse, inventive, funny, and more than it appears on the surface. Well, at least I’d like to think it is. Despite Birney’s answer of “dreams, making a film, and shooting around his city” when asked what his inspiration was, there has to be so much more underneath, whether consciously or not. The first half of the film screams rhetoric that chastises the world’s consumerist culture. It may be expressed unconventionally, but when you have a man—Abe (played by Moses)—locked into a home decorated with thick black bars reminiscent of a prison and a job mechanically laid out out in grid form, at the beck and call of gigantic computer structures selling him products with the touch of a button, how could it not? After his first step towards breaking free from the chains, though, the film definitely becomes more surreal, absurd, and fun for fun’s sake.
And that’s not a bad thing by any means. Although I connected more with the first act, I can honestly say the sheer chaos of its second held nothing but intrigue, even if it lacked the strong message at its back. Ultimately, the entire project is a look into a man who has been defeated of any originality, of any sense of self, for a life of methodical patterns and easy answers. His girlfriend is out of the picture (Chelsea Bonagura), living now as a detached head imprisoned by the silicone wired behemoth of buttons, screens, and blips in his home after being overtaken by a fleet of dead fish—the same creatures prevalent throughout as his means for sustenance and as the commodity his job produces. Fish—see the daily grind of work—has caused him to overlook the things that truly matter, the little moments of joy like a kitchen waltz lost under the weight of societal conventions. Dancing becomes the stark contrast from his dreary walks in the smog and industrial architecture around him. The writhing of naked bodies, strobe cut through darkness within the physical manifestation of an antlered beast becomes the embodiment of untainted life.
But Abe has finally had enough and his body—if not his mind—is ready to break free, creating a mini-Tex version of him, called Zeke. This little man, manifested from an itchy boil on Abe’s stomach, strums his guitar and sings songs of affirmation, leading his dejected whole on a journey in search of freedom. Gone will be the days of working in silence as an old man gives him small papers with codes that only create more fish; gone is him coming home to non-melodic greetings from a fleeting memory of the woman he loved; gone is the genial man in the machine (Ted Greenway) hocking his wares through commercials and requests of purchase via speaker horn at Abe’s side. Brainwashed into this life without escape, Abe must venture out into the wild, amongst beasts of nature—a wonderful menagerie of costumed characters with horns, fur, or whatever other woodland attribute capable of adding surrealistic intrigue—and beasts of humanity—S. Michael Smith’s Watermelon Man, an anarchist selling his hammers and awaiting the destruction of convenience they threaten to cause.
Birney and Moses’s background in music video work is apparent through the inventive use of materials and props, calling to mind Gondry’s penchant for giant papier-mâché appendages. In fact, with three full-length song interludes, you could say The Beast Pageant is an elaborate promotional work to advertise the orchestral pieces and folk ditties. Little Zeke belts the tunes while Jason Olshefsky and Ali Fernaays dance with glee or the tree people contort and shake in a Bacchanal of pure inhibition. I want to believe that the whole could have been more effective if these sequences were cut or shortened, but I’m also hard-pressed to envision the work without them. No matter the complete feeling of confusion at moments, nor the times when you want there to be deeper meaning but can’t seem to find it, each second that passes refuses to bore you despite its deliberate pacing. Everything that occurs is one more swing of the hammer at Abe’s subconscious, pushing him towards total liberation and a rebirth from the carnage, naked and ready for the future.
The message is that when you really put your mind to it, anything is possible. The film itself begins with Greenway’s own nude awakening to the joy of living, black orbs rolling towards him to create whatever he sees fit. The fact a bird flies from his hands shows how despite society’s penchant for repression, we as humans are creators above destroyers. The Beast Pageant is full of cyclical moments like this, small things that occur again to reinforce the patterns we find ourselves stuck following. It is above all else an art film, so don’t be turned off by the insane things happening or the practical effects and stop-motion animation that actually becomes quite endearing. Birney and Moses inject as much found object as they can, turning one man’s garbage into a useful piece of art, appropriating not only junk, but also the electronic sounds of the 8-bit video game era and a cut and paste type filtering of real actors in lieu of strict reality when it comes to the often hilarious commercials shown by the machine—watch and love Fish Chompers and The Razor. It’s definitely not for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your attention.
courtesy of The Beast Pageant official site