For guys like me, who might cry during commercials or enjoy a candlelit dinner, it can be hard to feel manly, especially since masculinity is often about strength, confidence, and by basically being a dick. Filmmaker Simon Cartwright set out to explore those ideals by making a film that itself was inherently masculine—or as he put it, "loud, aggressive, and ultimately meaningless."
This exploration into machismo resulted in Cartwright's BAFTA-nominated short Manoman, which has been screened at more than 70 film festivals including Cannes and Sundance. The short follows a meek man who attends primal scream therapy classes in order to tap into his dormant masculinity. However, the process spawns something else entirely—a living embodiment of his id.
A bit like Brad Pitt's glistening Übermensch in Fight Club, this nude, rude, Danny DeVito-like creature leads our shy protagonist down the path toward madness. As they beat up strangers, destroy property, and pursue random women on the street, he moves closer to the dark side, losing his self-control and eventually the ability to recognize himself.
Cartwright masterfully illustrates this descent with puppets and aggressive rock 'n' roll, giving it a strangely satisfying aesthetic. By using rod puppets and CGI animation, he crafts a wildly unique and irreverent world where, in one scene, the props and rods of the production are used to beat the shit out of a character. The film feels just as alive and unwieldy as the wicked men in it.
Watch the film below, then scroll down for my interview with Cartwright.
VICE: Manoman is insanity. Where did you come up with the idea?
Simon Cartwright: Thanks, I'll take that as a compliment! I feel a lot of short animation is very gentle and paced quite slow. The idea for Manoman came from a desire to make something that was the opposite of that. I wanted it to reflect my take on masculinity, a much-used theme, but something I always see being treated in a very negative way. The aim was to approach it differently, to celebrate masculinity instead, at least on the surface.
Have you ever attended primal therapy?
I've never been to a primal therapy session, but I did a lot of research into it, and it's pretty incredible. Really what's shown in the film is a gross simplification of a deeply emotional process. The closest I've come was when we recorded all the screaming and singing for the film in the same session. We got about twenty guys into the recording studio, gave them all beers, and asked them first to sing their hearts out and then to scream until they could scream no more. It's a strange thing to really let go like that, screaming without restraint. Soon everyone was really into it, and the atmosphere afterward was incredible. People were saying they felt refreshed by the experience.
I definitely feel there is a dissonance between the two sides of most men—the civilized, learned behavior, which is acceptable within a society, and the default of every man to fight, fuck, and destroy.
How did you pitch the film to friends and investors? Especially when you tell them it's with puppets and—spoiler—ends with a golden shower.
Well, I might have omitted that part in my synopsis! I described it as being more of an experience like you might have going to a gig. I listen to a lot of noise and heavy music, and I wanted to get the same kind of feeling from a film as you might at a concert. Everyone involved in the film was totally on board, which was crucial as I knew we were on a knife edge between doing something meaningful and something completely absurd. Also I did a full storyboard and animatic, which meant I could just show people the film in that form and not have to explain it, because really the ending makes no sense unless you see it!
You've worked a lot in stop-motion in the past. What drew you to making a film with puppets? Have you worked with them before?
I've worked in many different kinds of animation over the years, each of them has their drawbacks and their benefits, but they all have some things in common, one being the lack of improvisation. This was something I really wanted to bring into my films, especially given this story, it needed the chaos of trying something new each time the camera rolls.
I made a little film called Serenity Now just to try out puppets as a way of working and found the limitations of it pretty freeing as it required me to think around problems that would never be an issue in animation. I worked with my good friend and cinematographer Steven Cameron Ferguson to experiment with how to push things cinematically as the performance was more limited that animation.
Do you prefer working in stop-motion or puppetry? What do you see as their key creative differences?
It depends on the idea; different things lend themselves to each medium. In the hands of a skilled puppeteer or animator, a character can deliver an incredible performance, but I can't do either that well! So I have to try and find ways around it and hopefully show character in different ways. I see it as being like playing punk compared to concert piano. The technique is less important than the feeling and the intent. With the right amount of intent, you can make anything happen...
Ultimately my aim is to bring these things together, along with live action, to create something that marries the best of all approaches together.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I'm writing a feature that I'm pretty excited about, even if it turns out nobody wants to make it! It would be live action mixed with animation to tell two sides of the same story. It's pretty out there... Also I've just officially partnered up with Nina Gantz, director of the short film Edmond. We recently did a commercial together and are working on a developing a bunch of projects, short and long. We're called Cartwright Gantz, come check us out on Twitter or whatever, hopefully we'll be making another film soon.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as a film curator. He's the senior curator for Vimeo's On Demand platform. He has also programmed at Tribeca Film Festival, Rooftop Films, and the Hamptons International Film Festival.