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Vol. III, No. 12, December 2012

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Aug 192013

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.”

Seraph 5

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.”

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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.

Seraph 3

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.

Seraph 2

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.

Seraph 1

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

Nicholas Humphries HeadshotNicholas 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.

Jan 132013

Nicholas Humphries and Meagan Hotz’s “Little Mermaid” takes Hans Christian Andersen’s already dark fairy tale and reimagines the “romance” as a swamp circus freak show about worn out and faded love. Since Andersen published the tale in 1836 there have been versions in almost every possible artistic form, his first incarnation written for ballet even. Something about this little inter-species romance compels storytellers to return to it again and again.

In their retelling, Humphries and Hotz take a turn to horror. Some of the film’s shock value is intertextual: the title probably has most people referencing the Disney animated film from 1989 more than the original Andersen tale.


Humphies and Hotz can play off of the Disneyfied, technicolour-happy-ending expectations of the audience and so then shock and cause them to shudder more when the tale takes surprisingly dark turns.


In the opening shots of the film, lights swing from trees, half fruit, half pendulums keeping time’s waltz in among the mists. There is a peculiar sepia tint to the colour scheme, a surprising nostalgic and warm hue to the stagnancy and decay of the swamp setting. Throughout this opening, too, there is the flutter of birds flying off, in a way underscoring how caught and imprisoned the mermaid is when we meet her inside the worn tent. The lighting, the boardwalks across the swamp, the signage, and the tent itself seem strangely permanent for something as itinerant as a circus and this metaphorically sets the stage for the inertia, the claustrophobia of the lost love between the circus master and his imprisoned mermaid.

Though Humphries and Hotz’s dark take on the fairy tale might seem a departure, these choices are in many ways a return to the darkness of Andersen’s original tale in which the sea witch’s pact with the little mermaid carries with it terrible costs. As the sea witch explains,

“I will prepare a draught for you, with which you must swim to land tomorrow before sunrise, and sit down on the shore and drink it. Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow. If you will bear all this, I will help you.”

“Yes, I will,” said the little princess in a trembling voice, as she thought of the prince and the immortal soul.

Though I suppose we can forgive Disney for leaving out these terrible wounds and the awful price the mermaid is willing to pay, Andersen’s original, like Humphries and Hotz’s version, sees the pain and suffering as the point of the story.

For Andersen, this pain and suffering, the sacrifice was on a certain level a declaration of love and a tribute to the beloved. Brooke Allen in The New York Times argues that “In ‘’The Little Mermaid,’’ Hans Christian Andersen suggests that immortality can serve as a substitute, however unsatisfactory, for human love. The story is clearly an allegory for his own life, for the unloved Andersen.” What Allen is pointing to is what is present in the original tale and is missing in this most recent version: the love triangle aspect of the original fairy tale. In the Hans Christian Andersen version, despite all the little mermaid’s sacrifices, the prince marries a princess from a neighboring kingdom, an action which will doom the little mermaid to wake at dawn the next day and turn into sea foam.

This love triangle resembles another: the tale is considered by many to be a love letter, originally written from Andersen to Edvard Collin who would not return his affections and in the end married a woman. The themes around sacrifice then in that context become about unrequited love and the tale about trying to make sense and meaning out of the sometimes self-destructive sacrifices we make for it.

In the Disney version of the tale, too, there is sacrifice. But Ariel’s lack of pain and regret and its happily-ever-after ending morph the theme into one where sacrifice gets the man. Ariel still gives up her life under the sea but she gets the man in the end, so it was, Disney would have us believe, worth it.


Humphries and Hotz pick up the theme of sacrifice but in their tale it seems to be about how the lovers’ sacrifices have killed their love. Their mermaid never sacrificed her tail or her voice but she has been taken from the sea to live in a metal tub and be displayed by her lover and objectified by the curious who are willing to pay.


We can only imagine the series of bad choices (maybe his, maybe hers) that led them to this tent in the swamp. We know they are both weary. We know it’s not an equal relationship. We glimpse only shards of love’s remnants. The mermaid here begs for mercy, but the circus master can’t or won’t give it to her because he would lose this tragic-as-it-is circus. This little mermaid has to take her fairy tale’s ending into her own hands. In a nice rewrite, it is her voice’s siren call that brings him to her and makes him see her as human just before she, with a vengeful kiss, takes his tongue and voice.


This is the definition of a Pyrrhic victory: a mermaid in a tub in the swamp isn’t going to get far. Her choice is similar to Andersen’s mermaid’s, though, whose sisters appear to her and tell her that if she sheds the prince’s blood on her legs she will get her mermaid’s tail back. Kill the prince to get her old life back or uphold his happy marriage to the princess ensuring she, the mermaid, will turn to sea foam in the morning as prophesied. Though it is technically not the same choice in the Humphries and Hotz version, the mermaid does opt against her own further sacrifice and chooses to shed the circus master’s blood. She puts an end to the pathetic death of their romance and ultimately privileges mercy over sacrifice.

Humphries and Hotz’s “Little Mermaid” was produced as part of the Vancouver Film School’s Compendium series out of their Entertainment Business Management Program. It’s garnered numerous nominations and several prestigious awards including Best Short at Screamfest LA. Humphries dark sensibility gave Numero Cinq at the Movies its Valentine’s Day installment last year with “The One That Got Away.”


Numéro Cinq at the Movies



Numéro Cinq’s unique and unparalleled collection of short films and commentary edited and (mostly) written by R. W. Gray. Other contributions from Jon Dewar, Douglas Glover, Sophie Lavoie, Philip Marchand, Megan MacKay, Jared Carney, Erin Morton, Julie Trimingham, Michael V. Smith, Nicholas Humphries, and Taryn Sirove.








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