Rejected starts where Don Hertzfeldt
's previous work leaves off, except that, in its way, it situates itself in
the real world. The film begins with the onscreen legend quoted on the web page: "In the spring of 1999, the Family Learning
Channel commissioned animator Don Hertzfeldt to produce promotional segments for their network. The cartoons were
completed in five weeks. The Family Learning Channel rejected all of them upon review, and they were never aired..." (If that's all you want to know, stick to reading the Bitter Films
page about the short. Spoilers below.
About five short clips follow, each of them absurd and random, and each ending with with a typeset screen "You're watching
the FAMILY LEARNING CHANNEL," with Muzak behind it. To give you some idea, the final of the FLC clips shows two
stick-men badly lip-syncing two lines of exchanged, non-sequitur dialogue, like a cross between kung fu flicks and language
training tapes, followed by one man poking the other in the eye, resulting in a gusher of red-marker blood bathing him as both
men scream. The screaming crosscuts between the two stick men, in that Budweiser "wazzup" commercial way, until the FLC
screen and its Muzak comes as a hilarious shock in comparison.
In the film's next segment, the onscreen legend tells about a company with a name similar to Procter & Gamble, and that
Hertzfeldt was tapped to produce several commercials for them, all of which were also rejected. The clips that follow are
similar, only with more customized messages at the end - the static screens are for products like Bean Lard Paste, and each
bears a custom static drawing with a legend like "Now with more sodium!" and "I am a consumer whore - and how!" The clips
start to get more random, incorporating backwards dialogue and odd noises in the sound mix, violent dismemberment for no
reason followed by silly funky dancing, and a parade of fluffy dancing teddy bears that goes wrong in a way I won't describe
here. This last bit, plus the following onscreen legend and clip in which the animator slowly begins losing his mind under
pressure and starts to draw only with his left hand, actually start to get a little cloying and predictable - just mix gore with childhood
innocence, and there you have instant acceptance to the Sick and Twisted festival. But the segment that follows takes an unexpected turn.
The opening onscreen text of the final segment of Rejected states that, as the animator's mind crumbled, the world he created
on paper began to crumble as well. This conceit neatly knives in the gut the mock-verite Blair Witch idea of the preceding
segments, making the film feel both less real and more real. As the segment begins, two of the film's preceding characters, one
regular stick man and another with bunny ears, are standing impassively in the frame, then begin to notice strange creaking
noises around them. Suddenly, happy clouds and stars from a previous clip begin to fall from above them. They dodge for a
little while, but the regular stick man gets creamed. (Not in a very messy way - there's not really any outright gore in this last
sequence.) The bunny man runs stage left, and the camera follows as stars and clouds embed themselves in the ground at his
heels. Various visual elements from the whole film start to collapse and menace various characters. The sound of the whole film
falling apart grows louder, until it dissolves into a steady, staticky howl when the very fabric of the film's world, the white paper
it's all drawn on, is punctured. The paper starts to ripple and warp in all sorts of ways that the characters have to deal with -
sometimes it's like buffetting waves of wind, sometimes it's an encroaching wall of force like a nuclear bomb's threshold, which
simply fells the stick men when it catches up with them. The tear in the paper becomes a black hole that stick men are pulled
towards inexorably, leaving gouge marks in the paper as they cling for life. Periodically the camera shakes everything into a
violent gray blur. The bunny man from the opening, who has somehow survived on his wits only to be surrounded on all sides
by the ravaged, ravaging paper-crinkle, assesses his situation with a look of real intelligence, and finally lets out a scream we
can't even hear over the din, that lasts for long seconds and is the last thing we see before the credits.
It works. Despite the obvious fictionality of the Family Learning Channel and the prospective ad client, and the puerile nature
of the mock-attempts at "avoiding" rejection, the focused, mature violence of this last segment seems 100% sincere - the fury
of an artist who tries and fails to reconcile his need to express certain things with the need to put food on the table. It's not as if
the compromises involved here are impossible to deal with - take a day job, stay home from the bars, sacrifice - but especially
for an animator, an animator like Hertzfeldt who still does every little thing by hand because it's important, for whom a six
minute film takes a year and a half of more-or-less full-time work to produce, and whose work has always indicated a pretty
acute awareness of the tenuousness of human life, looking at doing your work a couple of hours at a time while the rest is
devoured by an office job must feel exactly like that hole in the paper, widening and destroying everything, and all you can do
with your skinny limbs and your bunny ears is expel something from you that no one can hear anyway, try and force out an
expression nobody wants, of utter terror and rage.
Or maybe I'm just sensitive. In any case, Rejected is the most powerful and chilling thing I've seen on a movie screen in a long
time. I strongly recommend that anyone who cares about short film, animation, or just plain art keep an eye on the Spike and Mike and Bitter Films home pages for your chance to see it. It might be possible to find a bootleg online, but Hertzfeldt himself rages against the quality of the ones he's seen in his online journal, so, caveat kleptor.