The External World picked up yet another award this week, Best Short Film at Anim’est in Romania. I don’t pretend to entirely understand what’s going on in this vibrant and eccentric short, but I like it nonetheless. Somehow managing to find the balance between hyperactive editing and slowly developing themes, director David O’Reilly effortlessly shocks, charms and bewilders. It’s a bit like Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected, in both its schizophrenia and penchant for the violent and scatological.
Yet The External World requires a little bit more work on the part of its audience, and not just because it’s eight minutes longer. There are so many elements, crowding the film’s first half in a succession that would approach tedium if O’Reilly’s structure weren’t so creative. A surprising number of television-reminiscent linking devices guide the short through an almost impossible number of vignettes, with characters behaving more than a little horribly to one another along the way. The initial kid and his abusive piano teacher are almost forgotten by the time they make their second appearance, the first hint of any structural clarity.
All of this is enriched by an extraordinary attention to detail. So much is going on in every frame, from little bits of writing on walls to quirky backdrop characters. At one point there is even a Pikachu wearing a Mickey Mouse mask, perhaps a comment on the absurdity of copyright law? O’Reilly comments on modern art, pharmaceuticals, and even Harvey Weinstein. One character even quips “Don’t worry, it’s just animation. It has no real effect on people,” after coming upon his son watching some inappropriate videos on the internet. The External World is jam-packed with stuff to think about.
Everything comes together in the end, though that hardly simplifies the film’s content. In a weird way it’s a bit like 8 1/2, musically uniting its wide cast of eccentric characters into a single symbolic space. Yet The External World doesn’t quite leave us with such an upbeat final flourish. The music never gets bouncier, sticking to its morose and mildly creepy tune. We’re left with an eerie sense of gloom, suddenly adrift in outer space with nowhere else to go.