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Arts & Culture Film, Theatre & TV

An Animated Story of Love, Love Lost & Joy 

  • November 19, 2023
  • 10 min read
An Animated Story of Love, Love Lost & Joy 

by Henry Scott Irvine

Robot Dreams is a truly touching, yet highly amusing animated feature film. One of the most inventive animations of our age. A solid gold masterpiece. 

Robot Dreams is a 102 minute, Spanish-French, EU Arts funded, multiple investor backed co-production, adapted from a graphic novel by Sara Varon. This vibrant film is filled with soul-jazz music, and metropolitan sounds, but nodialogue. Apparently, it’s visually inspired by certain schools of Japanese animation, according to the screenwriter-director. We can certainly see meticulously drawn street scenes. These streets, however, are not Japanese, but those of New York.

Robot Dreams is set in Manhattan somewhere between the timeframe of the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s. All of the characters are variant animal species, or Robots. “Why are all of the characters animals?” enquired a young boy of the director Pablo Berger at The LFF’s screening at The Curzon Mayfair Q & A. He responded kindly.

I’d venture that Berger’s ultimate aim comes via ‘the theatre of the absurd’, and surrealistic satire. All in order to capture Manhattan’s funky heyday, with scenes set in Chinatown, the hustle and bustle of NYC’s Downtown, and Central Park. All vividly hand drawn. Key scenes capture street dancing with the characters in Central Park, grooving to beatboxes blaring out Earth, Wind & Fire’s September. The song becomes a placeholder. A musical motif for the memories shared by the two main characters.  

Early scenes begin in the one room apartment of a lonely character named Dog. He is a Dog! Dog sees a TV advert for a companion that you can ‘build yourself’. In a metropolitan world where ‘the watchers’ watch ‘the watched’, we look at Dog from their point-of-view. We peer through Dog’s apartment window from the perspective of a flock of inquisitive Pigeons. They gather to watch Dog as he opens a huge cardboard box. All in readiness to construct his Robotic companion. 

Robot and Dog soon bond and become best buddies. They immediately fall in love. The pair visit Coney Island Amusements. Robot takes Dog deep sea diving. A bad move. Robot needs oiling. Robot collapses on the beach. Dog can’t move him. So, he returns the following day with STP Oil and a tool kit. Only to find the beach surrounded by barbed wire, and gated. Locked-up until the following summer. Dog’s buddy remains stuck in the sand. All alone and sad eyed. 

Months pass. Dog does all he can to rescue Robot. 

What follows is a film of inventive animator imagination. Almost as a homage to the many key aspects of Silent Cinema. We also have memories seen as montage-styled-flashbacks a la Nic Roeg’s movies, Hitchcockian P.O.V shots, and comedic nods to Buster Keaton. Yes!  All drawn as animation. Meanwhile, the Robot dreams of his own beach escape. He then appears to actually get away from the beach. Only for us to suddenly realise that the escape was just another Robot dream.

Dog goes sledging in the snow-covered hills of upstate New York, only to crash, ending up in plaster. Sad and alone on a bus back to Manhattan, Dog peers through steamed-up bus windows, drawing his own image in the condensation. A metaphorical tear rolls down the windowpane from his own finger drawn eye. 

The film’s ending, which I will not reveal, is both true to life, and inspirational. The message? Let go of your past and move on. I guarantee you’ll leave smiling, but with a tear in your eye. Go and see this film when it officially opens in February through Curzon Cinema distribution. Meanwhile, watch the awards pour in. 

Take the family. See Robot Dreams on a big screen or stream it online. You’ll not be disappointed

Jonathan Glazer’s Return 

The Zone of Interest UK premiered to critical acclaim at this year’s London Film Festival when almost 5,000 people saw it at the Royal Festival Hall over two separate screenings. The film proved to be the most popular film at the 67th LFF. Not only in terms of pre-bookings, but also in terms of capacity. All hot on the heels of The Grand Prix award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where three more prizes were given to the film. Touted as the most anticipated film of the year, it’s some ten years since director Jonathan Glazer made his last feature film Under the Skin. His first movie being the ‘Brit Gangster Flick’ Sexy Beast in 2000.

To walk into this film wholly uninitiated would be the best plan of action for actual full-on impact. Should you wish to do that? Stop reading this review. That, however, would be a tad churlish. So, I’ll steer you through. Just imagine that you haven’t seen any clips, trailers, or read any reviews (no official Trailers or Clips have yet been made available at the time of writing this). 

The next two paragraphs will attempt to describe the film as Glazer intended you to see it. Fresh. 

A black screen filled with unsettling sonic-inspired music lasts for up to three deafening minutes. Next, we watch a group of people relaxing by a midsummer lake. Some young men are seen fooling around, splashing one another. Subsequent scenes show a well-off family with a large house that has an extensive garden situated near to fields and an orchard. The family appears to be happy. They have a pet dog. A maid is there working in service. This German speaking family is living in a 1940’s period house. A woman tries on a Mink Coat in her bedroom, before ordering the maid to have it cleaned. A clue suggests the origin of the coat. Disturbing background industrial sounds linger obtrusively. A frivolous garden conversation demeans people with a throwaway remark, “A typical Jew, and a typical Bolshevik’, says a female friend.

A Nazi is seen in the hallway. Over the garden wall we see glimpses of some buildings. This is Auschwitz. The Holocaust Death Camp for a million Jews, filled with its horrific gas chambers. Meanwhile, carrying on with life, the Höss household reveals the pursuit of ‘a normal everyday family’. We soon realise that this is the home of the camp Commander, Rudolph Höss. From there on in, the chills begin. The Höss family’s ambivalence as to what is going-on, unseen, soon becomes sickening. Their ‘normalisation’ of this matter beggar’s belief. It literally eats at your soul. Yet we see nothing of the prisoners and their plight. Only horrific sounds reveal certain clues as to the horrors occurring just over the Höss’s garden wall.

The 2,500 capacity LFF audience remained transfixed throughout.

Although the film is based upon the book The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis, writer-director Glazer obtained special permission to access Auschwitz’s archives. He examined the testimonies of a gardener who had made diary notes of a particular Höss family conversation, which he had overheard. The said conversation becomes the turning point of the film.

The servants employed by the Höss’s had also made diary notes. All now accessed and fully appraised by Glazer for his screenplay. Thereby enabling us to witness untold matters. Evidence based truisms that now lend a sharpened authenticity to the film; alongside the protagonists’ real names. Amis’s book had incorporated fictionalised scenes with fictional character names.

The uncomfortable voyeuristic cinematography of this unmoved Nazi family is well portrayed by the film’s German cast. Subtitles are provided in English throughout. The naturalism is honed from months of preparation. There were crew-cleared sets, where – in some cases – up to ten remote controlled movie cameras covered the Höss’s mundane, but deeply troubled lives.

Never has audio design – coupled with contemporary classical music – had such an impact in modern day cinema. The last time I heard such audio design and such volume – asides in comic-based sci-fi films – was 40 years ago in 1983 in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble FishMeanwhile, the ground-breaking usage of Ligeti’s music in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) must have had an influence on Mica Levi’s stunning score. Albeit some five decades later. 

There is much invention amid the ‘naturalism’. Nightmarish night scenes reveal one daughter of the Höss family leaving hand-picked orchard fruits in the muddy trenches of ‘The Death Camp’. All done in the dead-of-night for the prisoners to find the next day. These scenes are projected in negative monochrome and shot on Thermal Imaging Cameras.  A mixture of contemporary documentary footage is also later fused with the film’s usage of naturalism versus non-naturalism. This technique stylistically recalls certain aspects of the work of filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, and Lindsay Anderson, and, most notably, by John MacKenzie in the BBC Play for Today film of John McGrath’s via the 7.84 Theatre Company’s The Cheviot The Stag & The Black Black Oil (1973) in a mixture of non-naturalism, dramatic naturalism, and modern day documentary techniques. This is a strength. It takes the film into the realms of Brechtian distancing devices, which are so seldom used in contemporary mainstream cinema. This Brechtian technique helps to sharpen our gaze, and focuses our engagement throughout. 

The Zone of Interest opens in mid-December. It also opens in January in Poland where Auschwitz remains as a retained Holocaust Museum-of-Horrors for all time.  

 London Film Festival Debut

Black Dog, a stunning directorial debut from eighteen-year-old, Georges Jaques. The film received a well-deserved full house screening with standing ovation at its London Film Festival world premiere on October 14th at the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square. The film reminds me of Liverpool playwright Willy Russell’s 1983 Channel 4 & Yorkshire TV’s filmed series One Summer. Overlooked and long forgotten, I cannot imagine the filmmakers have heard of this? Similar themes, however, were explored there. 

Black Dog, a contemporary euphemism for depression, looks at how new friendships develop through an actual journey; embracing loss, personal trauma, and regret. All seen through a combination of adventure, misfortune, and hilarious banter. This is a pertinent powder keg of a movie. Rich in insight with electrifying performances from the dual male leads of Jamie Flatters and newcomer Keenan Munn-Francis. Their portrayals of the characters’ hidden personal issues and troubled lives, bubble-up into a vibrant energy to captivate you at every twist and turn. Even though 45 minutes of this film plays-out via a road journey, you’ll be amazed how the narrative rattles along. This is life affirming storytelling at work here. 

With writer-actor, Jamie Flatters and writer-director George Jaques, making their debut movie at such a precocious age, a pathway of promise is clearly just around the corner. Show this to Martin Scorsese guys. You are on your way!

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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