Dash Shaw's Resplendent Teenage Turmoil
The MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA director talks about psychedelia, CGI, and nerd-dom trumping race.
Do you see your own work as akin to the work of more avant-garde animators like Klahr?
I don’t think about that much. If I do want to place myself somewhere, it’s with cartoonists who make animation. I don’t want to compare myself to him, because I think he’s the greatest ever, but I’d pick something like the first Astro Boy series created by [Osamu] Tezuka. That’s a case where he was a comic-book artist who wanted to make animation. He relied on his skills as a cartoonist to make cinema. You don’t need to know that to enjoy his work, but for me, it was definitely inspiring. I got a Fandor subscription because they had those kind of unusual animators, and I’m a million times more inspired by that than any animation in TV or contemporary movies. I basically just watched those kinds of avant-garde shorts and anime made before 1990.
Do you feel a bit out of place in American animation, where there’s not much room for films aimed at adults or even smart teenagers?
Well, I guess that’s a good question. I don’t even feel like I’m in that category. It’s a different world to me. I feel like I’m an independent filmmaker. Kyle Martin, who was a producer on my movie, has produced a lot of great independent films, like Tiny Furniture and Bluebird. Another producer, Craig Zobel, did a great movie called Compliance. I’m much more excited to see a new movie by Shane Carruth or Alex Ross Perry. If I had to choose a niche, all independent cinema is really exciting now. Because this movie’s animated, it’s different, and I guess it feels different from other independent movies. I was a teenager in the ‘90s, and Pulp Fiction made a huge impression on me. I saw a connection between independent film and limited animation, where Speed Racer harnessed its limited budget to its aesthetic. Ideally, it leads to something more exciting than a giant Hollywood movie.
At the same time, Hollywood these days seems defined by drawing on things outside cinema, like video games and comic books. Your film almost seems like the punk or DIY equivalent. Do you see that connection?
I know what you mean. The fact that all Hollywood movies now are superhero movies, that I drew a Spiderman and Doctor Strange comic for Marvel and it’s now totally mainstream entertainment is bizarre to me, especially since they play to people with no interest in following those characters. I also have no interest in seeing any of those movies. It’s funny to me that all these great, cool actors are submitting to nerds and playing Doctor Strange. Like Tilda Swinton. It’s deeply strange and weird.
Are you at all attracted to CGI, or do you plan to make another movie on your kitchen table?
I’m working on another movie now. It’s drawn, although it looks different from High School Sinking. But it’s still in a similar language or scale. I have no real interest in CGI, but I did see a movie called Gantz: O that has a weird coldness to it. That was the first time I saw CG that had a harsh, strange meanness. I can’t really recommend it, but when I saw it, I thought 'Wow, CG has its own weird, messed-up look.' It’s a Japanese movie.
There seem to be a lot of references to Op Art and Abstract Expressionism in your film. Do you have a background in art history?
Well, I studied comic books at the School of Visual Arts, but I always really loved painting. I fell in love with painting from looking at reproductions in books. Small, printed paintings made a huge impression on me. I buy into the mythology of Abstract Expressionism: “existential crisis,” “peering into the void.” It’s funny to me to pair it with teenage turmoil. It’s also appropriate to reach into the drama of those paintings to dramatize a teenage boy’s crisis, specifically. It’s a critique of those paintings, but it’s also trying to find something useful in them. I’m not really a painter. I find it hard to make a single piece without a story. When I have a story idea, the original artwork usually looks like a painting.
Your sensibility seems influenced by psychedelic culture and art. I was wondering if that was a conscious influence on you as well, things like poster art and underground comics.
Definitely. I think there’s two parts to your question: psychedelic art and also drug experiences. When you read interviews with a lot of the psychedelic artists, they didn’t even use drugs. They were gazing at Aubrey Beardsley drawings and it was part of a look. In my movie, the liquid light shows are such an obvious reference that will forever be tied to psychedelia. Underground comics pioneered autobiographical comics, like Justin Green and R. Crumb. Crumb is forever attached to the ‘60s. But I like movies as a drug experience more than a plot. I didn’t do drugs in high school, but I tried them later in life. I’m glad I came to them later. I would especially watch cartoons on a giant projector shown on my walls while stoned on magic mushrooms. I feel like this movie is very obviously made by someone who watched a lot of cartoons stoned.
I got that impression, but I didn’t want to actually come out and ask if you’ve taken drugs.
Even prior to that drug experience, watching low-budget animations as a kid where the image would wobble and flickers had a similar effect to mushrooms. Not only am I getting information about the content of this scene, but there’s also an abstract story going on simultaneously about lines changing and the hashmarks of this guy’s arm. In my movie, I feel like the form and content are constantly battling each other. Someone’s face will flicker on and off. I like a lot of cartoonish painters. I think Peter Sahl has said he’s never taken drugs, but his work still has psychedelic forms. I know Carol Dunham has taken drugs. There’s a sensibility in this movie around a goofy, silly story.
There’s one aspect of the film I found provocative, although maybe it’s unintentional. Your cast of both characters and actors is multi-racial, but at the same time, people’s skin color keeps changing, including colors that don’t exist in real life. It struck me as a way of thinking differently about depicting whiteness and blackness.
High schools in America are multi-racial. If you’re a nerdy white kid, like I was, you’re going to find yourself hanging out with the nerdy Asian kids and the nerdy black kids. You’re primarily more a nerd than whatever your race is. That’s what my experience is: You’re surrounded by people of different backgrounds. I know what you mean about the colors, but I didn’t think about it. I thought they were just part of the trip of the movie. My comics would change colors all the time. From the lines, you can tell which character is which, and you could throw any color over them. It was a way of making literal each character’s warped perspective and creating a sensory experience.
Are you a big fan of ’80s teen movies, or were you drawing mostly on your experiences?
I was born in 1983. People keep mentioning John Hughes movies or Irwin Allen disaster movies from the ’70s. From my perspective, I grow up more in the ’90s, and a lot of anime then was about schools in danger, like every Sailor Moon episode was about a monster attacking a school. I thought I was making an alternate U.S. version of that. I’m sure I’ve seen Hughes and Allen movies, but I have no real memory of them. I was also influenced by video games’ music and structure. But I didn’t play many games, although I had friends who invited me over to their house to watch them play. It burned into my brain the idea of video games as a cinematic experience, rather than a participatory one. A lot of those early games have limited animation, essentially, like minimal art. I feel like the movie’s more ’90s. I want it to feel like a 2017 movie, honestly.