Impressions on the film From Inside

Posted by on Jun 23, 2009 in Industry Events | No Comments
Still from From Inside, a film by John Bergin

Still from From Inside, a film by John Bergin

Article written by Richard Gorey.

To say From Inside, a partially-animated fable of nuclear devastation, is relentlessly bleak is meant more as an observation than criticism, since that feeling in the work is intentional. From Inside follows Cee, a young woman in a post-apocalyptic world whose journey on a rusting train to possible salvation is fraught with horror, hardship and the promise of even worse suffering down the track.

Artist John Bergin created From Inside almost single-handedly. Though the environments and landscapes are intricately rendered and animated, the movements of the main characters are suggested with moving stills rather than fully animated. The result is a dreamlike, sometimes static experience whose haunting Gothic imagery is nonetheless quite powerful. I wonder if it is even fair to describe and market the film as “animation” since it seems something unique and new—a hybrid that falls somewhere between the experience of a graphic novel and a motion picture. Other films have employed similar graphic styles, but seldom for a feature length production.

As a character animator, I am always searching for ways to enhance the story I tell with bits of acting, expression, and business that might convey emotion and clarity to the audience. I sensed Bergin was less attached to this kind of communication, possibly because his characters have had their emotions deadened by the monstrous tragedy of the atomic “end of the world” he presents. I’d like to have seen more moments of character animation, especially between Cee and the mysterious Bandaged Man she encounters, but Bergin’s story is more about the awesome wilderness of destruction and despair that mocks the puny humanity of his characters, and it was in this aspect the film was at its most profound and successful.

Bergin says, of the film’s unique look, “La Jetee and Strings were two films that sort of validated my decision not to have character animation. I did some tests with character animation — animated mouths specifically–and voices–some of the characters had dialog. It didn’t feel right to me, and after seeing Strings work so well (a film with puppets–where the mouths do not move when the characters speak, and you can see the puppeteers) I knew I should probably stick with my gut feeling.”

Reading the story in its original book form may facilitate a more personal and private encounter with Cee. Susan Sontag wrote of the shared experience in a movie theater as being radically altered from the sacred privacy afforded by reading a book: does a story such as this survive intact when the private nature of Cee’s narration is opened up? Is its impact heightened or compromised when translated to film?

The film’s visual simplicity is offset by narrative complexity: the train’s journey (and Cee’s) can be seen as symbolic rather than literal, and Bergin is not attached to either experience being “the right” interpretation:

“The surreal things [Cee] encounters on her journey could–maybe–be explained away (maybe the nurse is deformed…maybe the gun looks weird because this story takes place in the future)…but the only way someone could survive a fall like the one the train takes is if it’s a dream… OR if you’re reading a comic book. Meaning: the surreal nature of her world and the fact the she survives are not things that would be out of place in a fictional comic book story. I think it depends on how far the viewer is willing to suspend his disbelief. Comic book and sci-fi fans have no problem throwing disbelief off a cliff– so they may be more likely to read the story as ‘Cee is really on this journey.’ And that’s fine with me.”

Is what we are seeing “truth”? That depends. The stark, often mythic visuals in From Inside convey the impression of a figurative Purgatory, and the use of the constantly-moving train suggests souls unable to rest and find peace.

The film’s theme seems to be of vulnerability: from the opening shots the wide expanses of ruined landscapes offer no shelter or solace for the doomed characters aboard the train. Cee is pregnant—a state in which women are extremely delicate and prone to danger. In the film, this vulnerability is both physical and psychological.

Early on, the locomotive moves through an abandoned factory whose rusted girders and stacks stretch miles into the air. Having established the scale of the train itself in the film’s opening credit sequence (beautifully done, and quite atmospheric) Bergin is able to create a terrifying sense of the scale of Cee’s plight when we see the massive train in extreme long shot moving through the foundry, tiny at the bottom of the frame. Bergin’s command of composition and the frame is astute: several shots are memorable for their bleak, “Hopper-esque” beauty, though I also saw a bit of David Lynch in his formal framing and held takes.

Especially memorable are the events leading up to the train’s entrance into a vast tunnel. A conductor ventures inside the immense black hole and returns an hour later, informing the others that he has not seen the other end. This mirrored the dilemma of the protagonists, who cannot “see the light at the end of the tunnel” from the depths of their ordeal. The tunnel also served another purpose: Cee’s pregnancy matures while the train is trapped inside the shaft, and the birth of her child coincides with the train’s eventual emergence into daylight. The use of the tunnel as a substitute for the birth canal is apt, since the film addresses the reclaiming of hope, which Cee’s child embodies. As the train emerges from the confining claustrophobia of the tunnel (an odd contradiction: Bergin achieves cluttered and even stifling images of suffocation by employing mammoth scale and empty spaces) there is the feeling that despair has been conquered, but like everything in the film, the outcome is uncertain and potentially tragic. The backgrounds of the tunnel are frightening in their design and magnitude: like everything in the film, this scenery swallows the characters, making the scope of their situation clear and daunting in every scene.

In many scenes, symbols stand in for actual people: a child’s mobile, abandoned above a crib, suggests the missing infant we assume has died. Photos of people long dead are the only connection Cee has to the villagers in a ghost town through which the train passes. Dolls floating in the bloodied water substitute for dead children, though at several junctures we do see the corpses of children and adults, and I wondered if one or the other, but not both, might have been stronger.

Bergin suggests an ambivalent relationship between Cee’s fellow passengers and the world through which they navigate. They are always resourceful and mostly successful in their struggles against adversity. At one point the train stops in a herd of buffalo; the conductors make a slaughterhouse of four cars on the train, and efficiently (if cruelly) manage to turn the animals into sustenance for Cee and the others. When the train is stuck in the tunnel (in an imposing tableaux of inescapable collapse) it is soon revealed that the crew has been able to remove the blockage, just as they remove snow and other obstacles from the path of the train. The usually-faceless people on the train are often ruthless and uncompromising in their efforts to survive: only Cee appears to have pangs of conscience, and it is suggested this is due to the fact that she has become a part of her unborn (and therefore blameless) child. Very briefly, toward the end of the journey, blue sky is glimpsed, and the burst of color is a revelation in a film so crammed with grays, blacks, and the occasional splatter of deep red.

That the film seems preoccupied with mechanical contrivances like the gears of the train feels appropriate, in that it is about what happens when people allow technology (atom bombs) and machinery to usurp their humanity. Oddly–perhaps due to the film’s reliance on computer-generated vehicles and architecture–it creates an imposing vision of the fragile nature of flesh (human or otherwise) and the implacable obstacles presented by machinery, technology, and nature. Buildings and trains survive, people are not so lucky.

Of course the film’s title may be taken to be symbolic: I ascribe to the theory that very few things in art are “accidental” or unconscious. If this is so, then we must question everything we have seen and heard. We are not merely hearing a story told “from inside” the train itself, or from inside the tunnel or inside a destroyed house, etc., but from within the unstable mind of someone whose predicament may be inescapable. It cannot be coincidence that the director lingers so long and lovingly on the locomotive, its wheels, pistons and gears. Make no mistake: no matter where this film goes, this is the Hellbound Express—a conveyance written of often in music and literature. I was reminded of the train to Chicago at the end of that bizarre, hallucinogenic Bette Davis film Beyond the Forest, which, when it appears, announces not escape but doom.

In light of the movie’s relentless despair, I wondered if Bergin felt he was betraying Cee, by throwing her into such ghastly circumstances as the film progressed. He answered, “I never felt I betrayed her. I was sad for her and her child, but she wasn’t betrayed. …She could have brought innocence to the world (her child)—but the world wasn’t interested… A few people have said the ending felt wrong, but not many. …When I wrote & illustrated the graphic novel [my wife and I] were thinking about having kids. Through the first 1/2 of the book we were thinking: ‘This world sucks, why bother bringing new life into it?’ Halfway though the book we realized what a selfish thought that was. Cee’s speech about new life/innocence being the way we forgive ourselves and have hope sort-of grew out of that change of mind we had.”

Hope is a quality that comes in very small doses in From Inside: in one of the first scenes of the film, Cee sees (or dreams she sees) the conductor throwing an impaled infant into the furnace. This horrifying image is realized–along with several others–as the film progresses. Does one risk desensitizing the audience in a subject so filled with images and incidents of despair and suffering? Chaplin felt repetition reinforced memory and impact, but Susan Sontag argued that truly horrific events are rendered impotent by the repetition and proliferation of documentation, citing that films and images from the Holocaust have lost some of their power to horrify through constant reprinting and circulation.

Gareth Branwyn, a colleague of the director, wrote, “When the film ended, it was all I could do to keep my head out of the oven,” and says of Bergin, “John jokingly calls [From Inside] the most depressing film ever made.”

It’s unfair to ask the film to be less morbid, and certainly the subject matter dictates a heavy, often grim experience. It must have taken a toll for Bergin to remain in this artistic place for the time it took to create the film. I hope he does a nice slob comedy next, and takes a vacation. But the film’s oppressive mood is served by its grotesque extremes of art and stillness. I don’t think one could judge From Inside by the conventional standards of animated features, since it does not aspire to such conventions and doesn’t seem concerned with offering a welcoming experience in the theater. I felt Bergin made this film for himself, and not for general audiences, but he says the film is for “Indy comic readers… Readers who enjoy books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road… Fans of serious genre animation… I don’t know… I didn’t really target the film. It was just: ‘These are the things I think about. This is how I feel. Is there anyone else out there?’”

From Inside doesn’t offer comfort, humor or the kind of appealing surface beauty most film audiences (especially in America) have come to expect from animation. It may be a distant cousin of last year’s Waltz With Bashir, an equally troubling, sometimes violent, and very adult form of storytelling in which morality and the consequences of war are complicated and incomprehensible.

Director Douglas Sirk, who made several deliriously extravagant live-action melodramas in the fifties, said, “Irony doesn’t go down well with American audiences. They want something which placates them, and which they can easily forget. They don’t respond to the play that disturbs the mind.”

From Inside certainly disturbs, and perhaps is memorable precisely because it refuses to allow any relief from the bottomless sorrow and pain through which the characters wallow. In book form, one would have been able to walk away, to experience the story in smaller doses by taking a break from time to time. On film this freedom isn’t granted; (especially in a dark theater) the feeling of being trapped does extend to the audience, and without the relief and escape offered by one’s ability to shut the covers of a book From Inside can be a daunting experience. Still, the film has a stark power, and in its operatic stylistic flourishes and stunningly shocking finale, it delivers a memorable and often haunting experience.

Stills from the film: