This month we have a new NC at the Movies contribution from Vancouver (Canada) horror and comedy filmmaker Nicholas Humphries. You might recognize his name from two previous posts on his films “The One That Got Away” and “Little Mermaid.” He’s prolific and is drawn to wild, exciting worlds, as you can see by checking out his demo reel. While in Vancouver last month I was interviewing him for a documentary short I am working on when he demanded I stay after and watch this great short film / music video, Dash Shaw’s “Seraph.” It was obvious he was the person who should write about this on Numéro Cinq.
Dash Shaw’s “Seraph” follows a young man through his brief, tragic existence as he struggles to understand his identity and feelings. The young protagonist is repressed by his father and religion and is taught to feel ashamed of his body and desires. He ultimately grows up unable to accept himself and believes that the greatest sin he could ever commit would be to acknowledge love from the objects of his desire and metaphorically “look at God.”
Through two haunting pieces from the Sigur Ros Voltari album (“Rembihnútur” and “Ekki Múkk”), this nearly wordless short exposes the damage misguided biblical rhetoric can do during our maturation via a condensed journey we take with the protagonist from adolescence to death.
The film is an installment of the Sigur Ros Valteri Mystery Film Experiment. The films were selected from 800 submissions internationally. Sigur Ros funded a handful of the films and “Seraph” is one of the results. Say Sigur Ros about the project, “We never meant our music to come with a pre-programmed emotional response. We don’t want to tell anyone how to feel and what to take from it.”
The title of Shaw’s contribution to the project, “Seraph,” is a reference to a type of celestial or heavenly being in the Abrahamic religions. Rather than tackle the customary queer struggles with homophobia and disease, Shaw, along with long time collaborator John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit Hole, Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), chose to focus on a more emotional, internal aspect of the gay experience. Shaw illustrates the pain of the boy’s self-hatred through his compulsive self-mutilation. The eyes that the boy crudely carves into his own flesh allow him to channel the pain of not being able to see love, both from others and for himself. He grows into a man with a violent disposition, compensating for his homosexual feelings by resorting to acts of physical hostility against those that look too deep. The pain caused by the eyes he carves in his flesh also serves as a base attempt to touch the divine and look at God.
As the director of a number of short films, I often struggle with the size of story to tackle using the format. If the story is too simple than what’s the point if nothing happens? If it’s too big, you run the risk of weaving an overly ambitious yarn about characters the audience doesn’t care about. What resonated for me with “Seraph” was the way Shaw used music and animation to create a dreamlike state where multiple images from a lifetime were used to illicit a central feeling of loneliness: a big story, simply told. Few feature films manage to conjure up the level of intensity that this animated short manages to execute in its seven minutes.
Imagery plays a large part in how the story plays out, both through the moments Shaw selects from the boy’s life but also through the symbolism of the eye. Historically, charms and decorations featuring varying eye symbols have been used to protect against The Evil Eye, a look that is believed by many cultures to cause injury for the person at whom it is directed. The use of eye symbols for protection is most common in the Middle East and dates back to the Old Testament.
So in some sense the symbol of the eye could be a way the boy in “Seraph” protects himself, but ultimately the symbolism is ambiguous. In the only scene with dialogue, the boy’s father explains to him that angels can never look at God because it is impossible to look at a love you can never understand. In the final scene, the boy is covered from head to toe in eye carvings and is finally able to see God. The eyes then, seem to allow him to see what God loves which (we hope) will allow him to finally love himself. This is tragic since the boy is only able to cope and find this love through self-mutilation.
Self-inflicted punishment is not uncommon in queer texts. In Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest, the titular character allows himself to be sexually penetrated by the owner of a brothel as a way of punishing himself for the murder of one of his comrades. While Shaw’s character is punishing himself for his sexual feelings and Genet’s character is using sex to punish himself for his immoral actions, they both reflect the ways repression misdirects that which we wish to keep hidden. Both texts deal with themes of sadomasochism, or the giving and/or receiving of sexual pleasure through acts involving the infliction of pain or humiliation. In the queer cannon, overly repressed characters often express their desires through sadomasochistic scenes or fantasies (T .E. Lawrence’s The Mint, Timothy Findley’s The Wars, the works of Dennis Cooper, etc). “Seraph” does not posit sadomasochism as a solution so much as use this self harm as a testament and condemnation of the repressive social and cultural forces that seek to diminish each person’s access to the divine.
“Seraph” was screened and nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year.
Nicholas Humphries is an award-winning director from Vancouver, Canada. His accolades include Best Short at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival, Audience Choice at the NSI Film Exchange, a Tabloid Witch, an Aloha Accolade and a Golden Sheaf. His films have been nominated for multiple Leo Awards, have screened at Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theatres, on CBC, Fearnet, SPACE Channel and in festivals around the world. Additionally, Nicholas has directed for Written by a Kid on the hit premium YouTube Channel Geek & Sundry. He is also a director on the acclaimed Syfy digital series, Riese: Kingdom Falling, which was nominated for four Streamy Awards, three IAWTV Awards and a Leo Award. Riese was also an Official Honoree at the 2011 Webby Awards. His feature film, Death Do Us Part, is scheduled for release in 2013. Nicholas teaches film at both Vancouver Film School and the University of British Columbia. He has a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in Film Production.
Nicholas Humphries, welcome to NC. It’s a pleasure and honour to have you here. Great film, too.
Wow! This is wonderful. A visually and acoustically stunning film, with a thoughtful and evocative essay to boot! What a gem! Thanks for bringing this to NC!